In the past few years, articles about anxiety, depression and a host of other mental health conditions have taken the internet by storm—things that decades ago, many people were afraid to talk about. They feared doing so might make them appear weak, or flawed, or troubled. But now, a wave of openness and honesty has led more and more people to talk about their mental health and the issues they might be facing.
You might be wondering, But what exactly is mental health? You’ve heard of things like anxiety and depression, and you’re somewhat familiar with the negative effects stress can have on the body. But you don’t know about the nuances of these things, and why caring for our mental health is such a crucial part of living a happy, healthy and well-rounded life.
You’ve come to the right place. This guide will cover what mental health is and why it matters, while also exploring tangible steps you can take to improve yours today. Read on to get started.
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health refers to the state of our emotional, psychological and social well-being. A simple way to think about it is like this: Our mental health affects how we feel and think, as well as how we act in certain situations.
When people think of mental health, they often think of conditions someone might have—things like bipolar disorder, anxiety or loneliness. But being in good mental health doesn’t just mean you live without a diagnosable condition. It also means that you’re able to maneuver everyday life (and its potential problems and roadblocks) with grace and ease.
One of the most comprehensive and impactful definitions comes from the World Health Organization (WHO): “Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
Taking care of our emotional well-being has always been important, but it’s imperative now more than ever. Generation Z, which comprises teens and young adults born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, are the most likely of all generations to have poor mental health, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA). Twenty-seven percent of Generation Zers report having fair or poor mental health, compared to 15% of millennials, 13% of Generation Xers, 7% of baby boomers and 5% of older adults.
Although these numbers are somewhat staggering, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: The generation that struggles the most, Gen Z, is also the most likely to seek professional support for their mental health issues, according to the study.
Why Does Our Mental Health Matter?
The impact physical illnesses and diseases—such as cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes—have on one’s health is clear. We do everything we can to ameliorate physical ailments through things like diet, exercise, medication and visits to the doctor.
But unfortunately, many of us let our mental health fall by the wayside. We don’t think of it as being on the same level of importance as our physical health. But the reality is that it’s just as, if not more, important.
Take this example. Let’s say you’re pre-diabetic. You take every step you can to prevent becoming diabetic through exercise and diet. You eventually get your blood sugar down to an acceptable level so that you’re no longer pre-diabetic.
Let’s say you’re also an incredibly stressed person who works 60+ hours per week, leaving little time for socialization or hobbies. You might think, It’s just a busy time in my life. The stress will dissipate eventually. But you could be underestimating the impact stress is having on your body. After all, poorly managed stress can lead to everything from migraines, overeating, fatigue and an upset stomach to alcohol abuse, irritability and depression—not to mention diabetes.
This example should illustrate how caring for our mental health is just as crucial as caring for our physical health. Our mental health affects our everyday state of being, and not managing it can lead to a host of related medical problems.
Your mental health impacts every element of your life, from your performance at work to your relationships with your significant other, family members and friends. It can also impact your ability to sleep, as well as less tangible things, like the likelihood you’ll take risks, push yourself intellectually, and feel emotions like gratitude, happiness and fulfillment.
You might not know if you’re experiencing symptoms related to a mental health condition, as it’s possible to maneuver everyday life without even realizing you’re struggling. Some early warning signs you might be struggling, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are:
- Eating too much or too little
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Lacking energy
- Mood swings
- Fighting with loved ones
- Feeling confused, forgetful, on edge, angry or upset
Common Mental Health Conditions
When people think of mental health, they might think of disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Although these are serious conditions that require treatment, they aren’t the most common in the mental health realm. Bipolar disorder only affects around 2.6% of Americans and schizophrenia only affects 1%, while depressive illnesses affect nearly 10% of Americans and anxiety disorders affect nearly 20%.
Because of the prevalence of anxiety and depression in the U.S., it’s important to be educated on the signs and symptoms of each. Below, we’ve taken a look at the most common mental health conditions people face today.
It’s normal to feel a twinge of nervousness or anxiety every so often. After all, some anxiety is a necessary part of life—thousands of years ago, our ancestors needed anxiety as a way to detect threats.
If you’re nervous before giving a presentation at work or zip lining for the first time, you’re likely experiencing a normal, healthy dose of anxiety. If your anxiety is present and all consuming, however, it could be problematic.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers this guidance for determining when anxiety has become problematic: “For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities, such as job performance, school work, and relationships.”
The various conditions that fall under the greater anxiety umbrella—including things like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, social anxiety and panic attacks—affect nearly one in five adults in the U.S. GAD is one of the more prevalent anxiety conditions, affecting just under 3% of adults. (It’s more common in women than men.)
According to the NIMH, if you have excessive worry or anxiety on most days for more than six months, you might be experiencing GAD. These worries can be about anything from your job and your relationships to your physical health. You might have GAD if you feel on edge often, have trouble concentrating or find it difficult to get restful sleep.
As humans, the range of emotions we feel runs the gamut. Depending on what’s going on in our lives, we might feel excited and joyful one day but sad or angry the next.
Emotions like sadness, anger and fear are a normal part of human life. But when these emotions become intense and persistent, they can be a sign of clinical depression or another depressive disorder.
