What is Mental Health? Part I

Mental Design Institute
10 min readJun 8, 2022

People are talking more about mental health recently, but we never hear explanations of what mental health actually is.

This is because it’s difficult to give a clear definition for such a complex topic. But, we all have to deal with the ups and downs of life — so better understanding what mental health is and how it works can help, especially during tough times.

That’s why we’ve developed a simple way to think about mental health.

Many people have told us that this explanation has helped them better understand their own mental health and the experience of loved ones struggling with mental health issues.

It also is consistent with scientific understanding of how mental health works.

We are a team of mental health scientists and clinicians at Harvard and designers with experience communicating complex ideas clearly.

This is Part I of a three-part series.

Part One: Emotions and the Body

If we’re going to talk about mental health, we have to start with emotions.

Emotions define our day-to-day experiences. While experts don’t always agree about how emotions work exactly, everyone recognizes emotions are something our bodies and brains produce. In the first part of our series, we’ll explain that emotions are signals: automatic messages sent from our bodies.

1. Emotions Are Automatic Signals

Our bodies are always busy keeping us alive. Our hearts pump blood, our stomachs digest food, and our immune system fights invaders. All these processes are automatic — our bodies do them without us needing to make conscious choices or help in any way.

But sometimes the body needs our help, so it sends us a message. For example, the body tells us we need more food by giving us the sensation of hunger, or it tells us we need to sleep by giving us the sensation of tiredness. We might have an itch, or the urge to pee, or the impulse to cough.

All of these are examples of automatic signals: sensations caused by the body.

Emotions are also signals sent by our bodies, just like feeling hungry or feeling tired.

These signals are automatic because we don’t have a choice about when we feel hungry — our body decides it needs food and automatically makes us feel the sensation of hunger.

Emotions work the same way.

When something happens, we can’t choose what emotion to feel or how strongly to feel it.

For example, the moment we hear that someone close to us has died, we do not get a choice over what to feel or how intensely we feel it.

Right when we hear the news, we cannot say to ourselves, “How should I feel about this? Should I feel sad, or mad, or scared, or nothing?”

Instead, our body automatically produces an emotion — and it also decides how strongly we feel that emotion. We don’t have a choice in that moment.

(Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean we’ll feel this way forever, or that we have no control over how we respond to that emotion. But we’ll get into that in a bit!)

2. Signals Push Us to Act By Making Us Uncomfortable

Many of the signals our body sends are uncomfortable sensations, like being hungry, having to pee or being tired. These uncomfortable sensations push us to take a certain action, like to eat, go to the bathroom or sleep.

Negative emotions — like sadness, anger, and fear — also are uncomfortable sensations, which push us to take action.

Take fear for example. If we’re afraid of spiders, when we see a spider, the body automatically produces an uncomfortable sensation of fear, pushing us to run away from the danger.

Anger might push you to yell or hit someone.

Sadness might push you to do nothing, maybe stay in bed all day.

3. The Uncomfortable Sensations Change How We Think

When we feel uncomfortable, our bodies further push us to act by changing how we think. Uncomfortable sensations, in other words, actually make us think differently — they change our perceptions and beliefs about the world.

For example, when we’re hungry at the grocery store, everything suddenly looks delicious. Being hungry literally changes what food looks like to us — we might even buy things we wouldn’t buy if we weren’t so hungry! This changed thinking is the body pushing us to eat.

Emotions change how we think, too. Emotions are very convincing, and they can make us believe things about the world — and ourselves — that aren’t entirely true (or even super helpful). Here are some examples:

When we’re afraid, we might believe we’re in danger — even if there is nothing much to be scared of.

When we’re angry with someone, we might believe they are wrong — even if later, when we’re not angry, we might realize they were right the whole time.

When we’re sad, we might believe that no one cares about us — even when a lot of people actually love us.

By producing uncomfortable sensations and changing how we think, emotions push us to make different decisions and see the world differently. And the stronger the emotions are, the more they change the way we think and see the world.

4. We Have Choices Over How We Respond to Signals But It Takes Effort

Just because hunger is pushing us to eat doesn’t mean we have to eat. But, because hunger is the body sending us a push to eat, resisting the push requires effort from us.

Likewise, we can choose to resist the push of emotions — but it takes effort. And the stronger the emotion, the more effort it takes to resist its push.

For example, social anxiety can make us worried we’re being judged and push us to leave social situations. It takes effort to resist the push and talk to people.

