People define mental health in different ways. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is a state of well-being based on a person’s ability to realize their individual potential, cope with natural stressors, and ensure positive contributions to their work and community. An updated version of this definition includes several important aspects of mental health, depicting it as a ‘dynamic internal equilibrium’ that individuals seek to maintain when faced with challenging situations.
Similarly, World Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed medical journal, states that mental well-being is a product of a person’s ability to think, feel, and act according to universal values of respect—for oneself, others, and the environment.
The concept of mental health acknowledges that people experience negative and positive emotions, and that they may respond differently depending on their current level of development and maturity. It also involves social well-being, or the ability to form meaningful relationships with others, and a willingness to contribute to the community.
Lastly, some experts define mental well-being as the constant pursuit of an internal balance between mind and body despite challenges and pressures.
These dynamic definitions of mental health demonstrate that mental well-being involves the totality of a person’s cognitive, emotional, and social abilities. It is also clear that mental health can be affected by various factors that may hinder or enhance a person’s capacity to react to life’s obstacles. Some of these factors are innate, while others are external and brought about by specific situations in life.
Factors That Affect Mental Health
A person’s mental health may be affected by physical and social factors. Knowing how these factors influence mental health allows individuals to make adjustments to ensure that they maintain the necessary internal equilibrium between mind and body.
Physical factors may have a direct, indirect, or bi-directional relationship with mental health. Consequently, negative physical factors may trigger a vicious cycle where they contribute to poor mental health, which in turn leads to negative physical effects.
Physical factors directly impact a person’s body processes and may include the following:
- Lack of Sleep
Sleep is essential for maintaining proper body functions. A lack of sleep may make a person feel slow, sluggish, and irritable. It is also common for sleep-deprived people to become easily frustrated.
During sleep, brain activities may fluctuate during different stages of your sleep cycle. These activities pick up quickly in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In NREM sleep, there are quick energy bursts, but overall brain activity slows.
Each stage in the sleep cycle plays a role in your brain’s health. The sleep cycle enables better learning, memory, and thinking when you regain consciousness.
According to recent research, sufficient sleep facilitates the processing of emotional information by the brain. This is especially true in REM sleep. The brain evaluates and stores memories and thoughts during sleep, and it appears that sleep deprivation is especially harmful to the brain’s ability to consolidate positive emotional content. That’s a why lack of sleep may influence emotional reactivity and low mood. It’s the same reason sleep deprivation is also tied to a variety of mental health issues and suicidal ideation.
- Substance Abuse
Substance abuse involves the misuse of alcohol or drugs. Dependence on these substances may be due to pre-existing mental health issues, changes in brain composition, genetic disposition, and exposure to stress and trauma. Substance abuse can affect mental health by altering moods and attitudes, which can manifest as changes in social behavior. For example, a person who begins abusing drugs may become more aggressive or socially isolated over time.
If you’re living around Pocatello and Soda Springs, Southern Idaho, and someone you love is experiencing substance abuse, you can use Google or your favorite search engine to search for the words ‘counseling near me.’ The search results will point you in the direction of trained professionals who provide psychotherapy/counseling services for people with substance abuse issues. Their approaches are evidence-based and can help your loved one to overcome substance dependence and any associated mental health issues.
Nicotine in cigarettes tend to make smokers feel more alert by improving concentration and attention. However, cigarettes aren’t just all about nicotine; there’s far more to them than just that one chemical. Nicotine contains more than 4,000 chemicals. Of the total, more than 50 chemicals are known to have toxic components, including methanol (which is commonly found in rocket fuel), ammonia, arsenic, butane (found in lighter fluid), and carbon monoxide (which is present in car exhaust fumes).
The long-term build-up of these types of toxic chemicals may damage your brain and lead to learning and memory deficits. They have been specifically linked to the reduction of prospective and working memory—both used for executive functions like planning tasks and paying attention to current activities, as well as everyday tasks such as taking medication on time and keeping an appointment.
The body of literature discussing the potential link between psychological disorders and environmental pollution continues to grow.
A group of American and Danish researchers investigated the prevalence of psychiatric problems in their countries and the impact pollution exposure has on them. The researchers used observational studies that involved analyzing air pollution and other environmental factors. Their investigations found that people living in areas of the United States with high levels of air pollution had a significantly higher prevalence of bipolar disorder and depression than those living in less polluted areas. In Denmark, they found that individuals who lived their first ten years of life in highly polluted regions were at a much greater risk of experiencing or developing personality disorders, bipolar, depression, and schizophrenia.
- Hazardous Work Conditions
Hazardous working conditions, such as workplaces with present physical dangers, can also impact mental well-being and decrease productivity in employees. Immense workloads, lack of support from co-workers and supervisors, an unhealthy work culture, weak leadership, and even the absence of a reward system are factors that can contribute to poor mental health.
Health workers during this Covid-19 pandemic should be observed closely. They endure grueling shifts and large patient volumes, which compel them to skip meals, shorten their sleep, and restrict contact with others for fear of infecting their loved ones. Diet, sleep, and relationships with family and co-workers are all critical elements that build up people’s mental and physical well-being and improve their work performance.
Social Environment Factors
Our environment and life experiences can also affect our mental health. The way we respond to life transitions and challenges is often a good indicator of our current emotional, social, and psychological state.
Some of the social and environmental factors that can influence our well-being include:
- Upbringing And Traumatic Experiences During Childhood
Our upbringing shapes the way we think and relate to others. It can have a positive or negative effect on our childhood and may impact us for the rest of our lives. Traumatic experiences such as abuse (emotional, physical, verbal, and sexual), neglect, and the early loss of a parent or caregiver can harm the developing brain and lead to maladaptive behaviors in youth and adulthood. These early stressors can even influence how we respond to a future crisis such as divorce or unemployment, which can further affect our mental health.
- Social Support
Social support is also essential in ensuring good mental health. Strong social connections can help us to overcome stressful situations, while lack of support can make us feel isolated or neglected. Without social support, people may experience frequent low moods and a gradual decline of their mental health. If they have pre-existing mental health conditions, these may be exacerbated.
- Economic Inequality
It’s now widely accepted that social and economic inequalities may give rise to physical and mental health inequalities. For example, the World Health Organization reports that a socioeconomic disadvantage may contribute to depression. Depression is more likely to occur when disadvantaged people in unequal societies compare themselves to individuals who are in a better economic situation. Less frequent interaction and a lack of trust between unequal groups can also be a factor.
It is also worthwhile to think about the cumulative effects of being economically disadvantaged. The negative effects and associated stress is likely to build up over the course of an individual’s lifetime. Of course, these factors will affect each person differently. However, it is clear that mental health problems are more prevalence among people with low emotional resilience, financial resources, and social support.
- Life Transitions
Troubles brought about by life transitions may lead to mental health conditions, including general anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, and adjustment disorder. Some life transitions that may contribute to the onset of mental health disorders are the birth of a child, illness, family crisis, and new marriage or divorce.
Mental health conditions may arise when life transitions cause someone to become more distressed than expected. A common sign of an emerging mental health issue is when this transition-related stress gets in the way of an individual’s schoolwork, job, or social relationships long after the transition has already taken place.
If you are experiencing mental or emotional issues, speaking to a mental health professional can help. A trained therapist can help you to better understand your condition, develop a realistic view of your circumstances and learn the skills you need to overcome the challenges you are currently facing.