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What is Mental Health and Resilience anyway?

Mental Health is a topic that is being increasingly spoken about and especially at the moment given the current circumstances. More and more people are beginning to understand and appreciate just how important it is to look after our mental wellbeing. Historically there have been, and still are, negative connotations and associations with the term ‘mental health’ as most people tend to think of mental illness rather than health. This isn’t helpful and leads to more stigma so I want to redress this by exploring what mental health actually means and most importantly, what we all can do about it. 

So, what is mental health?

‘No Health without Mental Health’[1] defines mental health as a positive state of mind and body, feeling safe and able to cope with a sense of connection with people, communities and the wider environment.’  This is a positive definition of mental health that addresses how multiple interlinking factors influence our overall state of mind and wellbeing. This concept can be broken down further and the following definitions explain the concepts of mental wellbeing and mental capital helping us identify resources we can build upon.

Mental wellbeing[2] – This is a dynamic state, in which the individual is able to develop their potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others, and contribute to their community.  It is enhanced when an individual is able to fulfil their personal and social goals and achieve a sense of purpose in society.

Mental Capital[3] – This encompasses a person’s cognitive and emotional resources.  It includes their cognitive ability, how flexible and efficient they are at learning, and their “emotional intelligence” such as their social skills and resilience in the face of stress.  It therefore conditions how well a person is able to contribute effectively to society, and also to experience a high personal quality of life.

By breaking mental health down into the concept of functional wellbeing and the mental resources or capital available, we can start to think of mental health as a dynamic process that ebbs and flows in different ways depending on the particular context we find ourselves in and the resources we have available at the time.

As we can see from these definitions, many factors contribute to our mental health but perhaps the biggest challenge to our mental health is stress.

Let’s talk about stress…

Stress is a word that we hear all the time and is commonly used by many age groups to describe many different scenarios and feelings, but what is it?  Stress is a term that originates from engineering and refers to the response of a system to an applied force.  For us humans, it is related to when we perceive a threat, challenge or harm/loss[4].  When this happens, it triggers a response in our autonomic nervous system, commonly known as the fight or flight response and explains why we experience and feel stress physically.

It’s important to note that stress itself is normal and we actually need some stress in order to be motivated and driven. It is when we experience too much stress for too long that it becomes a problem as our autonomic nervous system is designed to manage short-term threat, challenge or harm/loss.  When the stress response is activated for prolonged periods it can seriously impact our health and wellbeing, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Knowing that prolonged stress can be detrimental to our wellbeing, we need to understand our own triggers, how to recognise signs and symptoms of stress in ourselves and how to manage it. The best way to do this is by building resilience – it is resilience that enables us to manage stress, adversity and life’s challenges.

So, what is resilience?

Resilience is a hot topic at the moment and another word that is frequently and commonly used in many contexts. We know that building resiliency is essential for being able to manage life’s challenges and stressors, but what does it actually mean? In the context of mental health and wellbeing as described above, the definition of resilience that I have found most helpful is that provided by Pemberton (2015),  

“It is the capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings and behaviours when faced by a life disruption or extended periods of pressure so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser and more able.”

Resilience is not just about bouncing back, a metaphor most commonly associated with resilience, it is far more complex than this. It is about understanding our thought processes, how they are linked to our feelings and behaviours and learning from the challenges that we face. Resilience, therefore, is about personal flexibility, growth and change.

Thinking back to our Mental Health, you will notice that all these themes are interlinked and affect one another. It is when we are faced with prolonged periods of stress or pressure that our mental health can be negatively impacted just as our physical health would be as well. However, if we look after our brain health and wellbeing, learn to self-care and take time to keep our resiliency reserves topped up, most ill-health can be prevented.

What can you do?

A good place to start is by developing your emotional awareness and starting to understand what your individual triggers and stress responses are. In general terms, there are a few basics that we can all do to reduce stress, increase resilience and strengthen mental health. These are getting enough sleep, eating well, moving our bodies, connecting with others socially, keeping our brains active through learning new skills and allowing yourself time to relax and have downtime. 

At HeadStrong Training, we are passionate about reducing the stigma around Mental Health and Stress. Our mission is to help people fully understand the concepts of brain health, resilience and the foundations of wellbeing to enhance their potential and create long lasting solutions to improve their lives.  If you would like to know more about how to promote wellbeing amongst your staff and organanisation, contact us today for a free consultation – [email protected]


[1] No Health Without Mental Health: A Cross-Government Mental Health Outcomes Strategy for People of All Ages. 2011

[2] Government office for Science: Mental Capital and Well-being 2008

[3] Government office for Science: Mental Capital and Well-being 2008

[4] Lazarus & Folkman, 1987

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