By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 57 and this week I’m talking about emotions. I’ll be discussing what emotional health is, why understanding your emotions is important for good mental health, and how to better manage your emotions every day. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
FIVE-POINT EPISODE SUMMARY
- Our emotions are always there and are bubbling away just under the surface.
- Rather than denying their existence or trying to push them down further (which doesn’t work, because eventually they’ll jump out and surprise you — usually when you least expect it), it’s up to you to learn about those emotions and what they’re trying to tell you, so that you can then manage them for better emotional health and overall wellbeing.
- What we choose to do with our emotions determines what happens next, and good emotional health involves making healthy choices — you are not your emotions; you are what you do with your emotions.
- If we let our emotions control us, then we can end up reacting instinctively (rather than responding thoughtfully), and often when we do that we can create much bigger problems than we need to.
- When we take the time to listen to what our emotions are telling us and we find ways to respond thoughtfully to what we’re feeling, we’re able to become more authentic.
Hello and welcome to Episode 57, and thanks so much for joining me! This week’s topic is all about improving your emotional health, so let’s get talking…
No matter who you and what your life is like, we all experience emotions (and don’t worry, I’m not going to start singing the Mariah Carey song of the same name — consider yourself lucky because I was definitely tempted!).
A long time ago I used to have a boss who quite often chastised me for being emotional in my approach as a manager (and fair call, because I was and I am), but why is that so often (especially in our professional lives) we’re expected to put our emotions to the side and be ‘business-focused’ or ‘career-minded’ or whatever you want to call it. One of the things that absolutely annoys me in this world of ours is that so often we’re taught to believe that our emotions are issues that need to be overcome (or even worse, something that needs to be suppressed), and don’t even get me started on all of the gender stereotypes that go hand-in-hand with emotions.
For me, a huge part of the breakdown I had in late 2011 was triggered by not dealing with my emotional baggage and also by self-medicating my way through a whole range of issues rather than actually dealing with them. Now, nine years down the track, I have found that being open and vulnerable about my emotions has led me to far better overall mental health, and it’s also become my career, funnily enough! So that thing that I was so often told was wrong or damaged — my sensitivity and my ability to connect with my emotions so that I can be open and honest with myself while I’m also helping other people — that’s now become the thing that underpins all the work I do. So if anything, I’m finding that being emotional is actually a great thing when you learn how to harness it in a positive way!
The thing is that whether or not we admit it to ourselves or to others, our emotions are always there and are bubbling away just under the surface; rather than denying their existence or trying to push them down further (which doesn’t work, because eventually they’ll jump out and surprise you — usually when you least expect it), it’s up to you to learn about those emotions and what they’re trying to tell you, so that you can then manage them for better emotional health and overall wellbeing.
It’s what we choose to do with our emotions that determines what happens next — when we feel a particular way about a situation or circumstance and we then choose to do or say something (or not do something or not say something), we’re creating a chain of events based on our choices. I often talk in this program about the difference between reacting and responding, and that’s something I’m going to be exploring in more detail this week.
Just a heads-up before I continue that next week I’ll be looking at meaning, which is very much connected with our emotions; I’ll be covering off on what’s coming up in that episode at the end of this one so make sure you listen all the way to the end.
What are emotions and what is emotional health?
Your emotions are your feelings. They can come from your internal self (such as your thoughts, instincts and intuition), as well as being triggered by external events, such as your relationships and circumstances as well as how you view the broader world around you.
Often our emotions go hand-in-hand with our thoughts, but there are some big differences. Thoughts can be produced by us (i.e. We create them ourselves by actively thinking about something) but they also can appear suddenly and without any control or intervention on our part, and the thing is that we often forget that (a) we’re not completely in control of our thoughts and we probably never will be, and (b) that’s totally fine, because our thoughts are not facts. It takes daily work to be able to detach yourself from your thoughts so you can see them for what they really are — uncontrolled noise that can pop into our heads seemingly out of nowhere — but it’s important to be able to observe our thoughts more rationally, because when we just react to them we can find it then affects our feelings and emotions.
I talk a lot in this show about you being able to control your feelings and every time I do someone inevitably reaches out to me to say they don’t agree… here’s the thing: if you can change it, you can control it. Can you change your thoughts? Some of them you can, but many of them come out of nowhere and have no foundation in truth, so the only rational thing you can do is let them go. But your feelings and your emotional state definitely are things that you can control; you may not be able to all of the time, but with effort and focus you absolutely can. You know, you can do things like watching a show that makes you laugh or listening to a song that puts you in a good mood, and ‘bang!’ you’ve changed your feelings. Here’s the biggest and most important message from today’s episode: you are not your emotions; you are what you do with your emotions. Let me repeat that, because it’s an important point: you are not your emotions; you are what you do with your emotions.
