If you’ve been paying attention to the business world lately, you’ve probably heard the term “emotional health”. But what’s the definition? What IS emotional health?
Emotional health is a person’s ability to identify, process, and act upon feelings in specific circumstances and over the course of time.
Maybe you have more questions now. What makes up emotional health? How does emotional health differ from mental health? And how does one go about building strong emotional health?
In this article, I’m going to answer all those questions, and be sure to read through the end because I’ll share with you five powerful behavioral and lifestyle strategies to build unshakeable emotional health.
Emotional health is a person’s ability to identify, process, and act upon feelings in specific circumstances and over the course of time. Emotional health incorporates emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. Let’s unpack those two concepts.
Emotional intelligence is the awareness of one’s emotional state and those of others especially in response to external stimuli. Have you ever been around someone who, especially in the face of immediate adversity, simply knows how to carry themselves and how to interact with others? Emotional intelligence is an extremely important aspect of leadership at all levels.
The other part of emotional health is emotional resilience. This is one’s ability to adjust to circumstances and recover from emotional setback. How well do you respond to bad news? Do setbacks and acute stress send you down a dark road? How quickly can you return to your fully functioning state of mind?
Just like health is not merely the absence of illness, emotional health is NOT the act of suppressing emotion.
Here’s an example of emotional health with two fictitious friends.
Jack and Susie are both dealing with the pandemic and social distancing. Jack is a high achieving individual, and having to furlough his employees and not be able to grow the company started to get to him. But he refused to let anyone know. When it all started, Jack felt anxiety but never allowed others to know he was in pain. As the weeks went on and the isolation continued, his stress increased to the point that he took naps during the day, felt no energy to do things he loved, and generally stayed in a pessimistic state of mind. Jack is a proud man trying to tough it out, suffering in silence. Unfortunately, our character Jack is emotionally unhealthy.
Susie, on the other hand, also felt anxiety in the beginning. Susie is a high achieving entrepreneur, and unfortunately due to the pandemic, she had to effectively shut down the business she was passionately growing the past several years. However, she was willing to experience those emotions and let them pass. She recognized that she needed to allow herself to grieve the loss of her business and the changing state of the world. Once she did, she was able to refocus her attention on taking care of herself and making the most out of the time she had given the new circumstances, pivoting her business and finding new opportunities to serve people. Susie is emotionally healthy.
What is mental health, then? How does it differ? It is generally agreed upon that mental health is not the same as emotional health. However, the lines are not that clear.
The World Health Organization describes mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Mentalhealth.gov says “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act.” And they go on.
So is emotional health a subset of mental health? Do they stand side by side?
Honestly, these definitions are in a way arbitrary conclusions created by human beings using the tool of language. One way to think about it is that mental health focuses more on thoughts and neurotransmitter function, whereas emotional health focuses on feelings and processing.
In my experience, I’ve never worked with a patient or client who was mentally healthy but emotionally unhealthy, or mentally unhealthy but emotionally healthy. Why? Because the underlying determinants for emotional and mental health are generally the same: lifestyle factors, brain health, the gut microbiome. Let’s dive into that next.
Now that you know what emotional health is, you might be wondering… how does one improve emotional health? How does one create unshakeable emotional health?
I’m glad you asked.
Allow me to introduce you to the five pillars of emotional health: your psychology, relationships, nutrition, sleep, and exercise.
Your psychology. By this, I mean your established thought patterns and beliefs. The way you talk to yourself. Your history of trauma. The stories about “facts of life” that you grew up around. This is personal development. This is your willingness to step outside of your comfort zone to discover what patterns have been running your life. This is your ability to create and live into a vision of the person you wish to be.
Your relationships. If you’ve studied personal development at all, you know we are the average of the five people and ideas we spend the most time with. But it bears repeating, because it is so monumentally important. If our relationships are sour with those five people we spend the most time with, our emotional health will suffer significantly. There’s no way around it.
Working on your relationships means addressing the pain points with your significant other and those close to you. It means having conversations with your boss, your coworkers to create an environment around you that’s most conducive to emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. It means releasing who you think you should be and embracing who you are, so you can attract the best people into your life.
Your nutrition. What does nutrition have to do with emotional health? A lot, in fact. I think you’d agree that if our brain and nerve function isn’t operating at proper capacity, we’re not going to feel well. And if we don’t feel well, our emotional resilience will suffer. Neurotransmitters are the compounds that aid in sending signals through our nervous system. Examples include epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and many others.
What you may not know is that 90% of the neurotransmitters in our body come from gut. There are an estimated 100 trillion bacteria in our gut that are responsible for neurotransmitter production as well as many other functions that we’re learning about seemingly daily. What I’m talking about is called the “gut microbiome”. These bacteria provide us with essential compounds needed for us to function, and we provide them a place to live. But the types of bacteria that grow in our gut depends on what we eat.
If we eat too many foods that harm our gut microbes, we’re going to lose the body function that that those microbes provide. Diets high in refined sugars, fried fats, processed foods and animal products tend toward producing a sub-optimal gut microbiome. On the other hand, diets high in whole plant foods and insoluble fiber are essential for a thriving gut microbiome, and therefore optimal emotional health.
Your sleep. Let’s be honest, us high achievers like to sacrifice sleep to get more done, don’t we? Major project at work? Stay up late. Building your company? Get up early. I get it because I was that way too. During my undergraduate studies at Cornell University, I routinely slept four hours a night. And in 30 weeks over two semesters my freshman year, I pulled 37 all nighters. During my years on Wall Street in my 20’s, I got more sleep. Six hours! I’d work late, stay up late, be on call constantly checking emails, then get up early to get to work the next day. I prided myself on needing as little sleep as possible.
After four years of medical school, that lifetime of sacrificing sleep caught up to me in the form of “adrenal fatigue” and burnout. Needless to say, it took a toll on my emotional resilience, which as you know now is a component of emotional health. It wasn’t until I personally shed the workaholic identity as a badge of honor that I took my emotional health to the next level. We can still work hard and work smart...while still getting our critical sleep.
Sleep is when our brains process the day’s events. We place the day’s events and lessons into long term memory and form connections in our brains. It’s also the time when our bodies detoxify and shed waste. Sacrificing sleep WILL catch up to you eventually. And if you want to end burnout, if you want to build emotional health, you have to prioritize sleep.
Your exercise. Motion drives emotion. How great do you feel after a workout? Endorphins run high, your blood is flowing, and your body and mind finally feel in sync. Working out isn’t as much about weight loss as it is about training our bodies to operate at the highest level. If you want to feel good, if you want to feel your best, there is no substitute for moving your body. Emotional health requires physical health.
Your psychology, your relationships, your nutrition, your sleep, and your exercise. The five pillars of unshakeable emotional health.
Which of these five do you need to work on? Let me know in the comments below.
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