What does “good” mental health really look like?

Good mental health in Mental Health Awareness Week 9-15 May 2022

We hear a lot about “poor” mental health and mental health issues but recently I’ve been pondering what does “good mental health” actually mean? Generally, I tend to avoid using the words “good”, “bad”, “positive” or “negative”, given that these type of judgements are usually subjective. What is considered “good” for one person may be viewed as “bad” by another.

As a Mindfulness and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training) Coach, I recognise that all feelings are normal and are constantly changing. For me, “good” mental health doesn’t mean feeling permanently happy, joyful, hopeful, positive, or upbeat. In fact, feeling upbeat all of the time would actually be impossible without some element of repressing undesired emotions. Pushing away challenging emotions is actually more harmful to our mental health.

Flexible Mental Strength

If you think about your body, you achieve a high level of physical fitness through exercise and training in order to develop flexibility and strength. The same applies to your mind. For me, good mental health is about developing flexible mental strength which therefore enables me to cope better with life’s ups and downs.

When you have a more flexible mindset, you can be more present in order to notice how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. You can also open up to these thoughts and feelings and make space for them, instead of trying to push them away or avoiding them. Then, you can decide on what meaningful action to take in this moment, in order to best support yourself and others (this includes rest!).

If you have a more fixed or rigid mindset, you might notice that you’re feeling irritable or anxious and might tell yourself that it’s “wrong” to feel this way. You might begin to wrestle with your thoughts and feelings, resulting in a battle of shoulds and shouldn’ts. This may lead to you experiencing anger, anxiety or sadness because when you resist emotions, they tend to become stronger.

Think about a flexible tree which bends and sways in the wind. If the weather becomes very stormy and the tree isn’t flexible, finally it will snap. The same is true of your mind, so that the more flexible it becomes, the more storms it will be able to weather.

There are 6 ACT skills which you can develop in order to achieve more flexible mental strength. These are:

  • Noticing your present moment experience with a sense of friendliness and curiosity
  • Taking a step back and seeing your experience from a different perspective
  • Being willing to experience your thoughts and feelings, just as they are
  • Noticing that your thoughts are just thoughts, meaning that you are not your thoughts
  • Choosing how you really want to show up and what matters most to you
  • Taking a tiny action step towards how you want to show up

It can be a real turning point to realise that you can feel anxious, sad, frustrated, guilty, ashamed, fearful or angry but still choose how you show up in your life. It can also feel very empowering.

You can try these skills right now if it feels ok for you. You might think of it as checking in on your internal weather, in much the same way as you might look out of the window to observe the external weather. If anything feels too overwhelming for you, bring your awareness back to your breath or focus on the soles of your feet in contact with the ground. You can stop observing at any point you wish. Make sure you congratulate yourself for taking the time to check in, no matter how your experience goes!

Check in on your internal weather

  • Ensure your posture is comfortable and allow your eyes to gently close, or lower your gaze.
  • Take several nice deep breaths in and out.

Be Present

  • Bring awareness to the whole of your body. Notice the points of contact between your body and the ground or chair. Allow your whole body to be supported.
  • Bring awareness now to your breath. Be curious and notice where you feel the breath most strongly in your body at this moment. Observe the rise and fall of the breath wherever you feel it.
  • Then, when you’re ready, shift your awareness to your whole body and notice if any sensations are present. As you scan from the crown of your head, to the soles of your feet, you might become aware of various bodily sensations.

Open Up

  • Notice one of these sensations with some curiosity. See if you can give it a friendly welcome, without trying to chase it away. As you observe the sensation, allow your breath to flow in and out of this part of your body.
  • If you’re willing to do so, you might like to explore the sensation further. If it was a shape, what shape would it be? Does it perhaps have a colour? What sound would it make? Is is heavy or light? Warm or cold? What describing word might you use? Tingling, tightening, twisting, fluttering, squeezing, pulsing, or something different?
  • Next, bring your curious awareness to any thoughts that might be present right now. Notice that your thoughts come and go, a little bit like leaves floating down a stream.
  • When you notice a particularly challenging thought arising, you might try saying “at this moment, I notice I’m having the thought that…”. This can help to create a little bit of space between you and the thought. You recognise that the thought is separate from you, so you are not your thoughts.
  • Allow thoughts to come and go, without trying to get rid of them.
  • Then, bring some friendly awareness to any feelings that might be present right now. You can imagine opening up more space to allow room for all of your feelings. As you observe your feelings, you may like to breathe in to expand your body. You might also try saying “I notice there is some …(e.g. anxiety)… present”. This can help you to recognise that you are not your feelings.

Do What Matters

  • Finally, notice what small meaningful action you could take next in order to support yourself – knowing that by caring for yourself you are indirectly supporting others. You might ask yourself the question, “how can I best care for myself in this moment?” and just notice what comes up for you. It might be as simple as smiling and congratulating yourself for taking a few moments to check in on your wellbeing. You might notice that you need a rest or a drink of water, or simply a stretch.

So for me, flexible mental strength is about allowing all emotions to come and go; whilst recognising that they are not fixed states. I can feel anxious, sad, frustrated, angry, fearful, or ashamed, and know that these are normal emotions and furthermore, I am not broken. I don’t need to push myself to achieve when my resources are low, however I can choose to show up with a friendly, supportive and encouraging voice for myself and others.

For me, good mental health means being able to bend and sway in even the toughest of storms.

(Whilst most emotions come and go, sometimes we can develop more complex issues, such as anxiety, eating or depressive disorders. It’s always really important to speak to a medical professional as soon as you notice any symptoms for yourself or a loved one. Often, the earlier you seek help, the easier it can be to make a full recovery, or to find manageable coping strategies.)