Believe it or not, a mental health professional can make it through his or her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs without having a single, significant discussion on what the term ”mental health” actually means (or the term ”mind” for that matter).
We tend to be trained to think that mental health is “not” something. In other words, one becomes mentally healthy when they are “not depressed” or “not anxious” anymore. At best, we receive a very functional definition of mental health. That is, a person can be considered mentally healthy if they are able to function well at work and in relationships. That’s a decent working definition, but it leaves a lot of territory unexplored.
Mental Health: New Insights
Within the last few years, thanks to the development of functional imaging (fPET, fMRI) and the brain research that these technologies make possible, mental health professionals have a clearer sense than ever of what “mental health” actually consists of. Additionally, research is beginning to show what processes contribute to mental health. We can now watch the brain at work and see the environmental conditions that enable the brain to function at its best. We’ll look at that in a minute. First, let’s examine the 9 factors that research shows constitutes good mental health. (Note: This article is largely based on the excellent book by Daniel J. Siegel. Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology.” W. W. Norton, 2012. I highly recommend this work for additional information on this subject)
Mental Health: The 9 Factors
When the human brain is working at its best, it is capable of doing 9 things that contribute to what we might commonly consider, “good mental health.” They are:
1. Body Regulation—the ability to keep the organs of the body and the autonomic nervous system (e.g, heart rate, respiration, body temperature) coordinated and balanced. Body regulation isn’t just about physical health. Emotions begin as an embodied experience. For example; a racing heart and shallow respiration often precipitate feelings of panic/anxiety. Feelings of exhaustion or under-stimulation often precipitate depression.
2. Attuned Communication—the ability to pick up on the meaning of subtle, non-verbal, physical cues (facial expressions, tones of voice, posture) that indicate another person’s emotional states and degree of well-being. People with Autism spectrum disorders especially have a difficult time with this.
3. Emotional Balance—the ability to maintain optimal emotional functioning. That is, I know how to be emotionally stimulated enough to be aware and engaged in my circumstances and relationships but not so emotionally stimulated that I am regularly flooded by my feelings and carried away by them.
4. Response Flexibility—the ability to pause before acting on my impulses and willfully change the direction of my actions if doing so suits me better than my initial impulses. People with ADHD, pathological anger, addictions, and other impulse control problems struggle with this skill.
5. Fear Modulation—reducing fear. Self-explanatory. People with anxiety and panic disorders, especially, have a difficult time modulating the brain’s fear responses. They become easily flooded with anxiety where others might just experience nervousness or even excitement.
6. Insight—the ability to reflect on my life experiences in a way that links my past, present, and future in a coherent, cohesive, compassionate manner. In sight helps me make sense of both the things that have happened to me in the past and the things that are happening to me now.
7. Empathy—Essentially, empathy is the ability to have insight (as defined above) into other people. Empathy is the ability to imagine what it is like to be another person, and to reflect on their experiences in a way that links their past, present, and future in coherent, cohesive. compassionate manner. Empathy helps you make sense of other people’s lives, the way they think, and their feelings.
8. Morality—the ability to imagine, reason, and behave from the perspective of the greater good. Includes the ability to delay gratification and find ways to get my needs met while understanding and accommodating the needs of others.
9. Intuition—having access to the input from the body and its non-rational ways of knowing that fuel wisdom. One’s “gut sense” of things is actually based on a complex process by which one’s right brain makes ”quick and dirty” global assessments of one’s feelings and circumstances.
We have seen from decades of research that the human brain, when it is experiencing optimal functioning, is able to do all of these things. The degree to which you can say you are “mentally healthy” is the degree to which you can say these things are true about you. The exciting thing about this definition of mental health is that a person does not have to wait until their life, work, or relationships are suffering before they get help. A person could reasonably look at this list and say, “I want to do a better job with this mental skill” enabling them to seek professional help long before their marriage, work, or life begins to fall apart because of those deficits.
Ok, So, How Do I Get These Things?
There are really two versions of this question. The first is, “How does a person come by these qualities in the first place?” The second question is, “If I don’t have one or more of these qualities, how do I get them?” Let’s look at each question in turn.
–How does a person come by the 9 components of mental health in the first place?
Researchers such as Daniel Seigel (UCLA), Allan Schore (UCLA), Marco Iacoboni (UCLA), Louis Cozolino (Pepperdine), Stephen Porges (U of Illinois) and others point to decades of research showing that it is actually healthy attachment bonds between parent and child that enable the brain to develop at least 8 of the 9 components of mental health to their fullest potential (n.b., the 9th quality, intuition, has not been adequately studied to determine its origins).
