How to Establish a Healthy Emotional Life
Editor’s Note: The following excerpt was adapted from The Wheel of Healing: An Easy Guide to an Ayurvedic Lifestyle.
Did you know that it’s just as important to process your emotions as it is to process your meals? When you don’t process your food properly, your body accumulates toxins, develops free radicals, and creates cellular instability that leads to illnesses such as cancer or heart disease.
When you fail to process your emotions and experiences, you create toxins of another sort. Emotional toxins manifest as anxiety, depression, sadness, hopelessness, anger, rage, impatience, or guilt. Over time, emotional toxins build up, and if you don’t clear them regularly they morph into physical symptoms and ultimately disease. Much like exercise helps maintain balance in the physical body, the following tools can be used to keep your emotions in check.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways to clear emotional toxins. When you start to meditate regularly, emotions come up that may have been building for years. This is normal; look at it as an emotional detox. When you start exercising after a period of inertia, the physical body begins to rid itself of toxins. Meditation does the same thing to your emotional body.
When you first start meditating, you may experience sadness, feel like crying, or think about someone who left your life long ago. Whatever your experience, let the feeling come up. These are unresolved emotions from your past. If you become overwhelmed during your meditation, stop and write down your thoughts and feelings. The more you’ve been avoiding these emotions, the more overwhelmed you might feel. Embrace it; it means you’re getting healthier.
Another positive effect meditation can have on your emotional health is in your reactions to events and experiences. When you meditate, you enter a state of calm awareness. After your meditation, you tend to remain in this state for a while, and the non-reactive state can make its way into your overall nature. Often meditators talk about letting things slide off their backs instead of reacting. It’s like taking a step back from the situation as if you were the observer. This happens without even trying and occurs by virtue of your meditation practice.
Take Responsibility for Your Feelings
Taking responsibility for your feelings is by far the most important level you can reach in emotional health. In the book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman presents the idea that it doesn’t matter what your intelligence quotient is if your emotional intelligence is low. Instinctively we know this when we see people behave obnoxiously or “out of control” in public.
The trouble is that society puts greater emphasis on measurable intelligence through tests, grades, and degrees. From the time you start of school, you’re constantly being compared and evaluated for what you know. Little emphasis is placed on your emotions, how you manage feelings, or how you treat others.
In the real world, however, success is based more on emotional health than IQ. For example, if a CEO of a company consistently “loses it” or gets angry easily, he or she probably won’t be an effective leader. In relationships, partners who take responsibility for their feelings will be more successful at problem solving and relationship building than those who constantly blame the other person.
The most important thing to realize is that you are in control of your emotions. You can interpret events, circumstances, words, and exchanges in many different ways. If you respond negatively, it’s because you have preset notions or ideas about how things should be. Other people are not responsible for your preset notions. Most of the time, when you experience negative emotions, the reaction is based on assumptions rather than confirmed fact. Even if your feelings are completely justified they’re still yours and you have control over them. Whatever it is you’re feeling, take ownership of it. By owning the feeling, it has a tendency to dissipate.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with experiencing a negative feeling or emotion about a situation; feelings are a normal part of existence. It’s what you do with those feelings that matter. This first step is to take complete ownership for what you feel.
Deal With Your Emotions as They Come Up
Ignoring your emotions and feelings is like ignoring a persistent toddler. They will bother you until they get what they want, so it’s better to deal with them as they arise. Start by identifying the emotion that’s in your head—happiness, sadness, love, anger, hate, frustration, urgency, impatience, or desperation—and then target where you feel the emotion in your body. For example, feelings in relation to love are lightness in the heart, an airy head, or butterflies in the stomach. Feelings related to anger can be a “hot” head, a churning stomach, or tense muscles.
If frustration manifests itself as a growling stomach, you may be frustrated by hunger as opposed to the situation that set you off. Or perhaps you react negatively to a co-worker, but when you place your hand on your head to assimilate the emotion, you come to the conclusion that your anger is due to an email you read minutes before.
A great way to identify the emotion and link it to a feeling is to ask yourself the following questions:
- What am I feeling?
- Where am I feeling it in the body?
- Why am I reacting this way?
- Have I reacted this way to a similar situation before?
- Is it possible to react differently?
While answering these questions, avoid judging yourself. You’re simply gathering evidence and clues to your reaction.
Once you’ve targeted the physical manifestation of your emotion, pay attention to your body. Take a few deep breaths into the area where your body is experiencing discomfort. As you breathe, notice how the discomfort starts to dissipate when you acknowledge it.
Be a Conscious Choice-Maker
Once you’re aware of your feelings, you have a choice whether or not you wish to express them. You may think you don’t have a choice about what you’re feeling, but the choice is always yours. Your instinct might be to react in the same way you’ve always reacted, but you don’t have to.
The same stimulus or situation can create any emotional reaction you choose. If you don’t make assumptions, or if you entertain several different possibilities, you can choose calmness, curiosity, and freedom from your gut reactions.
Still there are situations that will invoke a strong emotional reaction. Suppose there’s a movie you want to see and you invite a friend to come along; your friend is late and you miss the beginning of the movie. This particular friend has been late in the past and you start to feel disappointment, anger, frustration, or maybe even rage when your friend shows up. But you stuff the feelings down and simply say, “Oh, that’s O.K. we’ve only missed a few minutes.”
A reaction like this doesn’t necessarily make you a conscious choice-maker because rather than expressing your feelings to your friend in a healthy manner, you negate them. Rest assured, they will creep up at a later time. Your choices of feeling and expressing are not in sync. In order to sync them up, you should say something, for example: “You’re a dear friend and I love you, but when you’re not on time I feel frustrated because I need you to respect my time. In the future, would you mind planning an extra fifteen minutes so that you’ll be on time?” This method, known as Conscious Communication, can help you process your emotions and feelings in a healthy way.
Be Process-Oriented Rather Than Goal-Oriented
Growth takes time. Most of you have worked hard on your education, at your job, at being a parent or a friend. But have you ever been coached on how to work with your emotions? Just like anything else that requires your attention, creating a healthy emotional life takes time. You will reach higher aspects of yourself through practice, and trail and error. If you’re 30, 40, 50 years old or more, you’ve been developing your emotional habits for just as long. Don’t expect instant results.
Through the practice of meditation and cultivating awareness, you’ll begin to recognize your emotions, and how you react to various situations and people. Through awareness of your emotions, you’ll start to identify ways you’d like to modify your reactions.
Take note of day-to-day changes and be mindful of your triggers. If you’re a Pitta type and you haven’t had lunch and it’s 2 p.m., your emotional trigger is likely due to hunger. Or if you’re a Vata type and it’s been cold and windy all day, your reaction is probably due to discomfort in the body. Triggers can happen with people close to you as well. You may notice that certain people know how to “push your buttons.” These are emotional triggers. When you notice these, write them down, and create a plan to eventually change your trigger reaction.
Most importantly, be honest with yourself. If a loved one or friend points out a trigger or an emotional reaction you’re having, instead of getting angry or upset, look inside to see if there’s truth in what they said. Celebrate each time you honor your desire for change and enjoy the process of watching yourself grow emotionally.