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We can’t control life’s ups and downs, but we can control the way we respond to them. Emotional wellness can help us navigate challenges and feel better. It can also lower our risk for physical and mental health issues and increase overall life satisfaction.
The National Institutes of Health offers the following emotional wellness definition: the ability to successfully handle life’s stresses and adapt to change and difficult times. I like to add that a core component of emotional wellness is emotional awareness, which includes recognizing how you experience feelings and why you’re having them.
I also like to use the word “effectively” instead of “successfully” because success implies that you can check something off and it’s done. In reality, emotional wellness is ongoing. It’s not something you either have or you don’t. It lives on a spectrum: The higher our emotional wellness level, the more effectively we navigate life, even when it’s painful.
Emotional pain is inevitable. If we can accept the fact that pain will happen, we can shift our focus and energy from trying to erase it to developing healthy coping skills so we don’t feel depleted when something upsetting happens.
Emotional wellness also allows us to more deeply absorb the richness of positive experiences because when we’re doing what keeps us emotionally well, we have more mental space to savor the good moments. This creates a positive feedback loop. When we really take in experiences that are positive or rejuvenating, we fill our “resilience tank.” Then, when something stressful happens, we’re able to deal with it better because we have “resilience reserves.”
When you boost your emotional well-being, your physical health also benefits because you’re able to manage stress better. Stress makes our bodies produce more cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone.” Studies have tracked cortisol levels and found that people with better emotional wellness recover from stress faster. This is important since chronic stress and high cortisol levels can lead to unwanted effects like memory loss, learning problems, heart disease, poor immune system functioning, and gastrointestinal issues.
What does it look like when someone has high levels of emotional wellness? Examples of emotional wellness include the following.
You acknowledge stress or difficult experiences but stay connected with the present. For example, you might find yourself saying, “I can recognize that this stressful thing is happening. I know it won’t last forever, and I feel like I can manage it.” There’s power in acknowledging that both can be true at the same time. You have a balanced perspective because your resilience tank isn’t depleted. Despite being stressed, you can put some focus toward day-to-day responsibilities and emotional wellness activities that will help you feel better.
You’re willing to respond to problems and make changes. This is necessary because when life is stressful or something unexpected and painful happens, it’s not realistic or helpful to continue business as usual. We need to make adjustments to accommodate and respond to the hard thing that’s happening. An emotional wellness example in this situation is accepting painful circumstances while also taking action because you view the stress and pain as a message that you need to make some adjustments.
You notice the small things in daily life that connect you to your values and what matters most. For example, say you’re having a day when your kids are screaming, everything is spilling, and chaos is erupting around you. Then you take a breath and say to yourself, “This is hard, but I’ve got this,” or “I’m grateful to have these little rugrats running around because it was really hard to have kids,” or “A family is a real value of mine, and how lucky we are that they can play with these toys and spill some milk, and it’s not the end of the world.” Genuinely connecting with those moments of gratitude can be transformative.
You protect your emotional well-being with healthy boundaries. You’re able to say no to invitations you don’t enjoy or that take time away from your priorities. You speak up at work when your bandwidth is low instead of taking on extra responsibilities that would lead to burnout or compromise your performance. You don’t let people speak to you in ways that are disrespectful or make you uncomfortable.
Everyone gets down on themselves sometimes, but part of having emotional wellness is overall liking and being kind to yourself. You can appreciate your strengths and you don’t berate yourself for mistakes or imperfections.
When your resilience tank is empty, it can wreak havoc in a number of ways. Here are some signs that your emotional well-being is suffering and it’s time for an adjustment.
Feeling overwhelmed by everyday stress is a good indication that you’re low on the emotional wellness scale. For example, you’re going and going and then this one small thing happens, like you break a glass, and it sends you into a rage or crying spell or you shut down completely.
You get into a mindset that everything is terrible and it won’t get better. You may feel you don’t have skills to pull yourself out of that dark place and everything feels bleak and pointless.
How do you react when things aren’t going well? Insert that version of yourself—whatever that looks like for you—and it’s usually a sign that your resilience tank is running on fumes. Maybe it’s snapping at a partner, child, or friend. Perhaps you’re less patient and have a short fuse. You may find it’s harder to fall or stay asleep.