Another example is the uncomfortable sensation of sadness, which might push us to stay in bed all day. Sure, we might technically have a choice about whether or not to get out of bed — but because the push of sadness is so strong, getting up can take a great deal of effort.

In this example, we can think of the push of sadness as a heavy weight pinning us down to the bed. The strength of the sadness corresponds to the heaviness of the weight. For people whose push from sadness is like a 50-pound weight, getting out of bed might be possible, though it will take a lot of effort.

But for people whose sadness is extremely strong, such as those with clinical depression, the push might be more like a 300-pound weight. Even with maximum effort, getting out of bed may be impossible for them.

Still, all emotions — even strong ones — change over time. People experiencing an extremely strong push can wait until the emotion dies down and the push is weaker. At that point, it can still take a lot of effort for them to get out of bed — but once the emotion and the push have reduced, it might be possible to get up.

For example, fear can be a very strong push because it is the body’s way of pushing us to get away from danger. But, once we feel safe, the discomfort can fade.

Sometimes, we can’t get away from the source of the emotion, but the strength of the emotion’s push will eventually fade with time. How long it takes partly depends on how strong the push was to begin with.

For example, anger and its push can just fade over time.

There are other ways we can help emotions fade or resist their pushes, like talking to people about how we feel or acknowledging the uncomfortable sensation. In future posts, we’ll discuss ways to manage negative emotions.

Even though we all experience negative emotions, understanding someone else’s emotions is difficult. Because emotions are invisible, we often assume they act on all of us the same way. We assume the strength of a push we feel when we’re sad, for example, is equal to the push that others feel. Someone whose sadness produces a relatively weak push might think someone with a stronger push is just not exerting enough effort. But we can’t know how strong other people’s emotional pushes are.

The push of negative emotions is perhaps one of the hardest things to deal with in life. Negative emotions feel so uncomfortable — and they change our thinking so much — that it’s extremely difficult to resist their pushes.

5. Our Environment Also Affects Our Responses to Signals

The conditions around us can make it easier or harder to deal with emotional signals and their pushes.

​​When there is something stressful in our lives, it activates emotions that push us around and drain our energy. Then, if something else happens to cause an additional emotional push — someone yells at us, for example — we have less energy to resist it.

For example, if we’re already feeling sad and anxious when a boss points out that we’re late, we have less energy to resist a push from anger and so we lash out.

So, our ability to manage emotions depends on other emotions we are dealing with.

Further, if we live with chronically stressful circumstances — a difficult relationship, low finances, or a stressful job, etc. — these stressors activate emotions that persistently push us around, draining our energy. This makes doing normal things much more effortful.

Stressful environments can range from a difficult relationship or a stressful job to more extreme situations like abuse, poverty, or war. The more stress we experience, the stronger the push from emotions and the less energy we have to manage emotions when new stressful things happen or just carry out our normal life.

Alternatively, the more positive things going on in our environment — supportive and stable relationships, financial security, work we enjoy — the more resources we have to manage new emotions that come up. We may still get angry when our boss points out that we’re late but we have the resources to resist the push to lash out.

Our energy to resist pushes from emotions is also helped by taking care of ourselves — getting more sleep, eating regularly, and exercising. Everything within our body works together so building up healthy resources — from maintaining good relationships with friends and family, to sleep, food and exercise, as well as doing activities we enjoy — gives us energy to resist emotional pushes and this is even more important when we’re feeling negative emotions that are draining our energy.

End of Part 1

So far, we’ve shown that:

  1. Negative emotions are signals — just like hunger or feeling tired — sent automatically by our body to push us to act by being…
  2. uncomfortable sensations and…
  3. changing how we think.
  4. Even though we do not have any choice in whether we receive these signals, we can choose how to respond to them, but resisting their push takes effort.
  5. Finally, the environment around us affects how much energy we have to put in the effort to manage our emotions.

Of course, everyone has emotions in response to events in their lives, but at what point do we label it poor mental health? And how do we change our emotional responses if we want to feel differently? In Part 1, we’ve explained how emotions push you to act. In Part 2, we will explore when emotions are helpful or unhelpful and what this means for our mental health.

Next: Part 2 — Understanding Emotions

And, if you’d like to read more articles like this, please consider donating to the Mental Design Institute here.

Mental Design Institute is a nonprofit organization creating simple, clear, and scientifically informed ways to better understand mental health. We aim to reduce stigma and empower individuals through education.

With editorial assistance from Maggie Millner.