This article may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure statement for more information
Mental, emotional, and spiritual health are the foundations for a healthy life. But when you grow up in a dysfunctional family, you don’t learn how to be mentally, emotionally, or spiritually healthy. Instead, you’re taught not to feel at all. Mental health issues may be ignored and left untreated, displays of emotion might lead to violence, and spirituality may become a hotbed for family conflict. But this isn’t how God intended for our lives to be. Your mental health, your feelings, and your spirituality are essential parts of your health that should never be ignored. Having a healthy mind helps you have a healthy life. It is possible to flip the script in your mind and begin improving your mental health, learning how to handle your emotions, and finding joy in your spirituality again. You can break the cycle of dysfunction and live a life you love!
The Effects Of Dysfunction On The Mind
Our mind is perhaps the most impacted by dysfunction – particularly when that dysfunction happens while we are children. Young children’s brains develop incredibly fast and they tend to soak up every bit of information fed to them – whether good or bad – so that it truly seems to become a part of who they are.
Children Of Dysfunctional Homes May Struggle With:
- Social isolation
- Being withdrawn
- Behavior disorders
- Feeling lonely
- Feeling cut off from their feelings
- Extremely self-critical
- Low self-esteem
- Develop their own mental health issues
- Difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings
- Low self-confidence
- Fear of situations that others would find ordinary
- Feelings of unpredictability, chaos, and lack of safety
- Feel unimportant and unworthy
- Don’t learn how to notice, value, or deal with their feelings
- Feel shame
These struggles can lead to all sorts of problems in a child’s life. They may find themselves in trouble a lot at school, might not do well academically, and may struggle to make and keep friends, for starters.
The Connection Between a Healthy Mind and A Healthy Body
The mind and body are far more intricately connected than has been acknowledged in the past. Today, more and more doctors and professionals are beginning to see the merit in treating the whole person (mind and body) rather than just treating physical signs of distress.
The Mental Health Foundation shares that those reporting a high level of distress are as much as 32% more likely to die from cancer, while depression has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. In addition, those suffering from schizophrenia are more likely to die of heart disease or respiratory disease.
On the flip side, your lifestyle choices have a significant impact on your mental health. People who exercise, eat well and don’t smoke tend to have better overall mental health than those who do not exercise, have a poor diet, or smoke. However, those struggling with mental health issues may find it more challenging to enjoy a healthy lifestyle, therefore creating a cycle that keeps them in an unhealthy state both mentally and physically.
Those suffering from depression and schizophrenia are actually more likely to smoke because of the short term effects it gives them. Nicotine provides the smoker with a temporary increase in dopamine, a chemical in the brain that contributes to feelings of pleasure, which allows them to feel better in the short term. But long term, the nicotine actually causes the natural processes in the body that produce dopamine to shut down. This leads to needing more and more nicotine to maintain a feeling of pleasure.
In addition, having a healthy mind is linked to living a longer life. In fact, even short episodes of stress have been shown to have an impact on your overall wellbeing. Anger can even increase your risk of heart attacks or other physical health issues.
The National Institute of Mental Health lists several chronic illnesses that lead to an increased risk of depression including cancer, coronary heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, and rheumatoid arthritis. The depression, then, can cause more severe symptoms and make it more difficult to recover from the illness – which, again, creates a vicious cycle.
The opposite is also true. Those struggling with depression are at an increased risk of developing some of these same chronic illnesses and are at higher risk for osteoporosis. The reasons for this are not clear.
Mental health disorders include mood disorders such as depression, bipolar, seasonal affective disorder, etc; impulse control disorders like intermittent explosive disorder, kleptomania, pyromania, pathological gambling, etc; behavioral disorders like ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder; and anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, or social anxiety. Children and adults of dysfunctional families face a higher risk of developing one or more of these mental health disorders.
Due to the nature of dysfunctional families, mental health disorders may be overlooked or even outright denied for a number of years which may make getting treatment in adulthood more difficult, as adult children may be reluctant to acknowledge their mental health struggles. In addition, the longer these issues go untreated the worse they get and the harder they become to treat which means that treatments may not be as effective. Untreated mental health disorders can also impact the physical health of the person.
Emotional health is very closely related to mental health, but how they impact your life can be different, so I discuss them separately. When discussing emotional health, I am referring to the ability to recognize, acknowledge, and express emotion in a healthy way. I am not referring to a single or a group of diagnoses that may require treatment. Rather, I believe that emotional health is something you learn, although it can be affected by mental health disorders.
