Tuesday, December 10, 2019

5 Steps to Optimize Emotional Wellness

"Wellness is a daily practice" - anonymous
"Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakes." - Carl Jung
5 steps that each of us can take to optimize our mental wellness include: self-reflection, nurturing the body, with others, making peace with all our parts, and having fun.

Self-Reflection
Good mental hygiene includes self-reflection. Spending time getting to know yourself is an investment in your mental wellness that pays dividends. Understanding your motivations, values, habits of thinking, rules you live by, feelings, and sensory experiences helps you to know when to take action, where to move your attention, and allows you to ask: what now?

Facing your problems directly prevents you from wasting time in avoidance. Noticing when you are chasing a craving or compulsively comparing yourself to others allows you to shift your attention towards something more beneficial. Emotions serve a function, so take the time to consider what your body/mind is telling you, reflect on your choices, and respond, rather than react. Knowing you have choices is essential for well-being.

After a long term relationship broke up, I spent several months reading and writing about my experience. This helped me gain a better understanding about the pain, the fears, and feelings of loss I was going through. I reflected upon, and wrote down, the essential qualities I was looking for in a partner. This process gave me hope that things could be different. Like a miner dusting off layers of dirt on a precious gem, self-reflection will clarify your blind spots. Getting to the essence of what is most important lends itself to making better choices and ultimately to a greater sense of fulfillment. Years after writing my laundry list of qualities for a mate, I stumbled upon this list while packing up to move in with my then boyfriend. He later became my husband, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well my list had served me.

Nurture the Body
Mental wellness requires taking care of one's body. Raising your heart rate, maintaining good posture, stretching, and strengthening will all impact how you feel and promote a sense of wellness. Breathing purposefully can help with emotional regulation, and supports emotional hygiene. Rest, sleep, and good nutrition all impact how you feel, contributing to a sense of wellness or feeling unwell.

Most of us know that regular exercise, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep are crucial components for maintaining emotional wellness. Not only as energy sources, but also as mood boosters. What is less known is how the body does not distinguish between an external threat in the environment, for example a snake rustling in the grass, and the internal threat activation (heart racing, tightness in the chest or belly, etc.) caused by ruminating on the judgments of one’s family members.

When we are experiencing an internal threat response, it is not something we really choose to think about. The thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences all kind of happen to us—they pop up. And while it is not our fault that we are having this experience, it is our responsibility to do something about it, as it does cause us harm. Luckily, we can learn to use our minds to shift our attention and focus towards the body, labeling sensations, and slowing down our breath. All of this allows the internal threat response to recalibrate. Turning to the body is a way we can promote positive emotional well-being.

Connection
We are wired for connection. Infants are born defenseless, completely reliant on their caregivers for several years after birth. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense because our survival was dependent on getting along with others and not being kicked out of the group. We continue to be interdependent with others throughout our lives. It is literally painful when we experience social rejection, heartbreak, or the loss of a loved one.

As much as possible, choose to spend time with others you feel supported by, and cared for, including pets. A sense of belonging and connection are essential for mental wellness.

Accept All Your Parts
Notice how you talk to yourself when you are sad, sick, or make a mistake. Most of us have a relentless inner critic, stepping on our necks when we are down. The more we understand how we see ourselves and understand the function of shame, the less identified we become with the fear it brings up in us, and the more we can soothe ourselves in a nurturing way.

This may be the most difficult step for most of us, and I encourage you to be patient with the process. Taking a look at that which embarrasses, shames, and disgusts us about ourselves is counter-intuitive. It does not feel good, and our natural tendency is to seek pleasure. By facing these parts of ourselves, we can loosen their hold upon us.

The function of an inner critic is protection from pain, once we see this function, rather than fuse with any beliefs to isolate ourselves when we make a mistake or fail at something, we can choose to do something different. We can encourage ourselves and engage with others, and see how we are received. We can speak to ourselves kindly, the way we would speak to someone we care for. This might seem strange at first, but makes sense when we realize that most of us would never speak to another person the way we do to ourselves when being critical. Knowing that staying isolated or speaking harshly with ourselves actually harms us, may offer a motivation to look for alternative solutions.

Have Fun
Bring attention to the beauty around you, or actively look for it. For emotional hygiene to be complete it must include regular attention to that which enlivens and enriches your life. Our minds seek novelty and wonder. Figure out what lifts you up—mind and body—and find a way to do it regularly. To live well does not mean to survive, it means to thrive. Joy is an integral part of thriving. Fun rejuvenates us from our daily stressors, keeps us hopeful, and promotes resilience.

Make time to watch the game, play with your children and/or pets, go for a hike, bike ride, dance the night away, or whatever it is you enjoy. If you are unsure, think of a time, perhaps as a child or younger person, when you spent time smiling, laughing, or had a sense of ease, pleasure, or wonder. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you doing? How can you replicate these experiences in your current life?