In terms of our physical health, there are usually more measurable or observable signs of unhealthiness. Obesity. Fatigue. High blood pressure. Chronic pain. These more visible signs help us recognize our physical vulnerabilities and might redirect our choices and behaviors towards health. In regards to our mental healthiness, the signs are not usually outwardly observable, but the signs are there. Those signs are inward – our emotions, specifically the unpleasant ones. For example:
Misery tells us that our circumstances are painful and we should make a change.
Sadness makes us aware of needing to accept and integrate the reality of a loss.
Anxiety alerts us that we are potentially in danger and equips us to get out of harm’s way.
Guilt reminds us that what we did wasn’t right and needs to be fixed.
Regret reminds us that what we did wasn’t right, can’t be fixed, but we can try and learn from it.
These examples of how our emotions work to heighten our awareness of negativity and harm (just like physical symptoms) point to a natural connection where emotions also in turn provide the energy and motivation to move back towards health – if we are aware of our feelings and know what to do with them. Sometimes, like in the case of misery and guilt, the more unpleasant the experience, the more likely we are to make change. Emotional competency – recognizing our feelings and having the experience and skill to use them as they are intended, is an integral part of our overall mental healthiness. The corollary is that not being emotionally proficient leaves our problems unresolved, leading to stagnation, chaos and pain. In the same way that physical ailments that are not dealt with can lead to sickness, emotions that are not dealt with can also lead to illness as well, such as clinical depression or chronic anxiety.
Mindfulness (which I talk more about in this post) is the beginning of cultivating a greater emotional competency. This is because the core components of mindfulness are 1) being able to become more attuned to yourself, and 2) being able to redirect your own mental energy. This can be achieved through any practice where you rehearse these skills, such as Yoga or Tai Chi, formal practices such as guided meditation, or these days there’s even an app on your phone. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the psychologist who popularized mindfulness in the context of psychotherapy says:
“Mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation. It’s not about Buddhism, but about paying attention. That’s what all meditation is, no matter what tradition or particular technique is used.”
The more deliberate you are in your intentions to train your mind during these practices, the more effective the connections will be when you need to be more mindful later, such as an emotional moment when you feel overwhelmed or confused. When you are in a mindful state, you can make the connections between your feelings and thoughts more effectively. You can soothe overwhelming emotions. You can redirect your mental energy towards action. Like any form of training, it takes repetition and consistency to get a new behavior to start feeling “normal” but evidence suggests one can achieve long term benefits relating to mental focus (attention, reducing distractibility) and improved self regulation by practicing as little as 10 minutes daily for 8 weeks.
The last point to make is that unpleasant emotions are not “bad” emotions. Coming from an intuitive, self-learned perspective outside of traditional psychology, successful author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins teaches that “the secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you. If you do that, you’re in control of your life. If you don’t, life controls you.” I also believe this to be true. As we develop greater self awareness, we may start to recognize how important our emotions can be in helping us with the needed energy, motivation, and direction towards positive change. If we do have negative experiences with these feelings, it is because of the unhealthy strategies we try and implement when we feel them. We stuff away our guilt. We try and distract ourselves when worried. We stagnate when miserable. We isolate when lonely. We let out our anger in places where it doesn’t belong. Well intentioned people who don’t like seeing us in such a state can reinforce these unhelpful strategies when we are told “don’t feel bad,” “don’t think about it,” or “cheer up.” If we could all see the value in our emotions, especially the unpleasant ones, we would be better equipped to manage the challenges that we face, and see that our emotions arrive at just the right time, with just the right tools to help us make meaningful change.