What is emotional health?
Emotional health is an important part of our well-being. The way we feel and express emotions can be connected to our culture, beliefs, how we were raised, if we got up on the wrong side of the bed, and a multitude of other factors. Embracing them without judgment, and then letting them go, can sometimes be difficult. I will discuss the benefits of caring for your emotional health and how it can help you thrive, become stronger and feel happier.
What are emotions?
An emotion is an “instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge”. I love Dr. Alan Watkins’ description of emotion, which is energy in motion. The word emotion is rooted in Latin, which are “ex” and “movere”. “Ex”, meaning out and “movere” meaning to move. The literal translation is to move out. In essence, emotions are energy moving around in our bodies. The way we respond to this energy outwardly is how we express our emotions.
Emotions are means through which we communicate our physical and mental state to ourselves and to the outside world. My toddler son is a virtuoso at expressing his emotions. As soon as he gets out of bed in the morning, we know exactly what he is feeling. He will scream his head off in anger and frustration if he is awakened too soon. Or he can be a complete angel after he’s had a good night’s rest.
He can display a range of impulsive emotions in the span of a few minutes. Like an emotional boomerang, he starts off feeling delighted, joyful, exuberant, ecstatic, lively, then becomes annoyed, upset, frustrated, angry, and infuriated, and back again to calm, happy and peaceful. All because he could not get his milk the second he demanded it.
We experience life through our senses. Emotions help us process this by adding color to our perception of the world. They validate if something we ate was delicious by making us feel good. On the flip side, they remind us of how we felt when something tasted awful. Thus, they are predictors of our reactions because of past experiences. This does not make them completely reliable because the strongest emotional reaction can make a mountain out of a tiny molehill.
Let’s talk about the one emotion we are all too familiar with, fear. In prehistoric times, fear kept us out of harm’s way. If we sensed we were in danger, signals were immediately sent to the amygdala, to activate the emergency alert system.
What happens in the brain?
The amygdala is responsible for processing our emotions. It responds quicker than the neocortex (which is the reasoning and higher thinking portion of the brain) and can save you from a true threat. When we are alerted of fear, our heart pumps faster, pupils are dilated, the digestive system is inhibited, muscles are primed to react quickly and we are in high alert. This is to enable one to run away as quickly as possible, or the flight response. Or to stay and attempt to overpower the enemy, or the fight response. Once the danger was gone, our bodies returned to equilibrium.
The physiologic process of emotions has not evolved with the technology and design of modern society. Our brains respond to emotions the same way our ancestors did thousands of years ago.
For instance, our brains cannot tell the difference between a simulated fear or the real deal. If you see children playing tag, they will run away from the “it” person as if they were being chased by a predator. Or if you are stressed about making enough money to pay rent and food for the month, the same system is stimulated, even though the body is not in clear and imminent danger.
What happens in the body?
Over time, if the body is in constant fight or flight mode, it will be in a steady flux of stress hormones and signals, which may contribute to disease in the body. On the other end of the spectrum, uplifting emotions like joy, enable the release of pleasure hormones like dopamine and serotonin. All of which contributes to feeling good and healing in the body.
Fortunately, our neocortex, which is responsible for higher learning, can be trained to dampen emotional trauma and eventually extinguish it in a gentle and natural way. This is called neuroplasticity. You can learn to harness the power of pleasurable emotions to lead a life with more purpose and meaning. You will learn how to deal with emotions to make them work for you rather than against you.
Benefits of positive emotional health.
Expressing emotions allows you to learn from them and grow. When I was growing up, I thought being emotionally strong meant to bottle up your feelings inside. I had to suppress my feelings because my parents said so or it was considered weak to show emotion. Since I was a sensitive child, I feared being embarrassed and teased, so I learned to hide my emotions well. But over time, I learned that it is better to express my feelings rather than hide them.
You will think with greater rationale and clarity. You don't need to suppress your emotions but you don't need to act on impulse either. If you cultivate positive emotional health, you won't act on your urges when someone provokes anger or fear in you.
Not all negative emotions are bad. They can be a catalyst for change. For instance, when you watch the news, often times it stirs up strong and unpleasant emotions. They make you upset enough to want change something that is oppressive. Or something happens in your life that makes you want to change it for the better. You can pivot your unpleasant emotion to a pleasant one and it will spur you on through your transition.
When you have optimal emotional health, you are happier. This does not mean that your head will be stuck in the clouds all the time or that you will never, ever have problems, because life is full of ups and downs. This means you won't let setbacks keep you down. And you will celebrate your wins with joy.
Positive emotions are just plain good for you. When you experience uplifting emotions, your body releases hormones that make it feel good. Your body returns to equilibrium and heals itself quicker.
How to have optimal emotional health.
Guy Winch said in his TED Talk, “taking action, changing response to failure, protects self esteem…, heals psychological wounds, builds emotional resistance and you will thrive”.
Here is a technique I like to use when I have an unpleasant emotion or thought:
Acknowledge your emotion. Become aware of it. You don't have to suppress fear or anger but you don't want to act on them either.
Be curious about the emotion.
Take a "step back" and separate yourself.
Let it go.
Feel the peace in letting go.
Here are other ways you can increase your emotional health:
When you have anger or fear or any unpleasant emotion, address it right away. If another person caused a transgression, face him right away and let him know what upset you. If that is not possible, then sit in front of a mirror. Imagine the other person is right in front of you. Tell him what upset you and then forgive him.
Understand the other person or situation. When someone upsets you, put yourself in her head and understand where she is coming from. Chances are she did not know she upset you. You don't have to condone what she did but now you know where she is coming from.
No one has the power to control your emotions. When you can take responsibility for your own emotions, you resist blaming others. By recognizing this, you won't fall into the trap of victimhood and feel helpless.
Ask yourself, why do I feel this way? You can make a journal of your feelings so you can self-reflect and become more attuned to your intuition and senses.
Take action. Practice meditation or prayer. Meditation and prayer allows you to be fully present with yourself, so you can become more aware of your feelings, without attaching to them. Thinking about past or future emotions, even positive ones, will keep you from experiencing new ones.
Practice gratitude. You can write down or say what you are thankful for each day. This helps not only helps you feel more abundant and blessed, but also positive emotions.
Help another person. Altruism also fosters positive emotional health because it feels good to help another human being. Just be sure you're doing it for the right reasons and that you've taken care of yourself first.
Forgive the other person. Forgiveness is always healing. This allows you to let go of any resentment or negative feelings that you hold inside so you can start to heal. Remember, this is not to condone the other person, but to release you from the emotional bondage.
Stop all the negative self talk. You've done nothing wrong. The emotions that surface at any given time are the ones that best serve you in the moment. So do not criticize the way you feel and be kind to yourself.
Emotions have the power to make you feel uplifted when you feel joyful and happy. But emotions can also tether you and keep you down. Learning to embrace all of your emotions and then let them go is crucial to your overall health. With practice, you'll become more aware of them, express them, let them go, and subsequently live a life with greater equanimity.
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