Mental Health vs. Emotional Health: Understanding and Cultivating Both

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there are a few key differences between emotional health and mental health. Both play a foundational role in your well-being. Furthermore, both intersect and affect one another. But it’s important to understand the definition of each one and how you can cultivate them individually and together.

Understanding Mental Health

At its core, mental health refers to how we integrate, process, and react to data. Your mental health, in many ways, guides everything you do. When you take care of your mental health, you tend to feel happier and more fulfilled in life. 

Mentally healthy people tend to:

  • Have high self-esteem
  • Enjoy healthy and meaningful relationships
  • Avoid or limit compulsive behavior
  • Identify and achieve realistic goals
  • Feel relatively balanced in daily living

Mental health problems can emerge when this process gets interrupted- or when your thoughts and feelings routinely result in problematic coping. A combination of genetics, environmental factors, and trauma can also affect your mental health. 

That’s not to say that mentally healthy people are immune to the effects of stress or negative emotions. Optimal mental health isn’t about perfection. But strengthening your mental health strengthens your grit and resilience- these safeguards can keep your well-being intact even when life is rough.

Steps for Strengthening Your Mental Health

Regardless of your current mental health status, you can improve your circumstances. Working on your mental health represents lifelong work. The more you prioritize it, the better you will feel. Here are some reminders to keep in mind.

Identify Where You Want to Change

What problems continue resurfacing in daily life? Which patterns no longer serve you or make you feel good about yourself? What kind of person do you aspire to be, and what’s preventing you from being that person?

Only you know the true answers to these questions. But mental health first starts with awareness. Knowing what is and isn’t working can help you define a roadmap for how you intend to grow.

The goal isn’t to completely bash yourself or change everything about your life. Instead, the goal is about getting more curious about what isn’t working and how you intend to change it.

Continuously Practice Healthy Coping Skills 

Mentally healthy people get stressed- just like anyone else. But they make an active choice to cope with their stress appropriately. They recognize that stress is an unavoidable part of life, but it isn’t an excuse to collapse or disregard their needs. 

As a result, they tend to feel less overwhelmed. They’re also less likely to resort to unhealthy habits when faced with adversity.

Coping skills are important for keeping you grounded and calm. It’s helpful to have a toolbox of several coping skills you can refer to at a given moment. Some examples include:

  • Taking a walk or exercising
  • Writing in your journal
  • Thinking about your gratitude 
  • Calling a loved one
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Engaging in a favorite hobby like writing or singing
  • Snuggling up with your pet

You should prioritize implementing these coping skills as part of your normal routine. If you frequently practice them when things are going well, you are more likely to use them when you feel stressed. 

Commit to Working on Your Self-Esteem 

Your self-esteem is the foundation for your mental health. If you value who you are, you will take better care of yourself and look after your needs. Fortunately, even if you don’t really like yourself right now, you can improve in this area. 

Validate your strengths: Spend time thinking about why you like yourself. At first, this may seem counterintuitive, particularly if you’re used to self-loathing or inner criticism. But chances are, you can identify some parts of yourself that you appreciate. Maybe it’s how much you care about other people. Perhaps it’s your willingness to self-reflect and be a better person. Consider writing these attributes down and keeping them in a visible location. 

Prioritize happy and healthy relationships: Spend time with people who bring forth a sense of positivity. Minimize or avoid time with those who make you feel inadequate or inferior. Commit to reaching out and staying connected to your support system, especially when you are struggling. 

Practice setting boundaries: Self-esteem also comes from knowing your interpersonal limits. You can and should express these limits to others when needed. Remember that it’s perfectly reasonable to say no and avoid overburdening or overextending yourself. 

Pursue what matters most to you: As much as possible, try to avoid living your life for other people or worrying about what others might think. Trust that honoring your values can significantly improve your self-esteem. 

Understanding Emotional Health

Emotional health refers to how you integrate and react to your emotions. Everyone has emotions- even the people who seem entirely stoic or disconnected. 

Your emotional health impacts self-regulation, expression, vulnerability, and intimacy with others. It can also act as a compass for how you attune to your needs. 

People who are emotionally healthy tend to:

  • Be able to quickly identify how they feel in a given situation
  • Express their feelings authentically and assertively
  • Cope with their feelings appropriately
  • Accept uncomfortable feelings more readily
  • Separate their feelings from their thoughts and behaviors

Most of us don’t learn much about our emotional health as children. If anything, we’re often told to ignore or fix our emotions. Subsequently, many people grow up thinking something is wrong with them for having feelings. 

Steps for Strengthening Your Emotional Health

Emotional health is malleable, and making small changes can have a direct impact on your well-being. Fortunately, these skills can be learned, even if you were never taught them before. Here are some tips.

Start Identifying Your Feelings 

Commit to checking in with yourself regularly. Feelings often follow specific patterns, and knowing your triggers can be helpful in recognizing these patterns.

