How can I become more aware of my mental health?
Before trying to increase your awareness of your own mental health, it is important to be reasonably clear about just what is mental health. While it is difficult to define because no single definition encompasses all that it is, I’m going to try. I can say with assurance that you are more likely to know what it is when you don’t have it. Just as with physical health, you’re not aware of your health until you feel sick. Similarly, when you’re feeling anxious a lot of the time and/or depressed, you know that you’re not experiencing the epitome of mental health.
What is mental health?
Mental health is a state of well-being that can be characterized by positive feelings and thoughts, self-awareness, adaptive behavior, and the absence of psychological symptoms. Most of the time, you feel happy and enjoy life, which is not to say that you never feel sad, disappointed, jealous, or angry but the negative feelings don’t dominate your life. And, you don’t experience the symptoms covered in column one to any serious extent. In addition, you are not consumed with worry, not obsessed (have recurrent thoughts) about something, and/or not sad a great deal of the time. If this is the case, you know that you’re probably doing okay.
I say “probably” because many times you might not be aware that something is wrong, but your body or your behavior will be a dead giveaway that something is amiss. You may have difficulty concentrating, sleeping, or eating. You may have ongoing stomach or headache distress. Your friends may tell you’re drinking too much or have a short fuse, that is, you get frustrated or angry easily. On the other hand, you may be too quiet, too withdrawn, and too uncomfortable with your peers, all of which make social events very uncomfortable.
Other aspects of mental health have to do with positive personality traits like optimism, resilience (being able to bounce back from negative experiences), and openness to new experiences. Having a “glass half full“ attitude is healthy, as is agreeableness (not always but most of the time) and conscientiousness (fulfilling your obligations). Looking forward to each day as a time of new possibilities is a great attitude that is correlated with positive mental health.
Horace, an ancient philosopher, once wrote, “Take as a gift whatever the day brings forth.”
Experiencing joy each day by doing some things that you really enjoy is a wonderful way of safeguarding your mental health. Making wise decisions, that is, not acting impulsively and paying attention to the long-term consequences of your behavior, is also important. In addition, the quality of your relationships with others (your sensitivity, your empathy, your reciprocity) is a reflection of your mental health.
Increasing awareness of your mental health
Pay attention to your feelings
Taking at least 15-30 minutes a day, usually before bedtime, to look at how your day went, can be very valuable. You can use this time for self-reflection, that is, trying to figure out how you felt all day and whether you met your own personal goals. Keeping a daily log of your feelings, or journaling, is a great way of keeping in touch with your emotions—an important component of mental health. Paying attention to your thoughts (are you consumed with negative thinking or are you reasonably optimistic?) is also extremely worthwhile. If you felt stressed and unhappy, this is the time to be kind to yourself and prepare yourself for a new day. If you didn’t meet your goals, now is not the time to hit yourself over the head but rather to tweak your goals to make them more realistic and attainable. You can meditate, pray, or simply relax during this break time for yourself.
Dreams: The royal road to the unconscious
Paying attention to your night dreams is also extremely worthwhile in gauging your own mental health. Sleep incidentally is your body’s healing mechanism - both for your physical and mental health - so don’t skimp on it. Sleep strengthens your long-term memory by consolidating your short-term memory into long-term storage.
At night, your psyche attempts to solve your daytime problems by searching for solutions that will work for you. Thus, your night dreams are usually an accurate mirror of your emotional life and what you are struggling with, in terms of desires, fears, and conflicts. The dreams are not literal translations of your issues, but rather symbolic ones. So, if you’re running away from danger in your dreams, you need to look at what feels dangerous in your daily life. If you’re basking in the Caribbean in your dreams, you are looking for a wonderful break from the drudgeries of daily life. Look for the themes in your dreams and they will give you a new perspective on the daily status of your mental health!
I'm Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working with college students. I was the Director of two University Counseling Centers in Chicago, and was the first in my family to go to college. Click here to learn more.