So then following on from that, what is emotional health? It’s a term that is often substituted for mental health but they’re not the same thing (however, like all aspects of your health, they are definitely interconnected). To quote an article by Healthline (and as always the link for this will be in the transcript; find it here: https://www.healthline.com/health/emotional-health),
“…emotional health focuses on being in tune with our emotions, vulnerability and authenticity… [and] is a fundamental aspect of fostering resilience, self-awareness, and overall contentment… having good emotional health doesn’t mean you’re always happy or free from negative emotions [but that you have] the skills and resources to manage the ups and downs of day-to-day life.”
As I said back in Episode 49 (Finding Balance), emotional health is about how you manage your words, actions and feelings, how you deal with external events (including other people), and how you cope with challenges and setbacks (which we all experience in life).
Back in that episode I shared this quote from Pyramid Healthcare which I think is relevant for this week’s episode as well (and I quote):
“Part of mental health is how well your mind processes and understands information and experiences. In contrast, emotional health involves your ability to manage and express the emotions that arise from what you have learned and experienced…”
And you’ll find the link for that in the transcript as well (find it here: https://www.pyramidhealthcarepa.com/pyramid-healthcare-assessment- ). So with that in mind, moving on to the next section of today’s podcast…
Why is emotional health so important for your overall wellbeing?
Look, we all experience negative emotions like fear, sadness and anger, and how we deal with them can either result in more problems or can help us to find constructive ways to move forward in life.
According to Mental Health America (link in transcript; find it here: https://www.mhanational.org/helpful-vs-harmful-ways-manage-emotions), some of the harmful ways people deal with negative emotions include denial, withdrawal, bullying, self-harm and substance use. And this isn’t just about dealing with the negative side of emotional health; according to the American Psychological Association (APA):
“[Good] emotional health can lead to success in work, relationships and health. In the past, researchers believed that success made people happy. Newer research reveals that it’s the other way around. Happy people are more likely to work toward goals, find the resources they need and attract others with their energy and optimism — key building blocks of success.”
And as always the link for that source I just cited is in the transcript (find it here: https://www.apa.org/topics/emotion ).
The thing that I think is important to be aware of around emotional health is that if we let our emotions control us, then we can end up reacting instinctively (rather than responding thoughtfully), and often when we do that we can create much bigger problems than we need to.
Here’s a super-quick bit of theory for you: If you’ve ever read Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book Emotional Intelligence then you might be aware of the amygdala hijack; in a nutshell, the amygdalae are two almond-shaped clusters deep within the limbic system of your brain and they’re believed to play a primary role in emotional responses, amongst other functions (like memory and decision-making). They are also thought to be the home of your fight/flight/freeze response, which happens when there’s a perceived threat and your instincts take over, causing you to either fight, take flight (i.e. run) or freeze up. Goleman’s theory is that when we’re hijacked by our amygdala, we are reacting as though an event or situation is life-threatening even if it isn’t (and for our modern brains, the notion of what is a threat and what isn’t has changed a lot since the days when we were trying to avoid being eaten by lions and tigers and bears); as someone who lives with anxiety, I know all-too-well just how real a threat can seem (even if other people might not perceive the situation as a threat) and how quickly your emotional reactions can take over, making it difficult to think about anything else.
For example, when the COVID pandemic first exploded back in March and we had the whole end-of-days toilet paper shortage thing happening (certainly here in Australia), I was so deeply taken-over by my emotions (mainly fear, in case you needed me to state the obvious) that I just wasn’t thinking rationally, and between that and the doom-scrolling of the news and social media I’m surprised I even managed to leave the house. Fear and other strong negative emotions can throw us into a tailspin and cause us to find it difficult to look at things rationally, so we need to look at ways to manage our emotions every single day in order to help us deal with the bigger issues if and when they happen.
With time and effort we can learn how to control our emotional reactions (even if sometimes that means lots of effort, and even potentially needing to get support from a professional to work through things).
One of the ways that works most effectively in many situations is to just take a few moments if we’re being overwhelmed by our emotions. In fact, just pausing for 5-10 seconds before we do anything else can be enough time for our logical mind to kick in so that we can then approach the situation more rationally and therefore respond in a thoughtful way, rather than just reacting (and I’ll be coming back to that shortly). The thing with emotional health is that, like all health, it’s not the absence of issues but instead it’s about being able to put in the work every single day to respond to challenging emotions more thoughtfully… and the more you do that, the less control they will have over you.