You may want to set an alarm that rings during various intervals throughout the day. When you hear the alarm, take a moment and reflect on how you feel. Rank the intensity of each emotion. Ask yourself why you think you might be feeling what you’re feeling.

Practice Telling Others How You Feel 

Emotionally healthy people don’t shy away from their feelings or try to suppress them around others. But, at the same time, they don’t use their feelings as an excuse to lash out.

Instead, they can be transparent and assertive. For example, you might say, I’m sorry I didn’t do the dishes earlier. I felt overwhelmed with work, and I wanted to relax for a few moments. Then, I just forgot. I’m going to do them right now. With this type of statement, you’re taking ownership of your feelings and actions. 

Be Mindful of Rumination 

Emotionally healthy people can experience remorse and regret. The difference is that they don’t dwell on the past. They don’t spend excess time trying to fix what’s already happened.

With that, it’s important to be careful of the tendency to complain or stay “stuck” in your emotions. Even though your feelings are real, you risk making yourself worse by staying in them for too long.

Instead, it’s better to acknowledge how you feel and then think about how you can nurture yourself. So, if you’re angry at something your coworker said to you earlier, perhaps you vent about it to your spouse for a few minutes. Then, you decide to go work out to try to burn off some of the frustration. 

Practice Mindfulness Often

It’s a misconception that feelings are too large or inappropriate. All feelings are normal- they are natural reactions to the stimuli around us. But we often try to suppress, deny, or intellectualize how we feel. Paradoxically, by doing this, the feelings tend to become even more intense.

Mindfulness can help. The next time you feel overwhelmed, pause. Acknowledge how you feel. Recognize where the emotions sit in your body. Validate your inner experience. And then, take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that you can focus on the here-and-now.

Practicing this ritual consistently allows you to engage in mindfulness anytime and anywhere. And just like any other form of exercise, it gets easier and feels more natural with practice. 

Affirm Yourself 

You are your own best ally when it comes to your emotions. But even emotionally healthy people can feel afraid, overwhelmed, and upset. When this happens, it’s important to ground yourself. 

The following affirmations can help:

  • “I trust that this moment will pass.”
  • “I accept that these feelings are uncomfortable right now.”
  • “I know I can withstand discomfort.”
  • “I believe I can learn and grow from this experience.”
  • “I trust that my feelings are necessary right now.”

When you have your own back, you can handle challenging situations more gracefully. You can also trust that even those hardest moments do get better. 

Accept Some Uncertainty

We often try to control everything around us. We want guaranteed outcomes and concrete results. We hope our best efforts to plan will create an ideal destiny.

But in reality, life doesn’t work this way. Life operates on its own agenda, and we cannot control many of the circumstances that happen to us. We also cannot control other people or how they behave. 

Emotional health means accepting the inherent ambiguity of life. You don’t have to necessarily enjoy everything that happens. That would be unrealistic. But it’s helpful to remind yourself that it’s impossible for you to call all the shots.

Reframe Discomfort

Emotional health sometimes entails sitting with uncomfortable emotions. But it can also mean trying to look for the silver linings in bleak situations.

The next time you’re faced with a hardship, consider asking yourself, What am I learning from this right now? How is this experience helping me grow? 

Remember that all humans experience some form of suffering throughout their lives. That doesn’t mean you are doomed. It simply means that you are part of a collective entity where everyone has also felt similar emotions. 

What Else Helps Improve Emotional Health and Mental Health?

Because both forms of health overlap, you can integrate various skills to improve how you feel as a whole. Remember that they tend to play on one another. Focusing on one area, therefore, tends to inadvertently strengthen the other. 

Prioritize Your Physical Health 

Your physical health impacts your emotions, mood, and self-esteem. Taking care of your body can go a long way in making you feel better about yourself.

Looking after your physical health is multifaceted, but you can start slowly. Consider swapping out a few meals for healthier dishes. Add more exercise in your daily routine. Commit to getting enough sleep each night. If you have unexplained aches or pains, set up an appointment with your doctor.

Seek Professional Support

Mental illness can wreak havoc on your emotional health and mental health. This can happen even with mild cases. If you feel like you can’t control or improve your symptoms on your own, therapy may help.

Discuss Medication 

Certain health conditions can adversely impact how neurotransmitters communicate with one another. These disruptions may heighten stress and impact basic functions like sleep, mood, and concentration.

Psychiatric medication promotes chemical balancing within the brain. If you struggle with a mental health issue, medication can be an invaluable part of your treatment plan. Consider exploring potential options with your primary care physician or a psychiatrist.

Practice Patience

Growth doesn’t happen overnight. Improving your well-being takes time and effort. 

Remember to be patient if you start feeling frustrated by your progress. Celebrate small successes and let go of the idea of perfection. Try to frequently remind yourself that you are growing every single day. 

Final Thoughts 

Working on your emotional health and mental health can profoundly strengthen  your quality of life. By taking care of yourself, you embrace living congruently with your values and honoring your needs. This, in turn, can lead to greater happiness and self-esteem.

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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