If you’re like most people, you struggle to keep everything in life upbeat and positive. You separate “good” emotions from “bad” ones and keep a running tally. You wake up feeling a little blue and consider it a bad day. Your wallet is stolen but you hold your temper; that’s chalked up to a good day. You paste on a smile so that no one will see how stressed you are.
Learning to embrace and work through all your emotions is a better way to stay mentally fit. Even emotions like stress, anger and sadness have their uses.
What is good emotional health?
Even people with mental illness can be emotionally healthy.
You ‘re emotionally healthy if you understand that stress, anger, disappointment, frustration, sadness and many other feelings are a part of life. You approach your changing moods from a balanced perspective. You express what you’re feeling in appropriate ways. You don’t let emotions cause bad behavior. You seek underlying causes for persistent anger, stress or sadness. You know when to ask for help if you have trouble coping.
In short, you learn how to make your emotions work for you.
Where does anger come from?
You get angry because your brain sends signals when it perceives a threat. Muscles tense up. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. A surge of adrenaline and other chemicals is released.
Anger doesn’t blow up out of nowhere. A single event like that stolen wallet may set you off. You may suddenly snap after a number of petty annoyances pile up. Anger may stem from feeling unappreciated at work or in your marriage. Long-term, smoldering anger could indicate deep-seated resentment over an injustice in the past. Certain medical conditions or brain chemistry can trigger anger, too.
Is anger ever a good thing?
Anger can teach you to communicate more effectively. It can motivate you to make changes for the better. It can lead to conflict resolution and greater intimacy in relationships.
Taking time to identify the source of anger is the key to responding in a healthy way.
Maybe it’s time you spoke up and stopped letting your coworker take advantage of you. Maybe your rebellious teenager would benefit from some angry attention. Maybe you’ve suppressed some anger that, if shared, would enhance your marriage.
How can I keep from flying off the handle?
Be prepared for occasional flare-ups. Learn to recognize familiar triggers, like traffic snarls or poor restaurant service. While these things are out of your control, your response to them is up to you. Plan a different route to work or listen to soothing music during your commute. Write a constructive letter to the restaurant manager.
Responding well is trickier when people are involved. If possible, take a short time to cool down and decide how you’ll respond. This can backfire if you suppress your anger for long periods of time, but in general, thinking before you speak or act saves a lot of regret.
Tell friends or loved ones what’s bothering you. Avoid confrontations with strangers, but if words are exchanged, remain calm and suggest ways to resolve the conflict.
Expressing anger appropriately is far healthier than holding it inside. A counselor or minister may be a good sounding board. If you can’t pinpoint the source of your anger, schedule a check up with your physician to rule out medical issues.
What if I’m angry all the time?
You may need help from a mental health professional if your anger is constant and long-term or if you have violent outbursts. Warning signs that your anger is emotionally unhealthy include:
- Regularly holding in your anger rather than expressing how you feel
- Going through almost every day with impatience, irritability, cynicism or hostility
- Feeling anxious, guilty or depressed about your anger
- Overeating or resorting to substance abuse to control your anger
- Tuning out friends or relatives who have expressed concern
- Frequently picking verbal fights
- Threatening people or property
- Giving in to frightening behavior, like road rage or breaking things
- Committing physical violence
How can I deal with stress?
Like anger, stress is perfectly natural. You’re stressed because outside influences disturbed the happy balance you’re used to in your environment. Your body sounded an alarm to the regions of your brain that control fear, mood and motivation. Your brain then signaled the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help you adjust. Your brain knows just what you need for managing stress.
It may be hard to believe, but stress does serve a purpose.
If you’re about to perform in a Broadway musical, for example, you’ll get a much-needed boost of excitement and energy. If a hungry bear approaches your campsite, you’ll have a fight-or-flight reflex that could save your life. If your toddler gets into a household cleaning product, you’ll kick into emergency mode.
You’ll do all these things because your brain released the appropriate stress hormones. When you don’t need them anymore, the hormones subside.
But what if I sweat the small stuff?
When you let every little thing stress you out, your hormones never have a chance to subside. At consistently high levels, they can be harmful. Long-term exposure can adversely affect brain chemistry, blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels.
Approach stress realistically. Finances, pressure to succeed, traumatic events and major life changes are bound to cause stress now and then. You can’t always avoid it, but you can meet it head-on.
The following practices are great stress-busters:
- Nurturing your spiritual life
- Eating healthy foods and staying hydrated
- Getting plenty of sleep
- Taking a relaxing class, like ballet or yoga
- Making new friends
- Maintaining your sense of humor
- Saving plenty of time for yourself — reading, journaling or relaxing in the bath
Your emotional health is at risk if you stress over insignificant things or, even worse, worry about “what-ifs” that haven’t happened yet. If your physical health is suffering or if your stress has taken a toll on relationships, visit your medical doctor and seek counseling.
What should I do when I’m sad?
Sadness is not a bad thing, now and then.
Songs, paintings, poems and great works of literature were inspired by sadness. Sadness has set the scene for memorable plays and award-winning movies. Many historical events that changed the world for the better are remembered with heavy hearts.
Research scientists have delved into the advantages of mild, occasional sadness. They’ve found that it can sharpen observation skills and improve memory. Presumably, people having a sad day slow down. They are less social and more introspective. They focus on details without the distractions of busyness.
Sadness can also draw you closer to others as you rely on their support. It can make you more sensitive to people who need you and increase your empathy. It can compel you to volunteer where there is need.
Don’t fight occasional sadness. Now and then, it’s a source of strength.
On the other hand, don’t wallow in it. Left unchecked, strengths can easily become weaknesses. Frequent sadness can give way to full-blown depression.
When should I try to snap out of it?
You should take your sadness more seriously if:
- You have one or several relatives with a history of depression or other mental disorders
- You were ever a victim of violence, verbal abuse or sexual abuse
- You feel empty, unhappy, apathetic, guilty or unworthy most of the time
- You are tired and lethargic every day
- You lose interest in relationships, work, hobbies or pleasurable activities like sex
- You can’t sleep or you sleep too much
- You have no appetite or you consistently overeat, even when you’re not hungry
- You consistently have trouble concentrating, remembering things or making decisions
- You readily accept blame for things beyond your influence or control
- You have frequent, unusual headaches or unexplained aches and pains
- Your friends, family members or coworkers are concerned about you
- You struggle with substance abuse
- You often think about death or suicide
If any of these describe you, see a doctor. Depression is sometimes a physical problem that is easily remedied. It may also indicate a chemical imbalance.
If your doctor gives you a clean bill of health, schedule an appointment with a mental health specialist. Enlist the support of people you love and trust. Accept the advice and help you need. Getting to the root causes of depression may be a painful process, but there is every reason to hope for recovery and emotional wellness.
What’s a healthy way to think about my emotions?
Emotions aren’t your enemies. The most admired figures in history experienced stress, frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, loneliness, guilt and fear. The key to good emotional health is thinking of your moods and feelings as useful tools to help you grow and improve.
Emotional wellness is a matter of mastering your moods before they master you.