So how do you build and maintain good emotional health? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to build and maintain good emotional health
There are a number of points I’m going to go over in this how-to section; they’re not necessarily a ‘step one, step two, step three’ type of approach, it is a whole bunch of points that I think need to be considered in partnership with one another. So let’s start with my first point, which is…
Start by learning to identify and label your emotions when they’re happening, without judgement. Managing your emotions begins with being able to better understand what you’re feeling and where it might be coming from. Have you ever had the physical sensation of being hungry but it turned out that you were actually just thirsty? The same type of thing can happen with your mind; you might think that you’re feeling one thing, but what is actually happening is something else or possibly even a collection of different things. Self-awareness is a massive part of good mental health (so much so that I’m giving it its own episode in January, so keep an eye out for that). So really take the time to think about “what am I actually experiencing?” and label it
When you’re experiencing a negative or challenging emotion, pause for 5-10 seconds before you respond. As I mentioned earlier in this episode, when we’re in a threatening situation our brain can hijack us and make us operate on pure instinct (that fight/flight/freeze thing that I talked about before) and it can take several seconds for our logical, rational mind to kick in so that we can then begin to look at the situation more rationally. Hitting your mental pause button allows you to take a moment to let those instinctive reactions subside so that you can then take a more thoughtful look at what’s going on before you do or say anything. Our modern brains can have a hard time distinguishing what is a threat and what isn’t, and for many people who live with conditions like anxiety the reality for us is that we can have times when we’re on heightened alert thanks to our anxiety going into overdrive. Consciously hitting the pause button in your mind and simply breathing for 10 seconds before you then consider your best response will help to slow that anxious reaction and enable you to feel calmer, as well as helping you to notice and consider details that you might otherwise have missed if you just reacted out of fear or rage or whatever, and when you take a few moments to pause and look at what’s going on in your own emotions, you can begin to see that things aren’t always one thing or another — they’re not necessarily that clear-cut — and quite often there are lots of things going on that are influencing your emotions. When you can see all that stuff and you begin to look at it objectively, you can then better understand the root cause of your emotions and respond to that (rather than just reacting to a specific emotion, which is a symptom and not a cause). Taking a few moments to calm yourself and collect your thoughts enables you to be more thoughtful about what is or isn’t going on so that you can then respond rather than just reacting. Part of doing this is being able to label what you’re feeling and then taking a few moments to consider what triggered the emotion, because more often than not it’s a reaction to something deeper rather than just the specific situation or event. You know, when it comes to our emotions what I find funny or notable (or whatever you want to call it) is that we all pretty much know this rational stuff in theory, but no matter how much you think you might have moved on from specific emotions related to people or events, they have a habit of popping back up and biting you in the backside when you least expect it. And so being able to train yourself to at least hit that pause button for 10 seconds before responding gives your rational brain time to wrestle back control from your instinctive responses (because you’re instincts will make a mess of things sometimes if you’re not careful), and that allows you to be much more thoughtful about what you do or say next. I don’t know about you, but my tolerance for drama is zero and I’ve found that life is a lot more satisfying when you choose to walk away from things that just don’t need to be a thing; to me, that’s a form of self-care.
Because prevention is better than cure, find proactive self-care strategies that help you to regulate your emotions. Do things that work for you: meditate, journal, listen to music, talk to a therapist or counsellor on a regular basis (even if you’re not experiencing issues, they can help you to work through your different emotions and your thoughts… the good, the bad and the ugly), spend time outdoors, take regular exercise, catch up with friends and family (even if it’s just by video chat), take regular breaks from social media, read a book, focus on having regular quality sleep, practice mindfulness (which I explored in Episode 42)… there are lots of different things you can do which serve to look after your overall wellbeing and have a positive effect on your emotions. Don’t leave things until you’re struggling; make time every day for self-care and consider it an investment in your health and wellbeing.
Be clear on your priorities and be authentic. I covered authenticity in Episode 55 and I talked about priorities all the way back in Episode 3, so you may find those useful to check out if you haven’t already. My main point here is to know what’s really important to you (such as your loved ones and also being true to yourself) and make that your priority in all things. Why is that important for your emotional health? Because it helps you to focus on what actually matters in order to let go of the stuff that just doesn’t matter.
