When thoughts and emotions influence behavior and vice versa, it can be challenging to clearly define mental health versus behavioral health.

You are a creature of complexity; we all are. You’re full of thoughts, emotions, habits, impulses, goals, morals, ethics — and many, many other things.

All of these pieces of the puzzle come together to make up who you are as an individual, but in order to study them and understand them, science had to draw a line between mental and behavioral health.

Mental health is about how your psychological state affects your well-being, while behavioral health is about how actions affect your well-being.

For many people, including mental health professionals, the terms are interchangeable, but there’s more to mental health than behaviors, and behaviors affect more than mental health.

Mental health

Mental health refers to your psychological state. It involves components like:

  • identity
  • perception
  • emotions
  • morality
  • ethics
  • empathy
  • resiliency
  • personality
  • brain health
  • cognitive function
  • mental health disorders

Your feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and how they shape your current psychological state — absent of any action — define your mental health.

And while mental health can and does affect your behaviors, it isn’t synonymous with behavioral health.

Behavioral health

Behavioral health is interlinked with mental health, but behavioral health looks at everyday behaviors and how they influence both physical and mental well-being.

It considers things like:

Unlike mental health, behavioral health doesn’t focus on psychological sensations. Instead, it looks at how behaviors influence mental and physical health.

Behavioral health doesn’t have to involve mental health. For example, it might look at how a habit of overeating contributes to excess weight gain or chronic health conditions.

Mental health is a component of behavioral health. Mental health is often the “why” behind certain behaviors, or the lack thereof.

A 2018 study, for example, found that positive mental health features like high self-esteem predicted more beneficial behavioral outcomes among low-income inner-city youth.

But behavioral health can also overlap with mental health.

For example, depriving yourself of sleep is a behavior that has both physical and psychological consequences. Research has shown that inadequate sleep significantly increases the odds of experiencing regular mental distress.

From a behavioral perspective, however, sleep deprivation has a larger wellness effect. It has also been associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Behavioral health is important because it looks at a larger picture that includes mental health. It considers how a single behavior can be both a cause and effect, with consequences across multiple health domains.

Improving behavioral health is all about cultivating beneficial behaviors in all aspects of daily life.

Making lifestyle changes

One of the first places you can improve behavioral health is in the area of lifestyle. Beneficial lifestyle behaviors include things like:

You don’t have to tackle all of these at once. If you know you stay up too late, for example, start with making it a point to get to bed earlier than usual.

Or, if you barely drink more than a glass of water throughout the day, picking up a measured water jug might encourage you to hydrate.

Working on interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills involve how you interact with those around you. You don’t have to be a social butterfly, but strong interpersonal skills can help ward off isolation and its consequences.

You can improve your interpersonal skills by:

Not sure where to start? It can be as simple as buying a valued co-worker a cup of coffee on your way to the office.

Improving coping mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are your go-to strategies for handling a challenge. When you’re stressed, for example, taking a walk rather than binge eating can have a profoundly different effect on your health.

Beneficial coping mechanisms you can try include:

Exploring mental health

Because of how mental health and behavioral health are interlinked, speaking with a mental health professional can be a big part of improving behavioral health.

If you feel “stuck” in a behavior or habit, for example, a therapist can help you discover why it’s become a part of your life.

Once underlying causes start to heal, you can work toward developing new, beneficial behaviors.

Mental health and behavioral health are closely linked but are not the same. Mental health focuses on your psychological state and what makes you, you.

Behavioral health considers how mental health leads to certain behaviors, but more generally, behavioral health focuses on how action affects physical and psychological well-being.

In general, improving one can often improve the other. If you’re not sure where to start, speaking with a mental health professional can be helpful.