What Defines Mental Health?

I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about mental health, so I should be an expert by now, right? Mainly I troubleshoot and problem-solve, but what am I trying to achieve? What state of mental health do I strive for? What does mental health even mean?

Let’s start with what mental health is NOT.

-Obviously, it’s unrealistic to expect to be happy and joyful all the time, even though that would be nice. Maintaining perfect happiness is impossible, and therefore not the definition of mental health.

-Even though people with mental illnesses are often considered “strange” by society, mental health certainly doesn’t mean conforming to what is expected of us— in fact, that’s a fast track to mental illness.

-We also can’t strive to be totally and 100% ourselves, as many of our baser instincts must be tempered for the good of the people around us.

The definition of mental health, to me, is emotional flexibility. It’s being happy when there’s a personal reason to be happy and being sad when there’s a personal reason to be sad, and likewise for anger. These reasons may be very unique and not sanctioned by society (many of my happy-making interests are non-standard or “weird”) but they are valid reasons nonetheless, and shaped by a person’s history and personality.

Often, my emotions aren’t flexible. I was so depressed throughout my childhood and adolescence that I first felt happiness, first felt a positive feeling at all, at age 22. That would be enough to qualify many times over for “bad mental health,” but instead of feeling hopeful about the future, the experience left me even more depressed. I was suicidal in the weeks afterwards because I couldn’t fathom that other people got to feel that way much, much more frequently. They weren’t dying inside at their own birthday parties, blowing out the candles and wishing for an end to it all. They weren’t self-harming to get through the day. They weren’t hiding their emotions until they could be alone to cry. By comparison, my first taste of positivity felt like a gift from the divine.

(Even in Bipolar Disorder, emotions aren’t flexible more than the phase that person is in. If they’re manic, they’re going to interpret every event through the lens of their mania. If they’re depressed, their outlook will be depressed too. Borderline Personality Disorder, also famous for emotional highs and lows, is not true flexibility either— many times, people with BPD experience distorted emotions that are way off base for the situation, either in scope or in type.)

Now, as I get healthier, I experience happiness more often. I’m also learning to welcome sadness and anger. I’m no longer depressed 100% of the time. I’m striving towards emotional flexibility, and I’m getting there!

Using Numbers When Talking About Your Feelings

Something that has helped me and the people around me, when talking about feelings, is to use numbers as much as possible.

“I’m a little bit mad at you” can often sound like “I’M SUPER MAD AT YOU AND I HATE YOU” to people who struggle with black and white thinking. Instead, you might say “I am 15% mad.” It puts how mad you are into perspective by quantifying it.

There are a variety of situations in which using numbers can help you describe your emotions more accurately.

Other examples:

  • “I’m sorry I yelled at you about the milk. I’m 1% mad that you left the milk on the counter and 99% hurt that you forgot to pick me up from work.”
  • “You haven’t done anything wrong. You are 100% okay in my book.”
  • “This is 10/10 important to me so I’d like you to keep it in mind.”

On Creativity and Healing

As I have said before, freewriting doesn’t work for my mental health. Instead, I decided a few months ago that I wanted a structured journal to keep track of my moods and symptoms. (I have a separate Bullet Journal, which I use for planning, habit-tracking, and tasks, and then I have my more-recently-started “symptom” journal in a different notebook.)

I highly recommend symptom journaling so that you know where your headspace is at. Tracking your symptoms and/or moods can help you find patterns that you may otherwise miss. Our emotions (especially when we struggle with mental health) can feel gigantic and like they last forever, when in reality they change like the tides and can often be very different from day to day. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t downward or upward trends! Seeing those trends can help us do damage control (in the form of self care) or even just enjoy good moods while they last. I feel much more in control of my life when I journal briefly about my symptoms.

To do a daily symptom journal, I split two adjacent pages into three sections. Each of the six daily sections in my symptom journal has about five lines devoted to it, which allows me to elaborate a little while still keeping the entry brief enough to be useful at a glance. (I almost never run out of room.)

Things I write about daily:

  1. How I felt that day. Obviously not all my emotions are symptoms, but I write about them all in my symptom journal anyway. Giving myself a little bit of room to be descriptive allows me to record causes of my mood (“had nightmares and woke up very dissociated”) or complexities (“had some anxiety in the afternoon but felt okay for most of the day”).
  2. Any physical symptoms or problems I had. Maybe my knees hurt, I had a stomachache because I ate too much curry, or I slept badly. (Often I write that I forgot to eat. Oops!)
  3. What I did to solve/help any symptoms/problems (physical or mental) and how well my strategy worked. Maybe I took ibuprofen for my knee pain, but it didn’t really do anything. Or maybe I was depressed but I felt a little more energetic after a nap. I don’t always have anything to write in this section, but I think it’s really important to track how your experiments go!
  4. What I thought about that day. This is one of my favorite sections. It’s my chance to write about what was going on in my mind, which (to me) is always interesting! It also gives me a sense that I’m moving forward in my life. For example, maybe I thought about what to write on my blog and came to the conclusion that I should write about journaling, or maybe I thought about what to build with a certain material in Minecraft. Often, I’m thinking about recovery strategies I want to integrate into my life, and when I journal about them, I don’t lose any potentially brilliant ideas!
  5. My happiest or best moment of the day. (It doesn’t have to break through the depression barrier to be the happiest moment of the day, since it’s all relative.) Often, this will be spending time with my boyfriend.
  6. Any information my alters have told me that day. Since it’s hard to keep track of multiple people in the same brain, I have a section devoted to that. For example, [LITTLE] told me the other day he doesn’t like green beans, so as a system we’ve decided to not force ourselves to eat the green beans languishing in the freezer.

Every Sunday, I do a weekly summary for each of the sections. I draw an extra page with my usual six sections, and write about how the week went and my happiest moment!

Some other ideas you may want to try if you pick up a similar journaling habit:

-Gratitude journaling. This was not helpful for me, but many people swear by it.

-Therapy summaries. If you go to therapy, you can write quick summaries of what you talked about at your appointments. You might also record your homework for next session, if that’s something that you and your therapist have decided on.

-Rate your mood out of 10. I really struggle to rate my mood, because it feels so much more complex than a number. Maybe I had a good morning but got depressed in the evening, or I was anxious but hopeful. However, this works for a lot of people, and having quantitative data on your mood can be really helpful when dealing with mental health professionals. (You may want to use color-coding instead!)