Sometimes poor emotional wellness shows up as a sense of urgency. You think you need to keep doing and doing to catch up. There’s a feeling of, “I just have to keep doing more because it feels so overwhelming.”
In terms of physical health, you may deviate from healthy routines and habits. You forget to eat or you skip bathroom breaks. You prioritize dealing with the stressor over important foundational habits, like eating in a balanced way or getting enough sleep. You keep going until you can’t anymore. Some of us are prone to deprioritizing our needs for the sake of addressing the stressor. Sometimes it’s hard to really believe that we’re worth prioritizing.
If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed from poor emotional wellness, you may experience effects like irritability, mood swings, fatigue, insomnia, and appetite changes.
So how do you boost emotional wellness? Emotional well-being is built through steps you take to stay physically, mentally, and socially healthy. Here are some actionable emotional wellness tips to keep in mind.
Be intentional about setting emotional wellness goals. When we talk about the importance of mindfulness or enjoyable activities, think quality over quantity. Two minutes, five days a week is often better for the brain than two hours once every three months. That’s because focus and repetition help build and strengthen brain connections so we can activate them more easily when we need to pull on those resources. Proactive, frequent, bite-sized steps where we bring our full attention to a rejuvenating activity are more effective than multitasking.
Don’t underestimate the importance of seemingly basic physical health needs like sleeping in a balanced way, which means not just getting enough sleep but having a consistent sleep schedule. Eat nutritious food, and don’t wait too long between meals or overeat. Exercise or engage in physical activity, whatever that means for you. Doing something—even just a lap around the block—is better than nothing.
Be mindful about using external substances to cope with stress such as overeating, drinking alcohol, or using drugs. These coping methods can have an unanticipated impact on our mood, even though they feel helpful in the short term. It’s good to talk with a mental health coach or therapist if you’re engaging in unhealthy coping methods to make sure these aren’t becoming a bigger problem. This threshold looks a little different for everyone.
Building in moments of appreciation can shift emotional wellness in a positive direction. Gratitude can move our mood set point, which means we’re able to connect with more rejuvenating emotions like joy and feel less stuck in emotions that are more depleting such as sadness.
Building emotional well-being means consistently engaging in healthy habits, not waiting until you’re overwhelmed. Think of it as how you put little deposits in your bank account leading up to a big purchase instead of scrambling when a large expense arises. Filling your resilience tank is the idea of putting regular deposits in your emotional resilience account so when you get hit with a big stressor you don’t go into the red.
It’s important to have a community of people who care for you. Socializing is an emotional wellness activity that can reduce stress and lower your risk for depression and other mental health disorders. You can strengthen your support network in whatever way works best for you, whether that’s meeting a loved one for lunch, spending time with family, making a new friend, or even texting a friend or logging into a supportive social media group.
Another way to build emotional wellness is to honor your feelings and ask what purpose they’re serving. Bring your awareness to what you’re experiencing internally. That might start with naming the emotion. Notice what’s happening in your body by reflecting, “I’m getting butterflies in my stomach, my shoulders are tense, and my thoughts are scattered. I’m probably feeling pretty anxious right now.” Physical feelings give us clues about our emotions. Awareness of the sensations in your body, thoughts, and urges can create space to choose how you want to act on that emotion.
Emotions have served an evolutionary purpose and can signal how we need to take care of ourselves. Maybe sadness means you need to reach out to a friend, or feeling down on yourself is a reminder to ask yourself what practice or skills can enhance your self-esteem. Understanding the reason we’re having the emotion can point us to the best skill or intervention to use.
You don’t need to reach a crisis point in your emotional well-being to see a mental health coach or therapist. Behavioral health professionals can help you develop emotional wellness at any point in your life. It’s especially crucial to reach out to a professional if you feel like what’s happening is beyond your capacity to handle or you notice that your physical health is declining and you’re struggling to handle responsibilities or get enjoyment out of life.
Emotional wellness will benefit you throughout your life. A mental health professional can help you identify ways to keep your resilience tank full so you can navigate life more effectively and make room for more joy.