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What is mental health and what can I do to boost it?

October 5, 2022 • read

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What is mental health and what can I do to boost it?

Mental health is commonly talked about, but how many of us can define what mental health really is? 

Mental health is an umbrella term used to describe a combination of different factors. All together, these factors paint a picture of your mental well-being.

Here’s an introduction to what mental health really is, simple habits you can adopt to support your mental health, the difference between mental health and mental illness, and the most common mental illnesses affecting Canadians today.

Building better mental health 

Everyone has mental health. Simply put, it’s your level of psychological, emotional, and social well-being. 

Just like you have different states of physical health, you have varying states of mental health. When you get a cold, you experience a short period of physical illness. Your mental health fluctuates in the same way throughout your life. 

Sometimes your mental health is great, but inevitably, life’s rough patches will cause the occasional mental health decline. In these times, just like when you’re sick, things like rest, care, and medicine can help get your mental health back on track. 

Simple habits to support your mental health

If you’re looking for ways to strengthen your mental health and improve feelings of well-being, there are some simple daily habits like starting a mental health journal or practicing gratitude that you can incorporate into your routine to boost your mental health, elevate your mood, and become more resilient.

Here are a few more science-backed tips to help you support your mental health.

1. Make social connections

Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of social connections for mental health. Research has shown that social relationships can lower rates of anxiety and depression and raise self-esteem and empathy, among other benefits. They can also strengthen your immune system, help you recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen your life.

Loneliness and social isolation, on the other hand, can have a disastrous impact on your mental health and well-being. Science now views the health risks of prolonged isolation as equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People who don’t have sufficient social contact are also more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behaviour, and even suicidal behaviours, which usually only increases their isolation. 

Laughing is good for mental health, so make sure to always make time for friends and loved ones. While phone calls and online chats can be uplifting, nothing is as energizing and stress-relieving as spending time in person with others.

While not the same as human companionship, companionship from pets can also help improve mental health by reducing anxiety, boosting self-confidence, facilitating social connections, and increasing exercise, among other benefits.

2. Exercise regularly

Staying active is as good for your mind as it is for your body. Exercise and physical activity stimulate different brain chemicals, so the effects of exercise on stress can help you feel happier, more relaxed, and less anxious.

Exercising also improves mental health by reducing depression and negative mood while improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise can even help alleviate feelings of low self-esteem or tendencies towards social withdrawal.

While it can be tempting to forego exercise when you’re busy, you should never underestimate the benefits of regular physical activity for your health and well-being. If you’re having a hard time motivating yourself to go to the gym alone, try switching up your exercise routine. Look for a local recreational sports league you can join so you can play with others or try a meditation and yoga class, which can also improve mental health.

3. Go for a walk in nature

Spending time in nature has been found to have a positive impact on mental health, including on anxiety and depression. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says that spending just 15 to 20 minutes per day outdoors in nature can be beneficial and calm stress hormones. The benefits of nature for mental health can also boost memory, creativity, and work satisfaction and improve healing, blood pressure, and focus.

To spend more time in nature, try going for a hike or visiting a local park. If possible, go in the daytime, as sunlight and vitamin D can also be good for mental health. Another great way to spend more time in green spaces is to volunteer to plant trees, which can also allow you to meet new people and get physical exercise while doing something good for your community.

4. Maintain regular sleep hours

The effects of lack of sleep on mental health are well-documented. Simply put: sleep is important for mental health – it helps regulate emotions and cognitive skills like attention, learning, and memory. Sleep deprivation can also cause mood changes, including increased irritability

Unfortunately, living with mental health challenges can affect your sleep, which in turn can have a negative impact on your mental health. To break out of this cycle, make sure to prioritize your sleep. Exercising throughout the day, but not close to bedtime, can help you fall asleep faster. Performing stretches before bed can also help improve sleep quality

Otherwise, keep your bedroom dark and make sure it’s neither too cold nor too warm. Lastly, try to avoid bedtime screen time or stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine for a few hours before going to bed.

5. Be careful with social media

While social media can have positive benefits, it can also negatively impact your mental health. Various studies have demonstrated this connection between social media use and mental healthone study tied prolonged use of social media platforms to negative signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Another found that almost 70% of the participants reported checking their social media in bed before going to sleep, which then led to going to bed late, sleeping less, and sleeping worse, all of which aren’t great for mental health.