Children growing up in a dysfunctional family likely never learn healthy emotional functionality. Instead, dysfunctional families make emotion a bad thing that should be avoided at all costs, therefore teaching children to stuff their feelings and bottle it all up. Adult children of dysfunctional families have a hard time expressing emotions. Children in these families are also often exposed to extreme negative displays of emotion such as anger and abuse either by witnessing or being a direct recipient of the emotional outbursts. And at the same time, they are punished or shamed for their own displays of emotion, whether positive or negative.
Spiritual health is diverse and unique for each family. Most people associate spiritual health with religious affiliations. While religion is certainly a valid expression of spiritual health, spirituality is not limited to your religious beliefs.
A much more broad understanding of spiritual health includes the way you relate to the world around you and the beliefs you hold about it. Spirituality is about finding meaning, purpose, hope, comfort, and peace in your life. You may do this through your religious beliefs or through some other means. You may also find meaning and purpose in something outside of your religion even while maintaining a strong faith in a particular belief system.
How Each Family Role May Struggle With Mental, Emotional, And Spiritual Health Differently
Each person in a dysfunctional family takes on a different role that allows them to survive within the dysfunction. Because each role responds differently to dysfunction, the effect of dysfunction on their mental, emotional, and spiritual health may vary.
Since they are the centerpiece of dysfunction, it’s highly likely that they may struggle with one or more mental health issues which may be caused by a physical health condition, are linked to genetic pre-dispositions, or have led to an addiction of some kind as a means to try to numb the pain. Sometimes all of these things are true.
If their mental health struggle is linked to genetic predisposition, it’s reasonable to assume that one or both of their parents also struggled with the same issues making it probable that none of them have been diagnosed or treated. This is the cycle of dysfunction at work in your family and the only way to break it is to acknowledge the issues and seek the proper help.
Emotionally the dependent is unable or unwilling to express themselves. They ignore signs of negative emotions but may often lash out in anger, the one emotion they do show. They may have come to believe that emotions make them weak and therefore they must not allow them to manifest in their lives.
The dependent may practice spirituality but it’s likely that they do so with a different persona and it might only be surface deep. Dependents who attend church regularly may wear a mask and dress themselves up once a week in order to “fit in” and hide their underlying struggles. They might believe that if others knew the truth, they would not accept the dependent and may even ostracize them. It’s of high importance to the dependent to keep up the appearance of a healthy and happy family and that includes pretending in their spirituality as well. Even if the dependent appears to be a religiously devout person – they may not actually believe in the truth of what they practice (some may, but for others, it’s just a ritual).
This person is codependent, which Merriam-Webster defines as, “a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person is controlled or manipulated by another who is affected with a pathological condition (such as an addiction to alcohol or heroin) broadly : dependence on the needs of or control by another.”
In other words, a codependent person finds their worth in meeting the needs of or being controlled by the dependent.
Obviously, this is not a healthy way of living and can lead to struggles with mental health as well. The caretaker has low self-esteem and seeks their worth extrinsically (meaning they don’t feel valuable unless they feel needed or appreciated in some way). Codependency can also lead to problems with compulsive behaviors. They confuse love with pity and often choose relationships with people they feel they can “fix.”
When it comes to emotions, caretakers get upset easily when their efforts are not recognized. They may respond in anger or perhaps turn inward and feel sad or even depressed. This is because their personal value is tied up in what others think of them and how well their help is received. They fear being abandoned and so any lack of appreciation is internalized and fuels their fear – they may believe that if they don’t do well enough they will be abandoned.
As far as spirituality, the caretaker likely does whatever the dependent tells them to. They will rarely, if ever, make time for their own self-care or religious practices since their main goal is to take care of everyone else, even to their own detriment.
On the surface, the scapegoat may seem like they don’t care and they don’t feel. That’s because they’ve learned to control their emotions in such a way that they appear to have none. The family member may struggle with any number of mental health issues, but two that come to mind as the most probable are anger or depression – maybe both.
But even though they may become angry or depressed, they don’t often show outward signs of these feelings. Instead, they internalize them. They may stew over something that’s triggered them and seek revenge. Or they may just stuff their feelings and pretend everything is fine with them. They tend to act tough and unphased by adverse situations.
This family member is more likely than others to be opposed to any kind of religious or spiritual activity. Instead, they spend a lot of time enjoying activities that are considered rebellious, dangerous, or just in opposition to whatever their family expects from them.
Mental Health is an area the hero may be very aware of but is unable to receive the help they may need for their struggles due to being a member of a dysfunctional family. The hero is most likely to experience depression and anxiety disorders over some of the other mental health struggles. Their desire to please others and make their parents proud will often result in pushing themselves too hard, causing stress and anxiety to manifest as a response to their fear of upsetting someone.
