We tend to dismiss our emotional health. We certainly don’t talk about it around the dinner table, at the office, or really anywhere. If we talk about any kind of health, we prefer to chat about our physical wellness: what we’re eating, and not eating, what kind of exercise we’re trying, and not trying, how much we’re sleeping or not sleeping.
One reason we do this is because talking about our physical health offers external validation from others, said Marline Francois-Madden, LCSW, a psychotherapist and owner of Hearts Empowerment Counseling Center in Montclair, New Jersey.
Talking about our emotional health, however, feels too vulnerable, she said. And this is understandable. Our pain feels fresh, tender, private. Often, we don’t even admit we’re hurting to ourselves.
Ignoring our emotional health makes life easier in the short term. For instance, it means “we can avoid conflict, which many people want to do if at all possible,” said Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist who specializes in self-compassion at her private practice in San Francisco.
“We can also maintain an identity of being easy-going, selfless, or strong…” she said.
Tanvi Patel’s clients regularly tell her that having painful emotions makes them feel weak and childlike. “Ignoring [their emotions] is something that they’ve been taught makes them strong, mature and healthy.”
Many of us also have been taught that if we’re sad, we should be able to pick ourselves up “quickly and quietly,” said Patel, LPC-S, a psychotherapist specializing in work with high achieving adults and adult survivors of trauma in Houston, Texas.
In reality, however, “the ability to look at painful experiences and painful emotions is far more developmentally mature and healthy, and takes enormous strength.”
Our emotional health is vital for a host of reasons. It’s vital for our relationships, career, and physical health, said Alicia Hodge, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist and speaker in Maryland whose work centers around assisting people to overcome anxiety, gain new perspectives, and enhance their self-care.
What Emotional Health Really Is
Emotional health is “the ability to feel and respond to emotions in a way that is adaptive and functional, that supports one’s relationships and autonomy, and is in alignment with one’s core values,” Shinraku said.
It is recognizing that emotions give us vital information about ourselves and our needs, telling us whether our needs are being met or not, she said. It is intentionally choosing to respond to an emotion, instead of reacting “in a way that is habitual, unconsidered and often unconscious.”
Patel defines emotional health as a combination of resilience, insight, self-care and self-regulation. Specifically, it’s being able to traverse difficult experiences; notice our needs and reactions; engage in activities that bring joy and calm; and sit with difficult emotions and regulate our behavior, she said.
Hodge regularly makes parallels between emotional health and physical health. Just like you couldn’t run a marathon if you ate only chips, you can’t endure stressful periods if you’re unaware of your feelings or not taking care of yourself, she said.
Caring for Your Emotional Health
Below are nine powerful, compassionate ways to care for your emotional health.
Track your mood. Francois-Madden’s clients track their mood by journaling or using mood tracking apps, such as Happify, eMoods, and Moodtrack Social Diary. This helps them to see how often they’re struggling with negative thoughts—and what strategies they need to build up their emotional well-being, she said.
Welcome all emotions. Patel encouraged readers to allow every emotion “into your space,” which means not dismissing or discounting them. She shared this example: You feel shame—and naturally you want to get rid of it right away. Maybe you try to focus on something else, or you talk yourself out of it: “No, they didn’t see you make that mistake, no one thinks you’re a failure, etc.”
Patel believes we move too quickly to “fix” our feelings. Instead, it’s important to truly process our feelings (which “helps us stay emotionally healthy by releasing their hold on us”). This means accepting that you feel shame and letting yourself feel it. It means identifying the shame, such as: “My stomach is in knots because it makes me feel like everyone can see I’m a failure.”
Cultivate curiosity. Patel also suggested asking ourselves different questions about our difficult feelings: “Why did my stomach just lurch when my friend said that? Why did my heart start beating faster when my co-worker did that?” Similarly, consider “learning a larger breadth of emotions beyond happy, sad and angry,” which “can help us put words to these often abstract feelings.”
Do nightly check-ins. Hodge stressed the importance of carving out time every night to identify how you felt throughout the day. This not only helps us tune into ourselves, but it also helps us to reframe some situations—which teaches us to be resilient, she said.
For instance, we tend to think of our days as either “good” or “bad,” she said. Instead, it’s more helpful to see the nuance. Maybe you were late to an important meeting, but at lunch you had a meaningful conversation with a coworker. Maybe missing your train stop allowed you to explore a new place, Hodge said.
Practice a self-compassionate break. When a tough situation arises, Shinraku suggested doing an adaptation of the self-compassionate break (developed by self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff). Pause, and tell yourself these words:
“This is an emotionally challenging moment.
Emotional challenges are part of life.
May I be kind and curious with myself.”
“These phrases are a kind of mantra that can help us be more aware or mindful of our experience, and remind us that we are human and not alone,” Shinraku said. And they remind us that “being kind and curious with ourselves is usually the most helpful response when we are struggling.”
Focus on your inner dialogue. When you get upset, what do you tell yourself? Pay attention to how you talk about your emotions and reactions and how you relate to yourself in general. Because how we talk to ourselves affects everything. Which is why it’s powerful to “engage in positive self-talk and say words of affirmation about yourself,” said Francois-Madden, author of the Therapist Planner.
Use non-violent communication. Non-violent communication was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, “which is where the idea of the connection between feelings and needs comes from,” Shinraku said. To use it in your interactions, she suggested identifying: what specifically happened; the feeling that came up; and the needs that underlie that feeling. Next, make a request of the other person, see if you can meet your needs on your own, or grieve that the needs can’t be met right now.
For instance, according to Shinraku, if a loved one is late to meet you for the fourth time, after reflecting on how you feel, you tell them: “I feel uncomfortable bringing this up, because I care about you and don’t want to hurt your feelings. I realized, though, that if I don’t talk about it with you, I’m going to feel resentful, so I’ll give it a try: I felt frustrated when you got to the restaurant 20 minutes late last week. When that happened, I felt hurt because it seemed like you don’t value my time. I’d really like to count on you to be there when you say you will. Are you open to talking about this?”
Shinraku added that sometimes non-violent communication can feel formulaic. However, with practice, you’ll develop “your own way of expressing yourself with honesty and compassion for yourself and the people in your life.”
Learn what fills your cup. Taking the time to do what nourishes and relaxes you helps you to effectively regulate yourself when tough times arise. For instance, Patel’s clients cook, practice yoga, read, take walks, volunteer and spend time with supportive people. “This would also include avoiding stressful situations such as judgmental friends,” Patel said.
Seek therapy. Both Patel and Hodge named psychotherapy as an important intervention. “Therapy with a licensed professional allows you to engage in a trusted relationship to explore and improve your emotional health,” Hodge said. “Therapeutic work does not have to be crisis based; you can engage in therapy as a form of prevention and maintenance.”
The Nature of Humanity
“Emotional health isn’t about not feeling emotions or decreasing how much emotion we have in our lives,” Patel said. We will still feel anger, anxiety, sadness and shame. This is the nature of being human. And that’s a great thing—because, again, these emotions give us invaluable insights into what we want and need.
But the key is to be thoughtful and intentional. Which is where emotional health comes in: It is about managing our emotions, and making deliberate decisions about how they affect our behavior and our lives.