I admit it — I stole the title of this blog post from Simon Sinek. He believes that we should change the nomenclature from “mental health” to “emotional fitness” and I couldn’t agree more.
We have been using the phrasing “mental health” mostly as a catch-all for anything and everything that offers a shoulder shrug explanation for someone’s problems or society’s crisis. There is such a debilitating stigma that is associated with the label of mental health that it less uncomfortable to just ignore it. It reminds me a lot of the stigma we had around breast cancer just a few decades ago. There is a correlation from what we have learned about breast cancer and what we are now learning about mental health. Early detection and preventative measures are game-changers.
The solid truth is our mental health is of integral importance to our quality of life and to our physical and cognitive health. It is time we normalize that. It just might start with a more acceptable and accurate descriptor — emotional fitness.
As we are coming to realize, many of us struggle more than we should with attending to our emotional fitness because we were not taught how to integrate our emotions with our developing brains when we were kids. As a result, we can have a very confusing and unskillful relationship with our emotions.
And it is not only our own emotions that we wrestle with, it is the emotions of all those we are in relationship with as well — most significantly our family members.
Here are some compelling reasons why we need to push emotional fitness to the top of our list for achieving our best overall health:
- Poor emotional health contributes to inflammation, increased anxiety, depression, suppressed immune systems, cardiac and cognitive problems (just to name a few)
- Poor emotional health negatively impacts our quality of sleep; sleep is one of the most beneficial factors for our overall brain and body health.
- Poor emotional regulation negatively impacts the quality and deep connectedness of our most treasured personal relationships (i.e. secure attachment styles)
- Poor emotional health taxes our energy, our ability to be clear-headed, and limits our capacity for resilience, problem solving and empathy
- Poor emotional health is a carrier — we simply perpetuate dysfunctional patterns of behavior and hand them down to our children.
In other words, emotional fitness is the giant umbrella that arches over every other aspect of our quality of life. We can be incredibly physically fit and be emotionally miserable. We can be sleepwalking through our present moments causing collateral damage left and right and be oblivious to the harm we are causing to others with our unchecked emotional reactions. We may be prone to frequent colds and viruses, have chronic asthma, insomnia, indigestion, aching backs and migraines. We can numb our pain and simultaneously numb our joy.
The reality of how our emotional fitness impacts our daily lives and our families is undeniable. Take stock of how each member in your family handles their daily mood swings. If you created a graph and plotted each family member’s emotional highs and lows throughout the day, what correlations might you find?
There is no standardized way that we human beings respond to our emotions and experiences. Even shared family experiences will land slightly differently on each member. We each respond in a variety of different ways to very similar circumstances — and here’s the plot twist: how we respond changes in direct correlation to our emotional tides.
Our emotional states play a huge role in how we respond to unfolding events in our daily lives. One day we are resilient and can let things roll off our back; the next we are unmoored and have no bandwidth to handle even minor skirmishes.
Lots of things contribute to our mood swings. Some of those are external factors. Many are our own internal factors such as coping strategies, flexibility or rigidity, self compassion or harsh inner criticism, emotional triggers and personal preferences.
What is often invisible to us is that we are all contributing in some way to the emotional well being and level of emotional fitness for those we love the most. Yes, we know that our lives are inextricably connected but we are often not consciously aware that our nervous systems and emotions are equally intertwined. We get plugged in to each other’s emotional energies and it happens incredibly fast.
Just witness for yourself how the energy shifts and emotions rise or fall when one member of your family loses their cool, or breaks into spontaneous laughter, or sulks out of the room.
Have you ever held your breath as an emotionally intense situation unfolds and your mind immediately conjures up what the most probable reaction will be? You brace yourself for the worst, your body tenses and you get ready for the impact of strong harsh emotions. And then the unexpected happens, there is no anger — there is laughter. It takes more than a hot minute for your body to register this phenomenon and slowly you begin to feel the tension leaving your body. Now think about all those emotional gyrations you just experienced in under a minute. Not to mention the chemicals and hormones that were released and are still being processed in your body and brain.
In the above scenario, when you found yourself bracing for a bad outcome fueled by anger, that is what “conditioning” feels like in your body and brain. If you had a lot of those types of anger fueled, high intensity emotional events in your childhood, you are “conditioned” to prepare for the worst. Your body and brain braces for a negative emotional impact.