Clinical depression is defined as having some of the following symptoms on most days (for most of the day) for at least two weeks, according to the NIMH: persistent sadness or an “empty” feeling, hopelessness, irritability, feelings of guilt, fatigue, weight loss or gain, changes in appetite, and loss of interest in hobbies or things you used to love.
In addition to clinical depression, other conditions that fall under the depressive disorders umbrella include postpartum depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Other Mental Health Conditions
In addition to anxiety and depression and their associated conditions, there are various other types of mental illness. People can also be afflicted by personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder), eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia), psychotic disorders (like schizophrenia), post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.
What About Stress?
Everyone experiences anxiety, whether it’s rattling nerves before buying a car or butterflies in one’s stomach before a first date. Everyone likely also experiences a form of depression at some point, such as the loss of a loved one.
Likewise, most of us experience stress at some point in our lives. Stress is a part of being human. It can manifest in the form of job-related stress, financial stress, stress related to a major life event (like divorce or illness), or general stress related to one’s daily tasks and responsibilities.
Some stress is OK and can even be a crucial element in keeping us motivated and on track toward achieving our goals. But too much stress, or stress that is poorly managed over a long period of time, can have a deleterious effect on our social, emotional and physical health.
Stress can manifest in myriad ways, according to the NIMH. Some people will experience physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches, while others will have more emotional symptoms, like anger and irritability.
Poorly managed stress over a long period of time can have a serious impact on our health. People who are chronically stressed are at higher risk of viral infections (such as the flu and the common cold), the NIMH notes. Plus, chronic unmanaged stress can lead to things like depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
If you feel like you’re more stressed than you should be, don’t be afraid to take a step back and reassess your priorities. Can you cut back on work? If not, what are some things you can do to better manage your stress (i.e. exercise, sleep, meditation)? Is seeing a therapist something you should consider at this point in your life?
Don’t just chalk up your stress to the status quo. Our society has an increasing focus on working the hardest, striving to be the best and aiming to achieve goals that seem unattainable. But if doing any of these things is jeopardizing your mental or physical health, they’re not worth it.
Mental Health by the Numbers
If you’re struggling with a mental health condition, you might feel alone. No one in your inner social circle has dealt with this problem, at least to your knowledge. Is something wrong with me? you might think. Why can’t I just be normal?
Should thoughts like these ever pop into your mind, remember: Conditions like these are fairly common, and luckily, it’s easy to treat many of them. Below are a handful of illustrative statistics regarding mental health in America:
1 in 5: This is the number of Americans who experience a mental health problem each year.
9.8 million: This is the number of American adults who have a serious mental health disorder. This translates to roughly one in 25 adults.
6.9%: This is the number of adults with major depression in the U.S.
18.1%: This is the number of adults with anxiety disorders in the U.S.
No. 1: Across the world, depression is the leading cause of disability.
2 to 1: Women are twice as likely to experience major depression as men.
The following are results from the annual Stress in America survey conducted by the APA:
74%: The number of adults who said they had a physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the previous month.
91%: The number of Gen Zers (ages 15 to 21) who said they had a physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the previous month.
1 in 5: The number of adults who don’t feel as though they do enough to manage their stress.
64%: The number of adults who feel stressed by work.
63%: The number of adults who feel stress because of health concerns.
64%: The number of adults who feel stress due to money.
48%: The number of adults who feel stress due to the state of the economy.
9 Ways to Improve Your Mental Health
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed condition like anxiety or depression, it’s vital to prioritize your emotional well-being. There might be important things you’ve let fall by the wayside, and getting back on track can mean the difference between just getting by and thriving.
Below, you’ll find detailed information on nine ways you can improve your mental health.
1. Maintain healthy, thriving relationships.
Loneliness is an epidemic in the U.S. right now. More people than ever are feeling isolated and, in turn, anxious and depressed. Loneliness can have a staggering impact on one’s mental and emotional health, as well as one’s physical health—one study discovered that loneliness had the same impact on one’s life span as obesity and smoking. Loneliness, the study found, shortened a person’s life by 15 years.
One of the best ways to protect your mental health is by prioritizing your relationships. Having strong interpersonal connections benefits us in countless ways: It helps us feel like we’re part of a community, gives our life meaning, makes us feel accepted and reinforces that we have people we can rely on during times of adversity.
It’s important to remember that asking family members or friends for help if you’re struggling isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather strength. There should be no shame or embarrassment in asking for help. After all, being open and honest with your loved ones can help you begin the process of healing.
The impact of exercise on one’s mental health cannot be emphasized enough. Whether you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, stress or any other condition, exercise should play an important role in your life. Exercise can improve your sleep, make you feel more relaxed and increase your body’s production of endorphins (often referred to as the feel-good hormones), which can improve your mood.
There are countless ways you can reap the benefits of exercise. You don’t have to do high-intensity interval training or intense spinning to reap the benefits of exercise. In fact, just 30 minutes of walking each day can improve your mood and reduce stress, according to the NIMH. On top of that, just five minutes—the length of one song—of aerobic exercise, or cardio, can lower anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
For healthy adults, the recommended amount of exercise is 150 minutes per week of moderate activity (such as biking or walking) and 75 minutes per week of more vigorous exercise, like running, according to the HHS.
