- The following is an excerpt edited from a live presentation and Q&A with Dr. Greg Bottaro.
Q. We hear about mental illness all the time. But how do we arrive at mental health? Can you give a working concept of what that looks like?
A. It could be helpful to start with health in general. What could we point to as an indicator of health that overlaps any dimension of our human experience, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional/mental?
The presence of adaptability or flexibility.
Identifying health in any of those realms can be seen as the ability to be flexible or adaptable, which means having a balance of the both/and: to have principles on which we’re grounded while also possessing an openness to context.
For instance, on a physical level, we would say that a healthy immune system operates within a certain frame with certain principles, but that it is also adaptable to certain situations.
Fluctuations in our temperature are a great example of this. In general, our temperature rises and falls within a certain range that’s considered healthy. However, when your immune system identifies a pathogen, it will raise the body’s temperature beyond that normal range in an attempt to kill the pathogen. Within that system, there is an ability to be adaptable and flexible to meet the needs of the body.
However, if the fever goes outside of certain parameters, it can be really dangerous. This would be considered unhealthy. (Same goes for the opposite direction - if your body temperature is too low, that’s also very dangerous.)
The balance between both having a frame or certain principles while also having the flexibility to adapt within that frame is essential to maintaining the body’s health.
We can also look at spiritual health in this way.
Let’s say you have a principle of reverence for the Mass (which is really important!), and that you also have a particular proclivity towards the tradition of the Latin Mass.
What happens if a rigidity develops in which you begin to believe that the Latin Mass is the only acceptable way to celebrate the Mass? This kind of rigidity or inflexibility would be unhealthy for your spiritual life.
Taking a more flexible or adaptable approach might look like believing there is room for a wide variety of expressions of our faith. While it is true that there are certain beliefs which are universally core to our faith and cannot be changed, are these beliefs the same as what we presume to be core to our faith? Getting to know the difference is key.
Finally, we can look at emotional and psychological health.
In mental health, there are spectrums of flexibility. For instance, you might have a personality which includes having a proclivity towards solitude. But are you so wrapped in that proclivity that you can't be in public or in the presence of other people? In that case, we might say you have social anxiety.
Or maybe your personality tends to be one that loves to be the life of the party. You enjoy people and feel energized while in a group. But what happens if you go on a silent retreat? Do you freak out? Are you unable to be by yourself in your room?
So a general principle to keep in mind when considering what is emotionally or psychologically/mentally healthy is this idea of adaptability and flexibility and keeping in mind that there's a paradoxical both/and to health.
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