Think about how many times that conditioning is reinforced over our lifetime. Not only are we well-practiced in a reflective response intended to protect us, we get taught at the very same time that it is normal for adults to react this way. And the next thing we know, we are in fact mimicking that reactive behavioral pattern in our marriages and in our parenting. The childhood conditioned response and the adult unchecked behavioral pattern go hand in hand.
When we lack the ability to ground ourselves before we respond to present day situations, we only reinforce bad emotional fitness habits. Those unhealthy emotional fitness habits are costly; to ourselves and to our family members.
We have a lot of devices these days that help us monitor our physical activity, our heart rates, how much and the quality of our sleep, keep track of our caloric intake and remind us to hydrate or move our bodies. But we have not devoted as much time, awareness and discipline to our emotional fitness.
Dr. Peter Attia often uses the image of a pyramid with a broad, solid base at the bottom to stress the importance of a core foundation for our physical strength. The top of that pyramid is the peak, where we can really distinguish ourselves often in short bursts or for competitive events. Perhaps we can use that same pyramid image to help us develop healthy emotional fitness.
That broad solid base at the bottom of our emotional fitness pyramid constitutes how we ground ourselves, in the present moment, in alignment with our core values, our family values and our goals for our emotional health. It only takes one or two deep cleansing breaths to anchor ourselves there in that foundation. It is that pause between stimulus and response that serves as a potent reminder of the goal for our emotional fitness. Choose responsibly.
The more we commit to building a strong emotional fitness base, the easier it will become to implement better responses on a daily basis. We will smooth out a lot of emotional bumps and turbulence for ourselves and our family members. An added bonus is that we will be much more emotionally skillful in those “peak” moments too — those times when something really adverse occurs and we are emotionally challenged in a very big way. We can become the rock that our family needs in those highly intense emotional adversities.
Just like any physical fitness regimen we have, it is the practice that brings results. We have to stay committed to attending to our emotional fitness. Yes, we do skip the gym from time to time and we do overindulge in comfort food occasionally.
We are going to slip up and we will show up with some unhealthy emotional fitness — that’s life. Let’s turn to Dr. Peter Attia once more for some advice on damage control. Dr. Attia has become one of the biggest advocates for emotional fitness and he stresses the importance of “repair”. Let’s be honest, we know when we haven’t shown up as our best selves; we know when we have lashed out too harshly or lost our patience without forewarning. Owning it and apologizing swiftly is the key. That’s emotional damage control.
Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Whole Brain Parenting, reinforces the value embedded in those times of emotional “rupture and repair”. It becomes the superglue of trust and respect for our most valued relationships. It is how we demonstrate a true commitment to our emotional fitness to ourselves and our family members.
The Wrap Up:
There is no doubt that our emotional health and emotional fitness is fast becoming a mainstream subject. One that is long overdue. We are witnessing a coalescence of neuroscience, psychology, epigenetics, modern medicine; along with mindfulness, meditation, self compassion, gratitude and self-awareness.
The tap roots for so many of the mental and emotional health issues we face today are integration and connection. We need to integrate our emotions with our amazing, complex brains and we need to attend to our hard-wired basic need for human connection.
For far too long, we humans have been operating without that emotional integration. As a result, we became disconnected from some of the most integral parts of our core operating system. However our emotions did not relegate themselves to the back seat no matter how much we tried to ignore or override them.
Our emotions hopped right into the driver’s seat and took us off on a wild ride, sometimes going full throttle and other times slamming on the brakes. Our emotions can barely see through the windshield and occasionally love the chaotic slapping of the wipers on high. They play tug of war with the steering wheel, beep the horn wildly and push all the knobs and buttons on the console.
How is that working out?
The answer is — not well. Our emotions have a vital role to play but they are not skillful drivers and seasoned life navigators. They are invaluable warning lights and the occasional alarm system.
We can take back control, put ourselves in the driver’s seat for our quality of life and the direction and places we wish to go. Rather than ignore, dismiss and override our emotional signals, we can pay attention and address important operating issues with preventive maintenance and early detection.
Let’s turn this whole well being concept on its head. Let’s start with our emotional health and ramp up our emotional fitness.