Emotionally, the hero may be friendly and personable. They may appear outwardly very bubbly and happy. But internally they are likely struggling. Their outward joy is often a façade meant to cover the family problems they don’t want people to know about.
This family member is probably the most likely to be highly involved in religious activities, though not always. As a people pleaser, they enjoy the opportunity to help others as a means to make themselves feel good. Their faith may be strong, but it’s quite possibly rooted in the desire to make others happy rather than to serve God wholeheartedly.
As far as spirituality or self-care goes – they do sometimes allow themselves a moment to care for their own needs, but only after they are sure they’ve made everyone else happy first and completed all the tasks that they need to do.
The mascot, although they put on a good show with their humor, are often hiding a deep depression underneath their big smile. They use humor as a way to cover up the pain they feel inside. They think that if they can make people laugh and lighten the mood, that everyone, including themselves, will feel better. But this is rarely the case – at least not for more than a few minutes. As soon as the laughter is over, depression rises again.
This person won’t often express anger or any other negative emotion. Instead, they make jokes or act silly rather than face difficult feelings (theirs or others’). If someone is upset, the mascot will likely try to deflect the emotion by being funny. They simply cannot handle any negative emotions and will do whatever they can to keep the mood light and joyful.
The mascot may be indifferent to spirituality. Perhaps they may only turn to spiritual things as a means to an end – for instance, if it were to make someone feel happy and positive, they would engage. Because mascots are often deeply depressed, they may spend a lot of time sleeping or otherwise disengaged from the general public. They may also struggle with self-care due to their deep depression.
Mascots tend to focus more on making people laugh than they do on their own mental, emotional, or spiritual health.
The Lost Child
Often the middle child in a family, the lost child tends to just blend in with the background. Mentally they may be very intelligent, highly self-sufficient, and perhaps the healthiest of the family. But they also might struggle with some social anxiety as they don’t enjoy being in large groups of people, especially when the attention is directed towards them. They might also feel depressed since they often feel forgotten or unimportant to the rest of the family. They may get the impression that if they weren’t around, no one would miss them.
Emotionally, the lost child doesn’t express anything to others because they don’t like drawing attention to themselves or getting involved in conflict. They will always choose to remain neutral and will stay calm even when they don’t feel calm. They’ve learned that emotional displays do not bring the kind of attention they might want and therefore they don’t allow themselves to be emotional people.
Spiritually, this family member likely just goes with the flow. Again, they do whatever everyone else is doing in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Their goal is to blend in and not stand out in opposition to the family’s traditions or beliefs. If the family is religious, the lost child will perform the religious rituals. They may have no personal spiritual ties and simply seek to stay unnoticed. Their self-care will also likely follow the same pattern as the rest of the family.
How To Improve The Health Of Your Mind
Mental, emotional, and spiritual health are important to our overall wellbeing, as we’ve seen. So how do you make sure you’re addressing these important aspects of your health? Choose healthy lifestyle options, maintain healthy relationships with positive people, and seek medical help if or when it’s necessary.
The best and easiest way to begin to improve your mind is to simply make healthy lifestyle choices. Eating a healthy and well-balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise, and making sure you get adequate sleep are the foundations for a healthy mind and body.
On the contrary, engaging in dangerous and unhealthy lifestyles such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, drug use, sedentary lifestyles, over-eating or eating too much of the wrong kinds of food often lead to poor physical and mental health. When your body is unhealthy, your mind tends to be as well which just makes your body even more unhealthy sending you on a downhill spiral that’s tough to break.
Finding and maintaining relationships with a few people who are positive influences in your life can make a world of difference in the health of your mind. Choose people who are themselves healthy mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. This doesn’t mean that you can’t have friends who struggle with mental health. But it does mean that you should avoid forming close bonds with others who are still in the midst of their struggle and have not found a way to manage it yet.
It’s important for your own well-being to not get stuck in a cycle of trying to help others before you’ve fully helped yourself. Just like on an airplane, you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others. If you’re not well yourself, you won’t be any help to someone else. Instead, you’ll both be struggling together, neither of you being able to lift the other out of the fire. Build positive relationships first.
If you’re struggling with a mental health disorder, please seek medical advice. There is absolutely no shame in needing medical intervention to maintain a healthy mind. Depression and other mental health issues are extremely common and there is help available. Talk to your doctor today to figure out what the best course of treatment is for your particular struggles. It’s time to shatter the stigma around mental health and choose to get all the help you need to be your most healthy self!
The foundation for a joy-filled life starts with being mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy. When you begin to take care of your mental health, learn emotional regulation, and begin bringing healthy spiritual practices into your life, you will see a positive shift in every other area of your life as well. It all starts with having a healthy mind. You have the power to change your mindset and live a life you love!