Emotions, anyone? May marks mental health awareness month—a subject near and dear to my heart. Although I feel relatively confident talking about mental health, I feel like a neophyte talking about emotions. We all have them, but we don’t all know what to do with them.
We all have areas, or domains, in our life that could use improvement. But knowing we need to improve and actually improving requires that we learn to set goals. The first domain we explored this year had to do with relational goals. This month we’ll address emotional goals. Don’t worry, this series won’t exhort you to act all touchy-feely and woo-woo. You may have grown up in a family of origin where no one talked about emotions or labeled some emotions as negative or positive. This month’s series will help you learn how to set emotional growth goals to help you improve both your mental health your relationships.
Is There a Difference Between Emotional Health and Mental Health?
“Do you need a hug?” the school counselor asked with sympathy in her voice.
“No,” I answered, “not right now. Maybe later after I’ve had time to think about it.” At the moment she asked the question, my adrenaline hadn’t stopped pumping from the lunchroom encounter with a vitriolic parent.
I have no idea what set him off, or why he came to the school and unleashed his vitriol on me. His child didn’t attend any of my classes. The union rep saw what happened and advised me to file an assault charge.
Later, after filling out a report for the school and declining to file a police report, I stopped shaking and took a step back to think about the situation. Maybe the parent suffered from a mental imbalance. Perhaps he had just lost his job or received bad news.
I knew in my heart that his accusations held no truth, after all, he knew nothing about me. I felt sad that a child had to live with a parent like that. My emotions felt a little raw so I went in search of the school counselor.
“I could use a hug now,” I told her. She embraced me and invited me to talk about it. She listened quietly while I recounted the story. She helped me identify my emotions: anger, fear, sadness, shock, hurt, and distress.
Looking back at this incident, I realize that emotional health and mental health don’t equal each other. My mental health remained unaffected by the assault, but my emotions felt ravaged.
Good Mental Health Helps You Process Your Emotions in a Healthy Way
Andrea Herron on WebMD defines the difference between mental and emotional health and their relationship this way,
“Mental health refers to your ability to process information. Emotional health, on the other hand, refers to your ability to express feelings which are based upon the information you have processed.”Andrea Herron
In order to deal effectively with stress (both positive and negative) and take care of yourself, you need to set both mental and emotional health goals. The sooner, the better.
Signs You Need to Work on Your Mental Health
You may want to seek help to improve your mental health if you have a combination of the following symptoms.
- Lack of interest in activities that you normally enjoy
- Over or undereating
- Persistent sad, anxious, or ‘empty’ feelings
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
- Loss of hope and feelings of pessimism
- Physical symptoms that won’t go away, even when treated
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
- (many of these are found at WebMD)
Think of mental health as the filter through which you interpret events. If you have a clogged filter, you might struggle to interpret things.
When our daughter had an undiagnosed mental illness, she either interpreted things one of two ways. For her, ninety percent of the input felt like an attack on her and her decisions. The other ten percent of the time, everything seemed blissfully simple. She bounced between “Why do you want to ruin my life?” and “I’m going to fly to Europe with no money.”
In teenagers, these symptoms may look different. You can see a list here, written by a teenager who suffers from depression.
Bipolar Disorder shares many of these symptoms but has a few unique ones. You can see a list here.
Never feel ashamed (and never shame someone) for seeking help with your mental health. People don’t get embarrassed to visit a doctor for diabetes. Improving your mental health will improve your physical health (and vice-versa).
Find a licensed therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I don’t suggest visiting a clergy member unless he or she also has a counseling license through an accredited school or university (which includes hundreds of hours of clinical practice as an intern). You wouldn’t take your car to the hairdresser to get fixed. You’d take it to a licensed mechanic.
Signs You Need to Work on Your Emotional Health
Knowing whether or not you need to work on your emotional health seems a little trickier. With the exception of a six-month period after my husband recovered from cancer, I’ve enjoyed good mental health.
But I struggle with emotional health. It sounds weird, I know. I didn’t grow up naming my emotions. No one taught me that humans have a variety of emotions—none of them negative or positive. They just happen.
I grew up just a little afraid of my emotions—especially the personal ones such as loneliness, guilt, inadequacy, shame, fear, and anger.
You may want to consider setting goals to improve your emotional health if you find yourself:
- overreacting to situations (especially if you repeatedly overreact to the same situation).
- alienating friends and family by angry outbursts.
- realizing you have no idea why you reacted the way you did.
- crippling yourself with negative self-talk.
- using unhealthy tactics to deal with emotions (sugar, alcohol, food).
Rather than acknowledge my deep fear of Pedro’s possible death, I soothed myself with food. Lots of it. Instead of acknowledging my fear of failure, I choose to listen to crippling negative self-talk. You get the picture.How's your emotional health? Find out how to set emotional health goals today. #emotionalhealth #stress #selfcare #SelfCareSunday Click To Tweet
Set Emotional Health Goals
When we set emotional health goals, we give ourselves space and time to ponder the way we react to life. Improving our reactions and sense of calm will help us make better decisions, improve our relationships with others, and break through the barricades that prevent us from finding success.
- Determine Your Why: Write down why you want to improve your emotional health.
- Decide When: Figure out when you’ll work on it (a journal in the evening? A morning self-awareness check?)
- Write a Vision Statement: Pick a specific situation that occurs regularly that you’d like to change and write a future-tense scenario. “When my kids ask me what’s for supper, I patiently remind them to look at the menu on the refrigerator. I smile and ask about their day.”
- Read Your Vision Statement Every Day: Accomplishing goals requires us to keep them at the forefront of our minds. Read your why statement weekly and your vision statement daily.
Come back next week for specific self-care hacks to help you get in touch with your emotions.