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The 5 Levels of Health Psychology

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older asian women being healthy

Psychological Health is an incredibly complex topic, but for the purposes of our 3×5 Framework, we focus primarily on how our Mental/Emotional Health is related to how well our needs have been met. They are highly interrelated. To begin, we associate our 5 levels of mental health with a hierarchy of 5 types of needs that all human beings have.

If you’ve never heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is a theory of human motivation and happiness that was developed back in the 1940’s. It is still a psychological standard today. Our 5 levels (perhaps better termed “phases”) of Emotional Health are based on this hierarchy. The idea is that you must have the needs at one level met, before you can move on to meeting the next level’s needs.

How do our needs impact our psychological health? Because unmet needs and expectations are what cause almost all forms of stress. When you really boil things down, most stress we experience comes from either an unmet need or an unmet expectation. The more unmet needs we experience across multiple categories, the more stress, anxiety or depression will govern everything we do and how well we perform.

This is an important framework to better understand your own life, and what might be holding you back. Again, knowledge is power: You may or may not be able to change some of these immediately. But for those you can, you can get an attack plan together. And for those you can’t, at least you can better understand them and how they fit into your overall life goals.

Let’s go through them.

Level 1: The Need to have our Biological Needs Met

woman sleeping peacefully

This is a set of all basic needs that human beings share. In fact, all living creatures share the needs of this level and the next. At this level, you are concerned about getting enough food and clean water. You’re concerned with getting enough warmth and shelter. You are concerned with getting enough rest – which consists of enough sleep, and also mental and emotional “down time”.

The fact is that many Americans ARE grappling with not having their needs consistently met at this phase. People who are food-insecure, people who struggle to pay their rent or put food on the table, and people who are taking on 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet, are examples of people who are struggling with Emotional Health at this level.

The theme of this level is SURVIVAL.

Level 2: The Need to be Safe

woman walking on street at night

Once we have our physical, biological needs met, we immediately move into making sure we are safe. This level consists of things like being protected from dangerous elements, having security and order in their lives, feeling in control of their lives to a certain degree, lawfulness, stability, and freedom from fear.

People who feel threatened, who are in abusive relationships, who don’t have control over the roof over their heads, who work dangerous jobs or are put in dangerous or scary situations, may be struggling with feeling safe and secure.

Political forces also can dominate this realm because of laws that are passed or not passed, leading to perceived or real lawlessness and instability. Access to medical care falls into this level as well. People who do not have unfettered access to medical care may live in a state of fear that something will happen that they cannot afford or will not be able to address.

The theme of this level is FEAR.

Level 3: The Need to Belong and Be Loved

couple kissing at home

This third level is where a lot of people spend their time. It is the need to feel a deep level of human connection, to have good relationships that are stable, meaningful and positive, and to feel that you belong to a person or group of people – to have a “tribe”.

The need for meaningful interpersonal relationships is a deep motivator and its deficiency can result in a core feeling of deprivation, or a sense of shame – that something is “wrong” with an individual, or that he or she is unloveable. Shame is at the center of many mental & emotional health problems, and it certainly holds us back from accomplishing our health and fitness goals.

The theme of this level is ACCEPTANCE.

Level 4: The Need to be Regarded Highly

woman being applauded in her career

There are actually two different things going on at this level. One force at work is the desire you have to regard yourself well – we call this “self esteem”. The other force at work is the desire for others to regard you well – we call this reputation or social status.

These forces are actually highly inter-related. In childhood, we have the need first for others to regard us positively. Children ultimately derive their own self esteem from how positively others view them, particularly those very close to them such as parents, grandparents and siblings. So human development appears to have deep roots in social belonging and acceptance, which precedes self dignity or will ultimately shape one’s sense of self.

The theme of this level is CONFIDENCE.

Level 5: The Need to Accomplish Goals

Achieving our goals quote by Jim Rohn

This level is also called the “self actualization” level. It means that a person, due to his or her own belief in self and life stability, forms goals, dreams and visions for their life. They seek personal growth, self-fulfillment (which is defined differently by each individual), and what are called “peak life experiences” (you might know them as “bucket list” items).

This is ultimately the desire to give back to the planet or humanity in some way, whether that be philanthropic, to leave a legacy, or accomplish great things that have an impact. In other words, once our other needs are met we become concerned with “becoming everything one is capable of becoming”. This is where we achieve the greatness that we dare to vision for ourselves.

The theme of this level is ACHIEVEMENT.

Summary

Now that you know about these 5 Levels of Psychological Health, think through your own life. What level are you currently at? Are you struggling with consistent shelter and food? Are you chronically fearful you’ll lose your job or be hurt in a relationship? Do you feel connected to others or are you suffering from disconnection and isolation? Do you think positively of yourself? Are you working on creating a vision for your life and you can go out and attack?

