It doesn’t take much for Peter to have an emotional reaction. Most of the time, his family believed that he was overreacting. Commercials would make him cry, he would become angry over burnt toast, road rage was common, and panic attacks looked like heart attacks. After extensive physical examinations, his physician suggested that the problem might be psychological.
By contrast, Margaret wasn’t having any emotional reactions. Nothing seemed to phase her to the point that she could watch even graphic criminal shows without the slightest angst. Her family was concerned for a different reason. In the past, she would have some emotional reaction but now she was constantly flat with no change in affect. She seemed zombie-like.
What is Emotional Health? An emotionally healthy person feels freedom and comfort in expressing their emotions. The level of intensity of their reaction matches the significance of the event. Most importantly, there is a wide variety of emotions expressed with an understanding as to the nuances of each. Neither Peter with his overreaction and simplification of emotions or Margaret with her underreaction and stuffing emotions demonstrate emotional health.
Fortunately, both Peter and Margaret wanted to improve. The process for improving emotional health depends on the willingness to take the time to work through the steps. Here are the nine steps.
- Identify the exact emotion. A feelings wheel such as the one shown above is the best start to learning about the differences in emotions. At the center of the wheel are base emotions. The outer two circles expand on the base emotions showing nuances of each. The first step in emotional health is to learn to properly identify emotions. In any given moment, most people feel three emotions at the same time and not necessarily stemming from the same base emotion.
- Accept the emotions. When an uncomfortable emotion surfaces, the tendency is to push it away. The problem is that the emotion doesn’t disappear, it just remains inside. Eventually, it sneaks out in an unexpected explosion that is difficult to control. There is no right or wrong emotion. All emotions are good, it is how they are expressed that can be dangerous. Avoid judging emotions or allowing others to judge your emotions.
- Know potential triggers. Certain environments, people, or circumstances can have a natural instinctive emotional response. Anyone who has experienced trauma and most everyone has, will have potential triggers around other instances that might remind them of the trauma. By being aware of the potential triggers, emotional regulation becomes more natural.
- Manage stress reactions. Stress tends to bring out the worse in people and exaggerates emotional reactions. Even those who thrive in stressful situations tend to bottle things up for later and then explode. An awareness of what causes stress along with good self-care and rest can reduce the intensity of emotional expression.
- Regulate emotional reaction. Just because someone is feeling an emotion intensely does not mean that the situation requires an intense emotional reaction. It often helps to use the feelings wheel and write out examples of situations when you might feel guilt, frustrated, irritated, shocked, or excited. This self-guidance often helps to manage emotional regulation.
- Maintain work/life balance. When life is out of balance, too much work and not enough play or too much play and not enough work, emotions likewise are out of sync. Proper rest, nutrition, exercise, social activity, and creative endeavors are the basic ingredients needed for good emotional health.
- Process unresolved trauma. Inappropriate emotional over or under reactions are often clues to past unresolved trauma. Walking through healing is not something to do alone. Often your perception of reality is misguided during the trauma and you need a better perspective from a person on the outside looking inwards. Seek out counseling for healing the past to keep emotional balance in the present in check.
- Release emotions from the body. The body holds onto trauma not just physically but emotionally as well. Releasing emotions from the body requires the above steps to be learned and completed first. Only then can there be an understanding of how pain or tension might really be tied to guilt, shame, anger, fear, or anxiety.
- Let go of obsessive emotions. Some people have obsessive thoughts where they think about the same thing over and over. In a similar manner, you can have obsessive emotions where you conjure up the same emotion over and over. Learning to recognize these obsessive emotions and letting them go resets emotional wellbeing.
After working through these nine steps, Peter and Margaret were able to find emotional health. It took Peter a bit longer than Margaret because he had not experienced emotional wellbeing in the past as she did. But in the end, both felt so much better.