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What Is Emotional Health And How Does It Relate To Mental Illness?

11/05/2017 13:38 BST | Updated 11/05/2017 13:38 BST

The term "mental health" is, more often than not, used within the context of discussing mental illness rather than mental wellness. With 1 in 6 adults and 1 in 10 children in the UK having a mental health condition at any given time, rising to 1 in 4 people over the course of their lifetime, it is unarguable that steps must be taken to improve access to mental health support, and tackle stigma around poor mental health. However, discussions around mental health should not only centre around "illness", or when we're facing challenges. We also need to focus on skills and habits that are essential for supporting ongoing, good mental health.

We all know that we can promote good physical health through factors like exercise, diet and sleep, helping to prevent illness and support wellness and recovery after diagnosis or treatment. The same goes for mental health: we can equip people with key social and emotional skills that have a promotional and preventative effect on mental health, as well as having a supportive impact for those with existing mental health conditions. This set of malleable social and emotional competencies and beliefs is our emotional health, and includes, amongst others, our relationship skills, our self-beliefs (more commonly referred to as self-esteem, self-worth etc.), and our self-regulation, (or the strategies we use to manage our emotions).

What's the difference between mental health and emotional health?

"Emotional health" is often used interchangeably with "mental health", but there are notable differences. Firstly, emotional health relates specifically to social and emotional competencies, such as the ability to empathise or regulate emotions, whereas mental health also encompasses cognitive and neurological functioning, including things like memory and impulse control. Some mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, have a strong social and emotional basis, whereas others, such as dementia and autism, have more organic and neurological roots. While improving emotional health may have particular benefits for emotionally based disorders, emotional health support is beneficial for everyone, whether they have a mental health condition or not. Secondly, unlike mental health, emotional health describes a specific collection of "assets", or social and emotional skills, which are associated a range of positive life outcomes, including reduced mental health problems. These components of emotional health aren't fixed or inherent, but can be worked on and improved through self-growth and targeted support.

How can we use our Emotional Health to improve our Mental Health?

Practise self-compassion

People who have a low self-esteem are not only more likely to develop mental health problems, but they are also less likely to seek support. Research suggests that people who practise self-compassion experience significantly less anxiety and depression than those who don't. Self-compassion is "kind acceptance" rather than harsh criticism of our flaws, combined with an understanding that imperfections and mistakes are an integral part of being human.

Reflect, rather than ruminate, on experiences

Self-reflection is an active process where we constructively think about a situation, with the specific aims of learning, developing and finding a solution. Rumination, on the other hand, is a passive process, where we become fixated on the problem and the difficult feelings that it provokes. By example, after an argument with a friend, using self-reflection might help you consider the reasons behind your friend's feelings, how you might have responded differently and what actions you could take to rectify the situation. In contrast, rumination would focus on how angry and upset you are with your friend, and how unfair they were being, without leading to constructive learning or action. Research suggests that rumination predicts poor mental health, particularly depression, whereas constructive self-reflection has positive impacts on mental health.

• Develop a repertoire of strategies to cope with difficult emotions

Everybody goes through difficult periods in their life where they will experience overwhelming and painful emotions. Having a good emotional health is not about being happy all of the time. Instead, it's about having the necessary skills to navigate challenges when they do occur. Some coping strategies, such as ruminating on negative experiences, being overly self-critical, blocking out painful emotions through drinking, drugs or over-eating etc. have a negative impact on our mental health. We need to recognise the positive strategies that work for us and put them into practice when things feel difficult. For example, exercise, social support, creative expression, and mindfulness have all been linked with positive mental health.

• Take steps to improve our relationships

Forming positive relationships is key for preventing mental health problems and providing a source of support during adversity. Research shows that key relationship skills, including being able to communicate assertively, understand other people's perspectives, and form trusting relationships, are linked with depression, anxiety and stress, which suggests that developing these skills can have a positive impact on our mental health.

• Adopt a growth mindset to our emotional and mental health

Whatever our genetic make-up and whatever painful experiences we have been through, we need to recognise that we all have a sense of agency and can take positive action to improve our mental health. Even those with diagnosed mental health conditions can still achieve a state of wellness and fulfilment with the right support. Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset talks about the power of "yet" and the importance of believing that you can improve. Adopting an emotional health perspective, focused on the skills that support positive mental health, helps frame achieving good mental health as a growth process rather than assuming that poor mental health is a fixed "state". You might not be where you want to be "yet", but by practising the skills outlined above, we can all take positive action to improve our mental and emotional health.

People who have a good emotional health, including the skills listed above, will have a solid foundation to help them cope during adversity, making them less susceptible to developing mental health problems. Additionally, for people with mental health conditions, developing and refining these skills will help them be more able to cope with some of the challenges of their mental health, for example, using self-compassion to accept their condition, or relationship skills to improve their social support.

As well as individual self-growth and support, the environments we are in can also foster positive emotional health and wellbeing. Through providing appropriate support for those with existing mental health conditions and looking at ways to promote good emotional and mental health for all, we can support everyone to lead healthy and fulfilled lives.

With thanks to @JessFamilyLinks for her additional research for this blog.