You’re kidding, right? Isn’t that term “Emotional Wellness” an oxymoron?
Nope, but it’s easy to feel emotionally exhausted right now. Not only has COVID-19 shown us how our comfort zones can change instantaneously but that our emotional thermometer jumps up and down as different news comes in left, right and center. We are being pulled in so many different directions. We might be at home, but it seems there are as many stressors as there could ever be in our daily activities, jobs, interpersonal relationships, and community obligations. Add a layer of Covid-19 and political worries into the mix, and it’s pretty easy to see how anyone can feel emotionally drained.
Here’s the thing, being emotionally healthy (also not an oxymoron) doesn’t mean you’re happy without a worry all the time. In fact, you’ve been an emotional wreck for a while now. The pandemic has just given you the opportunity to notice it front and center.
Our lives have always been complex and uncertain, but maybe we thought some things were in our control or, honestly, we never learned the tools to deal with the ups and downs of life. There will always be the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but it’s a question of how we are relating to them.
Being emotionally healthy means that you have a deep self-awareness of your emotions. You are aware of how you feel at a particular time and can deal with the feeling, whether it is positive, negative, or neutral.
Mindfulness meditation is a gift here because it teaches us to be with whatever is happening, whether we like it or not. We also learn to understand that everything is impermanent, and this too will end. One of my teachers used to say always: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
So, emotional health does not mean that you do not have highs and lows like every other person. It just means that you must make it a priority for your mental health to learn to surf. It all sounds simple, but in reality, we must learn to develop the muscle of emotional awareness.
Emotions are physiological responses to something in our external or internal environments. Strong emotions can come up in response to the sound of a rustling in the bushes or from a sinking feeling that you forgot to pick up a kid. If you bring to mind either of those scenarios or perhaps a moment of anger or joy in your life, you can notice what that feels like in your body.
The body is wise, and it gives us data about what is going on in our emotional weather system. In fact, if we tune in, our bodies know what we feel before we cognitively know it. Bringing attention to the body enhances emotional awareness. Mind-body practices of yoga, Qi Gong or doing body scans can help us pause and notice what we are feeling in the body. In fact, when you can see your emotion as a physiological experience, you can witness it almost from a distance. You then have the bandwidth to understand it with greater clarity and deepen your self-awareness.
This deep sense of emotional awareness is important because without it, you can’t even begin to manage your emotions, which is really what we mean by emotional wellness.
How you feel and what you feel at a particular time can affect your ability to carry out activities, manage relationships, and your overall mental health. How you react to your experiences and feelings can change over time. You might deal differently and inconsistently with similar situations depending on how you feel at the time. So first you must be aware, then you must be able to name the emotion.
However, more often than not, feelings are hard for some people to express. It’s important to develop a certain amount of emotional granularity with your vocabulary of emotions. The more precise you can get with your emotions, the better. You might just say you are stressed if something is unpleasant. Anger, fear, and frustration feel similar in the body, and the more precise you can be with what you are feeling, the better able you will be to manage the emotion. Even better, you will be able to infer those feelings in others, which affects the quality of your relationships.
I love the phrase, Name it to Tame it. When we can use language to label our emotions, it recruits help from our thinking brain to modulate our emotional experience. When you can label and put a frame around that emotion, you’ll be better able to keep your emotional health in check.
Thus, having good emotional wellness is the ability to successfully handle the rollercoaster of life and adapt to change and difficult times. Emotionally healthy people still feel stress, anger, and sadness. But they know how to manage their negative feelings, and they learn to develop a sense of equanimity in that they are not blown over by strong emotions. They learn to feel the emotion in their body, name it, pause and respond as needed. They also have the wherewithal to know when a problem is too much and to seek support.