3. Challenge yourself.
One of the worst things you can do in life is grow stagnant and complacent. If you stick with the status quo, you won’t get to enjoy one of the best things in life, which is the wonderful feeling you get from setting and achieving goals.
Even if you think you’re at a good place in life and most of your goals have been achieved, there are always areas for growth. The importance of having goals to work toward shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, having purpose in one’s life is a crucial element of our overall happiness and life satisfaction.
Take a look at your life and find an area for growth. Perhaps you want to get in better physical shape, save more money for retirement, publish a book, travel to 10 countries, have children or learn a new skill. Whatever you identify as your goal, write it down. Then, take a look at SUCCESS contributor Margie Warrell’s five-step guide for setting and achieving goals.
4. Practice gratitude.
If you’ve ever felt overly anxious, stressed or depressed, you’re likely familiar with the onslaught of never-ending negative thoughts. One great way to combat negative thinking is by practicing gratitude.
There are countless ways to practice gratitude each day. One simple and effective way is by journaling each morning or evening. Spend 10 or 15 minutes journaling about the things you’re thankful for, both small and large. Strive to list anywhere from three to 10 things. Explore the big-picture things you’re grateful for, such as your health or family, as well as small, daily things you’re thankful for, like the nice weather or a compliment your co-worker gave you about your outfit.
5. Check in with yourself.
You could be anxious, depressed or overly stressed and not even realize it. Try to be attuned to your body and mind, and notice the symptoms that something might be awry. To check in on your mental health, ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I still as interested in everything I used to be interested in?
- Do I feel more irritated, angry or on edge than normal?
- Am I drinking alcohol more than I used to?
- Has the quality or quantity of my sleep diminished?
- Has my appetite changed? What about my weight?
- Do I have less energy than I used to?
- Have my loved ones commented on any changes in my mood or behavior?
6. Learn about mindfulness meditation.
Perhaps you’ve read about the benefits of meditation, but you either don’t have time to meditate or you don’t think it’s right for you. Enter mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows you to focus on (and even control, in some instances) your thoughts. It can be done anywhere, at any time. The goal of mindfulness meditation is to be more present instead of dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
The benefits of mindfulness are far reaching: It can lower stress, improve your relationships, enhance your focus and memory, and help you feel more at ease.
But how exactly does it work? Mindfulness can be practiced through deep, focused breathing. It can also be accomplished by going for a solo walk in nature or by practicing yoga. One other way you can practice mindfulness, according to SUCCESS contributor Travis Bradberry, is by repeatedly reciting a short and uplifting message about yourself. Think of something that works for you (such as, “I am not my anxiety,” “I am strong,” or “I am fulfilled”) and repeat it to yourself.
Aim to practice mindfulness meditation once (or twice!) each day for 20 minutes.
7. Prioritize your sleep.
If you’re busy with things like work or raising small children, you might struggle to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. But doing so is imperative. After all, being sleep-deprived will only exacerbate emotional and psychological problems. In fact, one study found that people who reported having insomnia were four times as likely to develop depression within the next three years.
Good quality sleep isn’t just about getting seven to nine hours of shuteye each night. It’s also about getting sleep that is restful and will ensure you’re energized for the day ahead. If you wake up 10 or 15 times each night, you won’t feel like you’ve gotten enough sleep to prepare you for the day ahead.
If you’re struggling to get restful sleep, try to incorporate practices into your life that will help you achieve better sleep, like meditation. Exercise every day, if possible, eat a well-balanced diet, and try to eliminate things like caffeine, alcohol and smoking, which can negatively impact sleep. Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet, and refrain from doing anything other than sleeping in your bedroom.
8. Incorporate self-care into your life.
Self-care is different for each and every person, but it’s a simple concept: It’s important to take time to care for your physical, emotional and mental health in order to live a fulfilling life. Self-care can include things on this list (such as getting restful sleep, meditating and exercising), as well as other things that make you feel good about yourself.
Examples of self-care include: eating healthy, traveling somewhere new, trying new things, relaxing at the beach, spending time with a friend, or splurging on a massage or other luxury. The type of self-care doesn’t matter as much as the effect: It should make you feel like you’re taking care of yourself in a way that combats anxiety, depression and stress.
Carve 20 minutes into your day to focus on self-care. Make a healthy smoothie before work, go for a long walk at lunch or spend time laughing with your significant other before bed.
9. Don’t be afraid to seek help.
If there’s one thing today’s teenagers and young adults have taught us, it’s the importance of seeking professional care when necessary. Gen Z is the most likely of all generations to seek mental health treatment. They understand that there should be no shame or embarrassment in doing so.
In years past, there was a stigma attached to seeing a therapist or psychiatrist. But today, that stigma has been removed, as more people than ever are seeking treatment for their mental health disorders, especially with the rise of online, remote therapy.
If you feel like you’re struggling with your mental health, don’t be afraid to seek out professional help. Click here to find a therapist near you or ask your primary care physician for a referral.
Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.