How are you? It’s a question you probably ask, and get asked several times a week. But the answer to the question asks you to think about two different aspects of your health or wellbeing. More than just how you are physically, it asks you how you are feeling - and that ultimately is at the centre of what we talk about when we refer to ‘mental health’.
Whether you consider yourself pretty healthy or have ongoing medical conditions that you’re wrestling with, you’ll know that you have physical health - and that it can vary. We accept readily the concept that we should be interested in our physical health and should do certain things to try to maintain or improve our physical wellbeing. Mental health is a very similar concept, except that it refers to parts of our body which are a little more difficult to understand and ‘see’.
In fact our emotions, and the other aspects of wellbeing caught up in our brains are just as important as our physical bodies. Your mind is amazing, the God-created filter through which you experience the world - the source of peace (Isaiah 26:3), key to wisdom (Luke 24:45) & origin of hope (Lam 3:21). Some of what your brain does involves physical senses such as sight and hearing, but your emotional senses have just a strong influence over how you live your life. Your version of ‘reality’ depends entirely on how how the on average 86 billion neurones or nerve cells in your brain understand and interpret the things you experience. Your emotional brain also enables you to make good decisions, learn, remember, plan and solve problems. We know that transformation begins with a renewal of our mind (Romans 12:2), but how often do we give our mind a second thought?
The truth is that your emotions are a central part of who you are and how you were created. They are what makes you you: what influences how you respond to whatever life throws at you, and play a key role in the decisions you make and what you do and don’t do. But there’s an even more important truth about our emotions: they are part of what makes us created ‘in God’s image’ (Gen 1:27). Think about it: God created every part of us deliberately, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:14). But more than that, uniquely when compared to the animals and other parts of creation we alone ‘reflect’ God’s nature (Genesis 1:27 in the Message). And we know our God is an emotional God, experiencing a range of emotions: anger (E.g. Psalm 2:5), regret (Genesis 6:6), jealousy (Exodus 20:5) and compassion (Psalm 103:13) to name just four. We have emotions because God intended us to be emotional beings. We need not just to value them, but to take care of them, and prioritise them in all ways: in how we look after our health but also in how we seek to grow and mature through life.
It is always tempting to think of mental health in a very simplistic way. We like to think there are basically two kinds of people in the world - the ‘well’ or ‘healthy’ people, and then those who have ‘mental health problems’. It is a tempting way to understand mental health, but of course it isn’t true. The reality is that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. And as we go through life many of us will experience times when our mental health can hit a low patch - just as we might go through periods when we are physically unwell.
Statistics tell us that in our high pace 21st century world, increasing numbers of people are struggling with mental ill health. 1 in 4 adults (25%) will struggle at some stage with a mental health problem. In any 1 year, 1 in 10 adults (10%) will experience periods of depression. The rates in young people often cause even more concern. 10% of teenagers struggle with some kind of mental or emotional health problem. But many more experience difficult emotions, and rates of self harm are soaring in a generation unsure of how to handle what they are feeling. Its highly likely that some of these people will be your friends, or your family, or people in your church. It might even be you.
Of course some people are more prone to mental ill health - and there are a variety of factors that can make you more likely to experience mental health problems. But it is important that we understand mental health problems are not things that happen to other people - they are things that could hit any of us. We need to be better aware of mental health, not just so that we can help those in need, but so we can be part of helping this and the next generation to become resilient and emotionally more healthy.
An emotional ‘5 a day’
What have you done recently to work on your health? Been to the gym? Tried to cut back on eating or drinking something in particular? Maybe you take vitamins or make sure you get your ‘5 a day’. But when did you last do something to look after your mental health - and if you wanted to, what could or should you do?
Here are 5 things you could aim to do every day for better emotional and mental health:
1 - rest. Its easy to get carried away with the energy of 21st century life. Especially with social media, we need never be alone or away from the buzz of interacting with other people. But did you know your brain needs regular rest? As humans made in the image of God we need to listen better to His command to take a regular sabbath, and stop fighting our inbuilt rhythm to need regular times to sleep. So turn off your smartphone, step away from the TV or games console and give yourself some down time.
2 - connect. Rest is great but if there’s another basic thing inbuilt into us as humans it is the need to connect with other humans. Look at Genesis - one of God’s first observations about the humans He created was that it was not good for them to be alone (Gen 2:18). But connecting isn’t just about hanging out with other people, it is about building meaningful relationships where you can share, do life together and truly be yourself. We tend to think these kind of friendships just happen but especially in our jam packed world, they often need deliberate planning. Check out http://www.livelife123.org for one great vision of how to plan good relationships for truly connecting.
3 - think positive. Did you know your brain is biased to remember more clearly the negative stuff? Times you did stuff wrong, messed up, felt low. Its important for your learning and survival you don’t ignore this stuff but it can make you feel even worse in tough times. Studies of happiness find that simply taking time at the end of each day to remember and write down 3 good things that have happened that day can help you feel better long term. So why not turn it into part of your prayer life and take the time to thing of 3 things you’re super grateful for?
4 - give yourself a break. Studies of compassion find that the kind most people find hardest is self-compassion - put simply, giving yourself a break! We’re often much harder on ourselves than other people, and some of us are particularly prone to this. Try thinking what you would say if someone else were in your position, and practise self-nurturing - looking after yourself instead of beating yourself up over things you think you made a mess of.
5 - get out. Yes, exercise is important for physical health but did you know that it makes a difference to mental health as well? Exercise, particularly if it involves getting outdoors, helps lift your mood and protects against future bouts of low mood as well. Plus surrounding yourself with nature and a different environment to normal can totally change your perspective. It doesn’t have to be fancy - you may feel like everyone else is out scuba diving somewhere tropical or rock climbing somewhere amazing but just getting away from the same old four walls can be a real mood shifter. Why not call a mate and go for a bike ride or download a podcast and catch up on it whilst heading out for a walk. Check out a local beauty spot or sit outside a cafe and do some people watching. If in doubt get out!
For more about mental health and the church, check out http://www.mindandsoul.info