By Jeff Jones
Being emotionally well is more than just handling stress. It also involves being attentive to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, whether positive or negative.
People who are emotionally healthy are in control of their emotions and their behavior. They are able to handle life’s challenges, build strong relationships, and recover from setbacks. But just as it requires effort to build or maintain physical health, so it is with mental and emotional health. Improving your emotional health can be a rewarding experience, benefiting all aspects of your life, including boosting your mood, building resilience, and adding to your overall enjoyment of life.
What is emotional health?
Mental or emotional health refers to your overall psychological well-being. It includes the way you feel about yourself, the quality of your relationships, and your ability to manage your feelings and deal with difficulties.
Good mental health isn’t just the absence of mental health problems. Being mentally or emotionally healthy is much more than being free of depression, anxiety, or other psychological issues. Rather than the absence of mental illness, mental and emotional health refers to the presence of positive characteristics. Similarly, not feeling bad is not the same as feeling good. While some people may not have negative feelings, they still need to do things that make them feel positive in order to achieve mental and emotional health.
Emotional wellness is about finding and maintaining our emotional equilibrium, our feeling rheostat. Emotional wellness is tied up in our ability to self regulate; To bring ourselves into balance when we fall out of it. Balance is that place where our thinking, feeling, and behavior are reasonably congruent; where we operate in an integrated flow.
When our emotions are out of control, so is our thinking. When we can’t bring our feeling and thinking into some sort of balance, our life and our relationships show it. Emotions impact our thinking more than our thinking impacts our emotions. Our limbic system, where we experience and process emotion, actually sends more inputs to the thinking part of our brain, i.e. the cortex, than the opposite. (Damassio)
The essence of Emotional Wellness is good self-regulation.
Self-regulation means that we have mastered those skills that allow us to balance our moods, our nervous systems, our appetites, our sexual drive, our sleep. We have learned how to tolerate our intense emotions without acting out in dysfunctional ways, clamping down or foreclosing on our feeling world or self-medicating.
Addiction and compulsive, unregulated behaviors reflect a lack of good self-regulation. To maintain our emotional equilibrium, we need to be able to use our thinking mind to decode and understand our feeling mind. That is, we need to feel our feelings and then use our thinking to make sense and meaning out of them.
How Do We Learn to Self Regulate?
We identify the problem to seek the solution
- Nature and Nurture: Each tiny interaction between parent/caretaker and child actually lays down the neural wiring that becomes part of our brain/body network.
- As the parent interacts with the child, the child learns the skills of relating and regulation which are then laid down as neural wiring.
- The child takes this new learning into their world of relationships, experiments with it, gets continuing feedback and continues to lay down new wiring based on what they are seamlessly picking up from their environment and the relationships in it.
- Early experiences knit long-lasting patterns into the very fabric of the brain’s neural network. (Lewis) And these neural patterns form the relational template from which we operate throughout life.
- As children, if we get frightened or hurt, for example, we look to our mothers, fathers and close people to soothe us, to help us to feel better, to bring us back into balance.
- We learn to “tolerate” our intense feelings when we’re young and as we get older, “holding environment”
- When our skills of self-regulation are well learned during childhood, they feel as if they come naturally, as if we always had them.
- When they are not well learned, we may reach to sources outside of ourselves to restore the sense of calm and good feeling that we cannot achieve ourselves, namely drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling and so on.
- The ACOA (adult child of an alcoholic) /ACOT (adult child of trauma) syndrome can reflect problems with early attachments or relationships. Children who learn the skills of relating and regulation from unstable parents internalize unstable patterns.
What is the Limbic System?
The limbic system is the body/mind neural network that governs our emotions. Our moods, appetite and sleep cycles are some of the areas of functioning that fall under its jurisdiction.
The limbic system sets the mind’s emotional tone, filters external events through internal states (creates emotional coloring), tags events as internally important, stores highly charged emotional memories, modulates motivation, controls appetite and sleep cycles, promotes bonding, directly processes the sense of smell and modulates libido. (Dr. Amen)
Our emotions circulate throughout our bodies as brain/body mood chemicals that impact how we feel.
When we have problems in our deep limbic system they can manifest as moodiness, irritability, clinical depression, increased negative thinking, negative perceptions of events, decreased motivation, floods of negative emotion, appetite and sleep problems, decreased or increased sexual responsiveness or social isolation. (Dr. Amen); an impaired ability to regulate levels of fear, anger, and sadness, and may lead to chronic anxiety or depression; substance or behavioral disorders; problems in regulating alcohol, eating, sexual or spending habits. All of this is what impacts our emotional wellness.
How is emotional wellness undermined?
Emotional trauma can have a negative impact on early development. It can both interfere with our ability to use our thinking brains to decode our emotions and it can create problems in our limbic systems. Our limbic systems get set on “high” we are over sensitized to stress and hence, we overreact to it.
Our bodies don’t really distinguish between physical danger and emotional stress/distress.
The natural fear response associated with our fight/flight apparatus will cause the body to react to physical or emotional “crisis,” by pumping out sufficient quantities of what are known as “stress” chemicals, like adrenaline, to get our hearts pumping, muscles tightening and breath shortening, in preparation for a fast exit, or a fight.
But for those where the family itself has become the “saber-toothed tiger”, for whom escape is not really the issue, these chemicals boil up inside and can cause physical and emotional problems. Family members may find themselves in a confusing and painful bind, ie., wanting to flee from or attack, those very people who represent home and safety. If this highly stressful relational environment persists over time, it can produce what is called cumulative trauma.
Because the limbic system governs such fundamental functions as mood, emotional tone, appetite and sleep cycles, when it becomes dysregulated it can affect family members in far-ranging ways.
Problems in regulating our emotional inner world can manifest as:
Homes that aren’t calm, that are in, what we might, call chronic chaos, undermine our body’s ability to maintain a regulated state. Over time, we lose the ability to tolerate intense emotion so that we can think about what we’re experiencing on a feelings level. At the most extreme level thought and emotion become disengaged. When this happens, our thinking selves and our feeling selves become out of balance, split off from each other. This undermines our ability to use our thinking to understand what we’re experiencing on a feeling and sensory level. At the most basic level, we lose touch with ourselves.