Unlike physical health issues, which are often obvious and have readily identifiable symptoms or pain sensations, mental and emotional well-being can be a bit more tricky. Now more than ever, we should be paying attention to mental and emotional health and how we process feelings. The rise of mental illness in the US, especially among teens and young adults, is alarming. Depression and suicide rates are not only the highest in the past 30 years but of all time, and suicide attempts are starting younger and younger. So what are some ways we can take action to better address mental health together?
The Difference Between Physical and Emotional Health
Age-related physical health issues like muscle pain, joint pain, and limited motion, or disability, usually don’t hit most people until middle age or older. It’s fairly uncommon for teens and people in their 20s and 30s to experience chronic aches and pains unless they sustain some sort of injury.
Emotional issues, however, seem to manifest much more often when kids reach adolescence, although research is showing they could start at much earlier ages as a result of traumas. Things like sexual molestation, physical or emotional abuse, an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional parent, or a variety of other childhood influences, can all lead to emotional traumas with lasting effects. Sometimes the causes are less clear — mental and emotional trauma can occur for many reasons.
What Happens When Emotional Issues Mount
These emotional issues can easily get stuffed down where they fester for years. They can affect your decisions in life (sometimes without your even being aware of it), and can lead to isolation, depression, drug use, alcohol use, job loss, or abuse of your friends and relationships. They can also lead to unhealthy relationships.
As pressure from these various events and stressors builds, it can begin to feel that life is falling apart. Sometimes it takes an intervention or counseling to help a person suffering in such a way regain strength, and deal with the ways all those incidents negatively impacted them. This can involve a painful but beneficial process of rebuilding, discarding old and harmful beliefs and presuppositions, and forgiving others who have contributed to the suffering, intentionally or not.
What You Can Do To Be More Emotionally Sound
So what can you do now? There’s no quick cure for serious trauma, of course. But there are a number of things that mental health practitioners have suggested that you can do right now to help you stay more mentally healthy:
1. Get in touch with your emotions
Sounds cliche, but it’s true. Sometimes people may call you a “crybaby”, a “whiner” or a “drama queen”, or tells you to “be strong, don’t let this get you down” or perhaps “what happened to you isn’t a big deal, get over it”, This advice may feel like tough love to them, but it's generally not beneficial. Sometimes your friends and loved ones are genuinely trying to help you but lack understanding, and other times they are asking you to do what will make them feel the most comfortable. Either way, an injury does not heal if it’s left untreated, and emotional or psychological injuries are just as real as physical ones. What you need is someone who can actually listen to you explain how you feel, and take you seriously. If you try to just “get over it”, you may end up suppressing your emotions rather than addressing them in a healthy way. And suppressed emotions can mean ongoing physical and emotional pain or illness over time, or behaviors that you don’t realize are the result of these negative impacts.
Learn how to express your emotions positively. There are classes you can find online that may be able to help with this. Sometimes they take the form of anger management classes: how to be assertive, how to deal with your emotions, or even how to deal with difficult people. Or you may be able to find therapy or support groups. Don’t let a negative stigma associated with “counseling” prevent you from attending to your emotional health. Whether through groups, classes, or counseling, it’s important to learn healthy ways to manage your emotions. Especially since this topic is not one taught in typical schools or even in many home situations. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can raise your emotional intelligence once you’re empowered with knowledge, and how doing so can change your life positively.
2. Improve your diet
What you eat is affecting you every minute of the day. It affects how you perceive situations and react to them. For example, if your blood sugar level is low because you eat sugar or processed foods, you will tend overreact to situations and have more drastic emotional swings. This behavior can lead to further issues as your relationships with others become fraught.
If you’re looking for a diet that may contribute to mental and emotional stability, look for one that is:
- Low in chemicals, preservatives, and pesticides (toxins), including high fructose corn syrup found in many beverages
- Low or absent in sugars except from low glycemic index fruit
- Normal to higher in protein
- Normal or higher in fat
- A little low on calories, but not too strict
- Low in overall carbohydrates
- High in fiber
- Low in foods like wheat and other grains that are high on the glycemic index scale
- Low in processed foods and beverages like soda
- Not excessive in caffeine intake
- Includes grass-fed meats and wild fish rather than commercially produced meats
- High in vegetables and fruits, moderate in nuts and seeds
This type of diet isn’t one you can easily change to overnight but the more of these rules of thumb you start to incorporate over time, the greater the emotional stability you will see in your own life. Your relationships with friends and loved ones may improve as well.
3. Exercise regularly
Exercise resets your body’s ability to deal with stress. It can really be any type of exercise — bicycling, walking, powerlifting, working out with weights or swimming — all of these will do your mind and body good. Exercise releases endorphins that improve your mood and overall sense of wellbeing. Some routines, like yoga, incorporate activities like stretching and breathing exercises that can help you relax and calm your mind.
4. Conscious Breathing
Conscious breathing can be used to help calm and rejuvenate the body. It’s a great way to get a few moments of freedom from stressors and racing thoughts. Conscious breathing is just being aware of your breath while being present in the moment. This type of breathing is much different from the regular breaths you take that go unnoticed. Most of us only take very small inhales and even shorter breaths when anxious, nervous, angry, or scared. This is because breathing naturally becomes more rapid during periods of stress. This type of breathing, however, does not allow your lungs to fully oxygenate the body, something that needs to happen to promote relaxation. Conscious breathing, on the other hand, allows for a deeper, more free breath.
This practice promotes fully oxygenating your organs and tissues, in turn calming that "fight or flight" impulse in the body. This can be a wonderful way to bring awareness to the present moment and to acknowledge how you are feeling.
5. Get enough Vitamin D
On top of vitamin D’s impressive immune-boosting benefits, it can also be very helpful when it comes to our mood. Research has shown that getting adequate amounts of vitamin D may be a very cost-effective way to help those suffering from depression on top of supporting long-term health. Other studies have found that the lower the vitamin D level, the greater the chance of depression. You can get more vitamin D by getting out into the sun, consuming foods that contain it, or finding a healthy vitamin D supplement.
Remember that your emotional health and mental health is every bit as important as your physical health, and very often the two are connected. Caring for your heart is one of the most important things you can do in life for success in your relationships, job, and in the way you view yourself and process life events.