If it seems odd that a parenting style could have so much impact on brain development and mental health, it shouldn’t. Fully 90% of our brain develops after birth. Although the brain research to support this assumption is fairly new, psychology has always looked at the impact of parenting and the structure of one’s family of origin as the cradle of mental health or mental disorder. In the last 20 years, however, it is become possible to see that this assertion isn’t just a social, psychological, or characterological phenomenon. It is also, even primarily, physiological. Both psychology and Catholic theology (especially the Theology of the Body) assert that the person is essentially and inherently a social/relational being. As Genesis 2:18 says, “it is not good that man should be alone.” We just never appreciated how deeply true this assertion was. Two decades of brain research show us that, in fact, it is our relationships that provide the soil in which our brains grow. Brain science now teaches that healthy, attached, parent-child relationships yield the healthiest, best integrated brain function and mental health outcomes. The very parenting practices that lead to healthy attachment have been shown–by studies that are completely independent of one another–to be the parenting practices that brain researchers have identified as leading to the greatest degree healthy brain development.
—What Does Brain-Wise Parenting Look Like?
Specifically, these parenting practices include:
~consistent, sensitive, & prompt parental response to the child’s cues and needs.
~extravagant levels affection.
~gentle discipline approaches that focus more on teaching good behavior than punishing bad.
These parenting practice release chemicals in the child’s brain that promote nerve growth (allowing new connections to form), the inter-regional connectivity of the brain (allowing different parts of the brain to communicate more efficiently), and myelin formation (myelin is the insulation around the nerve cell. A well-myelinated nerve carries information 3000 times faster than a poorly myelinated nerve).
—What Parenting Practices Inhibit Brain Development?
Likewise, research has shown that each of the opposite parenting practices (i.e, inconsistent, less-sensitive and prompt parental response to cues; lesser levels of affection; harsh discipline techniques that punish rather than teach) stress the brain and cause it to go into ”lock down.” This leads to poorer nerve growth, poorer inter-regional connectivity, and poorer levels of myelination. The authors I cited previously, and others like them, universally assert that the parenting practices promoted by attachment theorists for being the best practices for healthy parent-child attachmentare the same practices that enable the brain to develop the skills (above) that are necessary for optimal brain functioning and, by extension, good mental health.
—But Isn’t It Just Genetic?
Many people believe that mental and emotional problems are genetic. This is not strictly accurate. We now know that the parenting environment (and indeed, the overall environment as well) in which a child grows up releases different chemicals in the brain that lead to certain genetic expressions. This is called “epigenetics” (i.e., the study of how our environment impacts the development of genetic traits). Different parenting environments literally release different chemical responses in the child’s brain leading to different genes being expressed and different traits being developed. We no longer can meaningfully talk about nature vs. nurture. The discussion has evolved from this to be more about how the dialog between nature and nurture ultimately results in certain traits and behaviors being expressed.
–So, if I don’t have one or more of these qualities, how do I get them?
The techniques a therapist uses in counseling–including the therapeutic relationship itself–have been shown by neuroimaging studies to actually heal physical damage to the social brain and promote healthy brain functioning. For instance, cognitive-behavioral techniques help the brain develop healthy top-down/left-right integration so that I can both understand and control my emotions more effectively. Mindfulness-based approaches to therapy–which promote a person’s ability to observe themselves from a healthy, third person perspective–have been shown to enhance insight, emotional regulation, and whole-brain functioning. Relationship-based therapies and spiritually-based therapies have been shown to promote empathy, moral functioning, and attuned communication especially. The therapeutic relationship itself–rooted as it is in radical acceptance, affirmation and gentle correction–is a milieu that promotes healing of wounded attachment bonds.
Thanks to the development of empirically-based interventions (i.e., techniques rooted in research rather than philosophy), well-trained therapists have a clearer sense of what therapeutic techniques promote each of the nine components of mental health. As research develops, mental health professionals will be able to make even clearer connections between the specific techniques in their toolbox and the specific mental skills a client needs to heal psychological wounds and promote optimal mental health.
What’s in Your Toolbox? An Assessment:
Take another look at the list of the 9 components that make up good mental health? What are your strengths? What are the areas that you could do better in? Having a good sense of your strengths and weaknesses in reference to the 9 components of mental health can empower you to avoid more serious problems before they occur and give you important insights into why you struggle in the areas you do.
If you would like assistance in developing the skills that define good mental health or would like help in overcoming the challenges in your life, emotions, or relationships that prevent you from being your best, contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute (740-266-6461) for more information on how you can work with a professional Catholic therapist via our tele-counseling practice.
The good news is that with new information and new developments in psychotherapy practice, you can learn the skills you need to cooperate with God’s grace to become the best version of yourself and live a more abundant psychological, emotional, and relational life