What is Mental Health? Parts I-III The Outlines

Mental Design Institute
8 min readAug 29


Mental health is complicated. Our 3-part article series, What is Mental Health? is a simple explanation of *how mental health works* that aims to give everyone a better understanding. It’s also consistent with scientific understanding (but simplified).

Mental Design Institute’s mission is to make mental health universally understood. We believe that knowledge about *how mental health works* will empower people to better manage their own mental health, help us better understand each other and reduce stigma.


Emotions partly define our day-to-day experience and our mental health. One way to understand how emotions work is to think about other bodily signals, such as hunger or having to pee, because they have similarities.

For example, our body sends us *signals about needs it has.* When we need nutrients, our body makes us feel hungry. When our bladder is full, our body makes us feel like we need to pee. And when we’re in a dangerous situation, our body sends fear or anger.

Bodily and emotional signals are sent by our body *automatically.* We don’t get to choose when we feel hungry or sad — they just happen.

These signals are *uncomfortable sensations* that *push us to act.* Having to pee or being hungry, afraid or angry are uncomfortable sensations. Hunger pushes us to eat. Fear pushes us to run away. Anger pushes us to yell or hit.

And they push us by changing how we *think.* Being hungry makes us think food we don’t like looks delicious. When we’re afraid, we believe we’re in danger — even if there is nothing that could hurt us.

HOWEVER, even though we don’t get a choice to receive bodily signals or emotions, we have *some choice in how we respond.* We can resist the push to eat from hunger…

or resist the push to run from fear or anxiety… but b/c the signal or emotion is pushing us, it takes effort. The stronger the emotion, the more effort it takes.

Finally, *our environment helps or hurts our ability to resist the pushes.* The more nurturing the environment, the more effort we have to resist. The more stressful, the more negative emotions are turned on, and the less effort we have to resist & not follow the push.

Read the full article, What is Mental Health Part I here.


*Why* does our body send these signals that push us to act? It sends them to help us SURVIVE and THRIVE in the world.

For example, anger helps us *survive* by protecting our resources…

and helps us *thrive* by helping us navigate the world. For example, if someone takes credit at work, anger teaches us not to work with this person in the future

Our body sends *stronger signals when survival is at stake* and weaker when it’s about thriving. Like if there’s a storm with thunder and lightning, a small signal from fear pushes us to go inside…

but if there’s tornadoes in the distance, *fear is much stronger* and *strongly pushes us to run away.*

In every situation, our body judges, *how much our survival is at stake* and tries to send the right strength emotion. Usually it’s very good at doing this but sometimes it’s off and when it’s off, it *errs on the side of survival* — sending a stronger push than needed.

It’s like allergies. Breathing in dander from cat fur is not harmful to our body but, for some of us, our body *errs on the side of survival* and sends an immune response to kill the particles, just in case it’s dangerous.

*We all* have situations where our body sends signals that are stronger than necessary. Like, it’s not uncommon to be afraid of going into our own basement!

That’s ok. But also, these stronger than necessary emotional reactions cause us to *suffer* without really being all that helpful. They can *get us into trouble* — anger can get us arrested — or make us *miss out on fun positive things* if we’re too afraid to try them.

So it’s not easy! We *need to listen* to our emotions to navigate the world and thrive, but our body can send emotions that don’t align with the situation. So, *we can’t just follow every emotion.*

We recommend 3 steps to help.

1-NOTICE the emotion. We need to know what’s pushing us to decide whether to follow it or not. Pay close attention to the bodily sensations. We don’t have to change it or push it away. Just observe it and many times, it will fade on its own.

2-INVESTIGATE whether the emotion is stronger than necessary for the situation or helpful to decide whether we should follow the push or not. Talking to friends or a therapist can help us figure it out.

3-COMMIT. If we’re going to resist the push, it’s effortful — we need to commit to put in the effort!

Read the full article, What is Mental Health Part II here.


Sometimes the emotions are *so much stronger than necessary* and our body sends them *so often,* that they are out of balance and *make us sick.* Emotions are like any of our body’s systems, and they make us ill if they aren’t functioning well.

Out of balance emotions are *strong, uncomfortable, and unhelpful most days* and *significantly interfere with our lives* for at least a couple weeks but often longer. We may seek professional help or medication when our emotions are out of balance.

*How* do out of balance emotions start? They can start with a situation we’re in — either a *harmful situation* that we’re in for a while, like a war zone, or even just one survival situation, like a house fire.

But each of our bodies respond differently.

Many of us escape harmful situations *without* our body sending out of balance emotions


Some of us can develop out of balance emotions *without first going through a harmful or survival situation.*

For example, our fear reactions can be so strong that we rearrange our lives to avoid what we fear.

There also are ways we deal with our emotions that can *contribute to them getting stuck out of balance.*

One is *ignoring or repressing* our emotions (it’s ok to do sometimes, it’s just a problem when it’s our only strategy).

The other way is *spiraling* where emotions change our thoughts and our changed thoughts results in even stronger emotions, which results in even more extreme changed thinking, spiraling worse and worse until we feel terrible.

But we *can* bring emotions back in balance.

Emotions are automatic but with effort over longer periods, we can *change the reactions.*

It’s like making our heart healthier. We can’t make it healthier in a day but exercising and eating right strengthens it slowly over time.

All of us have changed our emotional reactions. Think of something that scared you but after you did it, the fear went away. Your automatic reaction changed! Many of us are afraid to speak in front of an audience the first time but after 101 times, the fear fades.

We recommend 3 steps.

First 1-NOTICE. Taking a step back and noticing the emotion — the sensations in our body, our thoughts and the push from the emotion gives us a chance to not follow the push.

2-INVESTIGATE. Investigating allows us to decide if an emotion isn’t aligned with the situation or is pushing us away from things we care about and whether we should resist the push.

3. COMMIT. Committing asks us to make a conscious choice to follow our emotions or not. It’s effortful but we get to decide rather than just following whatever our emotions our body sends us.

*Resisting the push does *not* mean ignoring our emotions.* In fact, repeatedly noticing our emotions while committing to a course of action is key to changing our emotional reactions and bringing them into balance.

Ultimately, mental health is *not* defined by how successfully we avoid negative emotions. Rather, *it is defined by how we relate to our negative emotions* when our body inevitably sends them.

*We can all learn to view our negative emotions as uncomfortable signals that can be noticed and investigated.* When we see them like this, they will arrive and fade with more ease, and our lives can be more content, adventurous, and fulfilling.

Read the full article, What is Mental Health Part III here.

What is Mental Health Part I

What is Mental Health Part II



Mental Design Institute

Making mental health universally understood.