Maslow believed that one level must be satisfied before the next level can be focused on. For example, it is very difficult for someone to focus on their self esteem and how others regard them, when they are living in isolation and shame. It is impossible to focus on your self-actualization goals when you are working overtime, chronically stressed and exhausted, and have zero time for rest and recovery.

As I have researched this article with the intent to update this classic Framework for our modern age, I have realized that corporate career folk are often working within multiple levels of needs at once.

For example, the typical life of a corporate career person may be generally stable, with good income and access to health care. But chronic stress, office politics, and fear of layoffs may be hanging over one’s head constantly. Or they may be happy in one area of their lives (let’s say, job) but chronically stressed out and fearful in another (let’s say, national politics such as policies, laws, and taxes).

That’s why it’s important to take stock in each of your major life areas: Family, Relationships, Career, Culture, Hobbies -and assess each one for signs of trauma and stress that need addressing.

The reason I am including Psychological Health in with Nutrition and Fitness as part of the 3×5 Framework is because Mental & Emotional Health is the foundation by which you are able to accomplish Nutrition and Fitness goals. It will greatly influence how well you are able to stick with a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

As a guidepost, run through the following list and check off everything that is already true in your life. Then review the unchecked items and prioritize addressing one or two that are causing daily disruption in your life.

Top 10 Psychological Health Indicators

  1. You and your households’ day to day physical needs are being met (food, water, shelter, clothing)
  2. You feel safe (physically AND emotionally) in your relationships, job, and the society you live in.
    1. An example of emotional fear is being in a chronically toxic job where it is commonplace to get thrown under the bus or stabbed in the back by coworkers. This can lead to daily fear, dread and paranoia.
      2. Here we are not talking about political fear of a law that might get passed or the “opposing side” gaining more power, but a REAL, day to day physical threat, such as the risk of being racially profiled or refused healthcare services on the basis of policy.
  3. You have at least 1 or 2 close, deep relationships – not acquaintances, distant family, party buddies or “friends of nostalgia” – which you can count on to talk to or be there for you in times of trouble. People who are up on your current life, who love and support you, believe in you, and are “on your team”.
    1. Any “close” relationship which criticizes, shames or brings you down more than they encourage or support does not qualify to be in this category.
  4. You generally regard yourself overall as a good person who is not perfect, but trying – rather than an overall bad person who is incapable of good or is just a “mess up” in life.
    1. You understand that self esteem fluctuates daily to a certain extent, and when it is down you don’t bully yourself further, you treat it as an “emotional cold or flu” and give yourself plenty of rest and recovery to support your “emotional immune system”.
  5. You have dealt with any sense of shame (ie “I am a bad person”), particularly from childhood and any parental abuse, neglect, alienation or other toxicity that made you believe that. You are capable of “owning your story”, and are cultivating vulnerability that you can share with others to help them heal too.
    1. Note: Many experts believe that Shame is the most powerful human emotion. Depending on its severity and how it started, it can require several rounds of addressing and may take years of cyclical, “I’m fine/I’m not fine” type work. It is also true that some traumas are so deep or severe that they cannot be fully healed, only managed – but you’re at least self-aware.
  6. You have thought deeply about your top 5-7 values in life, defined them, and makes daily decisions using them as guideposts. You are cultivating authenticity.
    1. You know why you believe what you do. You know who you are and who you are not.
  7. You feel generally recognized and appreciated by others – but balance that with independent thought and high esteem of yourself
    1. You do not chase recognition or status from others at the expense of your personal values as defined in #5
  8. You do not suffer from chronic anxiety, regret, or depression.
    1. Your life isn’t filled with dread at something bad that could happen. (Anxiety)
    2. You do not regard your current circumstances as utterly hopeless and pointless. (Depression)
    3. You do not have severe and debilitating regret, nostalgia or anger over past events or status. (Living in the past)
  9. You have some dreams and goals for your life. Whether or not you’ve acted on them – you at least have some in your head and/or have written some down.
  10. You have made an action plan to achieve your goals and dreams, and you are actively pursuing them by small daily action and decisions. You are cultivating discipline with the joyful act of pursuing your dreams.

Each of these Top 10 items deserves an entire article, if not a book, covering them in more detail. Many authors and psychology professionals have dedicated their lives to specializing in some of these topics, like shame and vulnerability and belonging (I’m looking at you, Brene Brown! She’s one of our heroes.)

Because psychology and self-improvement is such a passionate part of my life, I want to share some of my very favorite resources. I hope you find them as helpful as I have. Check out the Shop section for books and other resources I highly recommend to level-up your life game.

Also please remember that if things are really dire for you, please do not isolate yourself. Take care of yourself at a very basic level (keep yourself clean, hydrated and well fed to the best of your ability, and spend more time outdoors breathing clean fresh air). Next, reach out to someone – even if its someone you don’t know. Even if its a medical professional. Or a friend you can trust to be by your side. Even if its an anonymous online chat room, or a support group. Life is tough, and in some ways appears to be getting tougher. We as a species are meant to be social. We are meant to exist in tribes. Don’t try to go it alone in life.

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