To improve your relationship with social media, ask yourself what you can do to use social media more intentionally, instead of finding yourself scrolling your feed merely out of habit or when you’re bored. Are there better boundaries you could establish? Can you experiment with skipping social media for one day per week? Can you turn off your phone at least an hour before bed and keep it somewhere other than in your bedroom?

The difference between mental illness and mental health

Mental health and mental illness aren’t interchangeable terms — they mean two different things. Mental illness is a health condition. When you’re mentally ill, you experience changes to your thinking, emotions, or behaviour that impair your ability to function socially, including at work and within the family unit. If you’re living with a mental illness, you’re not alone. 50% of Canadians either have a mental illness currently or have had one in the past.

Unlike mental health, not everyone experiences mental illness. If you have a period where you feel sad or stressed, it doesn’t mean you’re mentally ill. Fluctuations in your feeling of well-being are a natural part of life. It’s when your thoughts, feelings and behaviour start negatively affecting your daily life that it’s possible you’re living with a mental illness. 

Keep in mind that mental illness doesn’t indicate poor mental health. Someone with a mental illness can be in good mental health the same way someone without a mental illness can be in poor mental health.

Learning to recognize common mental illnesses 

There are lots of different types of mental illness. Sometimes mental illness is chronic, meaning it lasts for a year or longer and requires management like therapy or medication, or a combination of both. With other mental illnesses, the duration is shorter and you may be able to manage them completely with the right support. 

Mood and anxiety disorders

Mood and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in Canada. Each one has different symptoms, but there are some general commonalities. People with a mental illness from this category have persistent feelings of anxiety, fear, or nervousness and low mood. In one year, 4.4 million Canadians reported they’re living with a mood or anxiety disorder.

This group of mental illnesses includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • Panic disorder, which causes people to have feelings of intense fear when there is no real danger.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): With OCD, people experience obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours that make it hard to function in everyday life.
  • Bipolar disorder: This illness comes with periods of intense emotional highs called manic states, followed by periods of depression.
  • Major depression: Depression causes long periods of deep sadness and disinterest in socializing or activities you once enjoyed. It can impact your appetite, sleep habits, and ability to concentrate, reduce your energy levels, and lead to feelings of guilt, thoughts of self-harm, or even suicidal thoughts.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders are a group of mental illnesses that distort your relationship with food, causing changes in your thoughts and behaviours around eating. With some eating disorders, people eat very little food. Others cause people to binge-eat or overeat.

Around 1 million Canadians are living with an eating disorder. This group of mental illnesses has the highest mortality rate.

Common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia may have a body weight that’s dangerously low. The illness causes people to limit their eating or to exercise excessively in order to avoid weight gain. With anorexia, people often feel like their body mass is larger than it really is.
  • Bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is characterized by a binge-purge cycle. Binging is classified as eating a large amount of food at once, usually more than 1000 calories, while feeling out-of-control. People with bulimia then purge in an attempt to “get rid” of the calories by inducing themselves to vomit, excessively exercising, or taking laxatives. 

Substance use disorders

Substance use disorder is also referred to as addiction. In Canada, around six million people will use substances during their lifetime. 

Substances include legal intoxicants like alcohol and prescription medication, as well as illegal drugs. The characteristics of abuse, like knowing how much is too much, vary depending on the substance. Still, people with substance misuse disorder often experience the four Cs:

  • Craving: Your system becomes dependent on a substance and you feel sick without it.
  • Compulsion: This is where your urge to use grows over time and becomes overpowering.
  • Consequences: Despite negative effects on areas of your life like relationships or finances, you continue to use the substance.
  • Control issues: You feel unable to limit your substance use or stop altogether.

How an online therapist can help

If you’re experiencing challenges with your mental health or a mental illness, don’t go through it alone. Treatment can provide relief. 

If you’re looking for someone to talk to about mental health, you can use Maple to connect with Canadian-licensed mental health therapists virtually, either on demand within 12 hours or by appointment, so that you can get support from the comfort of home. This removes obstacles and makes it much easier for you to get the care you need, regardless of whether you live in an urban center or a more remote area.

Building a relationship with a therapist can help you get to the bottom of stress and unhappiness, and help you build coping skills to handle life’s obstacles. The health of your mind is important to your overall enjoyment of life. If you want to try therapy, you can see a therapist online today from the comfort of your home.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional. 

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