What You Should Know About Emotional Fitness

Strategies for staying healthy

Illustration by Gloria Diianni

You might figure you’ve got your physical health pretty well covered with regular exercise, healthful eating, and plenty of shut-eye. But don’t overlook your emotional fitness, which has far-reaching implications and, given the times we live in, might need a little more TLC than usual.

Our mental outlook and emotions can affect more than our tendency to be grumpy or good-humored. Optimism, for example, has been linked with longer life and a significantly reduced risk of dying from several major causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and infection.

“There is a connection between what we think, what we’re feeling, what our behaviors are, and even how our body behaves physically in terms of illness and recovery,” says Ann-Marie Bishop, MSW, LICSW, an outpatient behavioral health clinician at Catholic Medical Center. “Our body tries to synchronize things so that they all work together, so if someone has a belief that ‘I’m going to be OK’ … it leads to feeling better and it will kind of lean the body toward doing the things that it needs to do health-wise” to help achieve that outcome.

Thoughts and feelings affect physical health indirectly by influencing behavior. People who are depressed, for example, might attempt to cope through substance abuse or misuse. They might sleep too much, eat poorly or withdraw from others, says Justin Looser, LICSW, ACHE, the New Hampshire market director for Behavioral Health at Frisbee Hospital, Parkland Hospital and Portsmouth Hospital.

But thoughts and emotions alone can also directly affect our physical well-being. Stress, for example, prompts the body to release cortisol, a hormone that hampers the immune system, leaving us more susceptible to disease. Chronic stress raises the risk of many health problems, including heart disease, digestive trouble, headaches and weight gain.

The correlation between what’s in our head and what happens in the rest of our body has gained increasing attention among healthcare professionals, Looser says, with the recognition that whether a doctor is treating high blood pressure or some other ailment, “if your patient is going back to a house that’s fraught with financial stress, marital problems, family problems — whatever it may be — you’re never going to get to the root of someone’s overall health unless you address all of their socioeconomic and psychosocial stressors.” Many primary care offices, Looser says, now employ therapists to supplement and dovetail with physical care.

In addition, individuals can help themselves through a variety of techniques. The first step is to pay attention to what you’re thinking, Bishop says. Rather than going through your days on autopilot as so many of us do, try to recognize your habitual thought patterns and change the thoughts that you associate with situations that make you anxious, stressed, angry or feeling some other negative emotion. Deep breathing, mentally “stepping away” from the problem, positive thinking, and believing in your ability to handle the situation will help defuse rising emotions so that the fight-or-flight instincts can “simmer down,” Bishop says, and enable the part of the brain related to reasoning and decision-making to think more clearly.

These steps, along with seeking outside help when you need it, will not only improve your odds of achieving goals or making positive changes in your life, they will help you feel better and protect your physical health. “If you feel like you’re going to fail, then it’s more likely that you will,” Bishop says. “And if you feel like there might be a positive outcome and you feel that you can find a creative way to overcome things, then your brain and your body are going to follow suit. … Calm thinking leads to calm chemicals [being released in the body],” which allows your body to relax and avoid the physical harm that can result from having a negative outlook or emotions.

Emotional and mental health are not to be trifled with. “It’s an important subject,” Looser says, “and I think the largest thing we can do around mental health and physical health is to decrease the stigma around mental health and what that means. It’s a real thing [that] can be treated and cured” when problems arise.

For better health, express yourself

If you struggle emotionally, don’t ignore it or keep it to yourself. To help safeguard physical as well as mental health, share your concerns or feelings with someone, whether it’s a family member, friend, healthcare provider or hotline worker, so that harmful emotions and thoughts do not escalate, says Justin Looser, LICSW, ACHE, the New Hampshire market director for Behavioral Health at Frisbee Hospital, Parkland Hospital and Portsmouth Hospital.

Left to our own inner negative thinking, our thoughts tend to snowball. Work-related stress, for example, might initially manifest itself in sleepless nights, then progress to worries of job loss, and escalate into fears of losing home and family, “when the actual reality is unlikely to be that you’ll be homeless,” Looser says. Keeping worrisome thoughts to yourself enables them to intensify and to worsen stress and anxiety.

To break the cycle, “let people know how you feel,” Looser says. “Letting that stress out of you and putting it out in the world … makes it an actual thing that can lead to a plan to improve it. By keeping it in, those emotions will only continue to compound themselves” and potentially put physical health at risk.

Categories: Health & Wellness