Find a healthy balance between your work and your personal life. Everyone has their own thoughts about work and what drives them, so only you can decide on what a ‘healthy’ balance looks and feels like… but remember that your work doesn’t define who you are as a human being. I really strongly encourage you to work to live rather than living to work, because I think that it’s the relationships we have with those we care about that are the most important and valuable things in life. When you leave work at the end of the day, leave your work behind and don’t take it home with you (physically or emotionally)… no job is worth giving up your personal time for. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: money is good, but it’s not everything — it should be a means to an end, not a reason for living. I know from personal experience that when things go bad you can very quickly discover just how easily you can be replaced at work, and I’m sure that’s not the case for everybody but for most of us we’re not indispensable… so rather than trying to find meaning through your job, find meaning through the way you live your life which will make you more satisfied and then, ultimately, help you to do a better job. It’s all about having a healthy balance.
Learn to like yourself. Look, I certainly hope that you already do like yourself, however it’s another one of those things that takes time and effort. You do that by consistently making healthy life choices that serve to take you one step closer towards becoming the best version of yourself possible. If you slip up, forgive yourself but also learn from it so you can modify your approach to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again. I talked about self-esteem back in Episode 43 and I’d highly encourage you to check that out, because you need to be able to like the person that you are in order to feel good about yourself. If there are things that you’re not happy with, change them one step at a time in a way that is kind and non-judgemental.
Give yourself time and space when you need it (but manage it and do not wallow). I’ve talked quite openly in previous episodes about the fact that I’m prone to mood swings, and I have some days when I’m firing on all cylinders and other days when I just absolutely cannot do anything other than look after myself by taking a ‘me’ day. The thing is that you need to be strict with yourself in terms of not wallowing in the shitty feelings; I find it helpful to name what I’m feeling and let myself sit with it while I gently consider what’s going on underneath it, and I usually find that by doing that plus taking it easy on myself makes a big difference (for me, that means a few hours in front of the TV binge-watching one of my favourite shows or going down a YouTube rabbit-hole watching documentaries or travel shows)… find what works for you, but be firm with yourself and manage it so it doesn’t stretch from hours to days to weeks. If that is happening and you’re not able to manage it, get help: talk to a therapist or counsellor. I’m not even going to sugar-coat this and say talk to a friend, because realistically speaking with a friend is not going to be able to help you work through your emotions rationally and objectively, as they’re too close to you. You don’t necessarily have to physically go and see someone; thanks to COVID, more and more online mental health services are available so it just requires a little bit of time to search on the Googletron (yes, I know it’s not actually called Googletron!) and then away you go. I make this point quite strongly here as well, because if you’re experiencing a low mood or negative emotions for a prolonged period (two weeks or more) it may be a sign of an issue like depression, so it’s important to catch it early because things can spiral out of control quickly if left unmanaged. In the transcript I’ve included a link to the K-10 (find it here: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/k10.pdf) which is a widely-used questionnaire that measures the level of psychological distress; I don’t particularly encourage self-diagnosing but it does help you to quickly get a feel for what might be going on so that you can then go and talk to your doctor or therapist. Also let me note I’ve included a link to an Australian resource called This Way Up (find it here: https://thiswayup.org.au) which is a series of online self-paced courses to help you learn clinically-proven practical strategies for taking care of your mental health and dealing with conditions like depression and anxiety, so check that out. There’s also a really good quick guide by The Black Dog Institute here in Australia called When & Where to Seek Help (find it here: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/emergency-help/when-where-to-seek-help/) which gives you information about what to do if you’re struggling with your mental health, so find that in the transcript as well; just because these resources are Australian, that doesn’t mean they won’t be useful if you’re in another country. The main point here is to give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel, but do so in a way that is constructive and which has a clear plan on how you’re going to move forward (and if you need help, get help).
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to emotions and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: emotions are nothing to be ashamed of, because they are a huge part of this thing we call life. But it’s important to be aware of what’s driving our emotions and to find ways to manage them so that they don’t manage us. When we take the time to listen to what our emotions are telling us and we find ways to respond thoughtfully to what we’re feeling, we’re able to become more authentic and that, in turn, helps us to take positive steps every day towards being the very best version of ourselves that we can possibly be.
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by Oscar Wilde, and it is:
“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”Oscar Wilde
Next week I’ll be talking about meaning. We’re heading rapidly towards 2021 and it’s a time of year when many of us look at where we’re at and where we want to be in the new year, so over the next few weeks I’m going to be exploring a number of topics that are designed to help you to think about what you want your present and your future to look like, starting by exploring the idea of finding meaning in life and, more importantly, living a life that feels truly meaningful and authentic. So next week I’ll be talking about what meaning is, why it’s important for your mental health, and how to find greater meaning in your life every day.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 21 December in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia; the evening of Sunday 20 December in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 20 December in the US, Canada, Central America and South America.
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Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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