Emotions are one of the cornerstones of the mind-body connections. While no one exactly agrees on how to define an emotion, they do basically all agree on how emotions are created and what they tend to “look like”.
At their core, emotions help us to understand the world around us and interpret the sensations of our own bodies in response to these experiences. For example, some discomfort in your stomach and sweaty palms when you have a pop quiz at school might be interpreted as the emotion of anxiety. Or perhaps a similar stomach flutter when you see someone of the opposite gender might be interpreted as attraction.
If you look closely at those examples, there are 4 basic components that the emotion is made of:
- Physiological Response: an automatic response of your body to whatever is going on in your environment
- Cognitive Patterning: both the way your mind anticipates what will happen next, fills in the assumed motivations of others and interpret how others appear to be reacting to the current set of circumstances
- Subjective Experience: your personal preferences, opinions and general impressions of an experience
- Behavioral Response: your natural and instinctive behaviors in response to your body’s signals and your environment
(These 4 components were proposed by Gilam & Hendler in 2017)
The Powerful Implication for Your Physical Health
Because your emotions are one of the basic barometers of your mind-body connection, your emotions can easily manifest physical symptoms. This can happen when a strong – or simply unresolved – emotion is present.
This means that extra stress at work could show up as some neck pain. Or perhaps the unresolved anxiety you have over an awkward situation with a friend could show up as some digestion problems. There are even charts (like this great one) that suggests what pain areas might suggest as far as an emotional root cause.
The Mind-Body Connection is a Two-Way Path
It’s important to note that while this post is primarily focusing on the emotional contribution to overall health, it’s not a one-way connection. Your mind is constantly sending signals to your body. Your body is constantly sending signals to your mind. Your emotions are trying to process all of those signals in context with your external social environment.
So while we tend to think of “emotional health” as being on the mind side of the mind-body connection, that’s not exactly true.
Also, because it’s a two-way path it’s important to note that your mind can cause physical symptoms and your physical body can cause mental symptoms.
This research study actually suggests as much as 20% of primary care complaints could be at least in part due to the mind creating physical symptoms, a process call somatization.
There’s less research that directly discusses how your physical health can impact your mental status. But just try getting a little dehydrated, eating poorly for a few days, not getting any natural light for a week or so and getting little if any sleep. You can probably imagine that this will lead to some grumpy behavior and some less-than-optimistic thinking patterns. It could also increase your risk for depression, anxiety and expressions of other mental health problems.
Strange but True Research on Emotions and Your Health
- Expressing affection can lower your stress hormones, cholesterol, and blood pressure while improving your immunity
- Having a 30 minute argument can slow your healing by “at least a day”
- Chronic stress can result in high blood pressure, muscle pain, insomnia, weakened immune system, and even increase your risk for developing heart disease and diabetes
- There are a lot of positive effects love has on our health making relationships a huge way to boost our own health!
- Laughter really is a medicine! It can shut down your stress hormones, trigger calming neurotransmitters and even lower inflammation levels
- When you cry because of emotional stress, you actually release stress chemicals from your body… so don’t hold them in!
All of this research supports the idea that we were created with love and joy as a core foundation of our lives. So make sure you are cultivating your relationships with others if you want to be healthy!
Understanding How to Quantify Emotions
While emotions may seem very feminine and potentially have the connotation of being a weak quality, people with high emotional intelligence actually seem to be more successful!
Emotional intelligence is composed of 5 parts:
- Self awareness: ability to identify emotions as they are happening
- Self regulation: your ability to adapt to negative or surprising circumstances, your abilty to bounce back from or shake off negative emotions
- Motivation: your internal initiative to set and achieve goals
- Empathy: awareness and sensitivity to the emotional cues from other people, ability to recognize and meet the emotional needs of others
- Social Skills: ability to leverage social cues to create authentic relationships
To give you some context, the absence of emotional intelligence is one the hallmarks of autism.
Most research coming out right now is confirming that emotional intelligence can be taught. In fact, here’s a TED talk from Lisa Feldman Barrett who claims you can actively create your emotions!
If you want to check it out, there are several emotional intelligence tests available online. Some are free but the paid ones are generally more accurate. They also vary in how long they are- typically the longer the better. I don’t really have any to recommend over the others because I simply haven’t taken enough of them to form an opinion.
Suggestions for how to improve your emotional intelligence
Include a Regular Mind-Body Therapy to Your Wellness Routine
Because your emotions play such a vital role in the mind-body connection, most mind-body therapies will directly impact your emotional wellbeing. These include
All of these will encourage you to strengthen the connection between your mind and body by helping you be more present, practice active awareness of your body and thought patterns, and in some cases lead you to create new thought patterns or beliefs to focus on.
Practice Naming Your Emotions Throughout the Day
You don’t have to tell anyone else around you, but plan to check your emotions at regular times throughout the day. Perhaps at meal times, or every time you take a sip of a drink, or every time you start to walk somewhere. Let those activities be the trigger for you to quickly self-evaluate how you are feeling right then. It might help if you want to keep a journal, but I would recommend only using a few words to express how you feel. It will encourage you to find the best word for how you feel right then.
Decide to Focus on the Positive
People who are emotionally resilient are able to see changes as new opportunities. They can find the silver lining and the motivation to keep going when it’s just plain hard.
Review Your Self Care Rituals
Basic self care is so important to your overall health, but also to emotional wellbeing. Here’s a long list of suggestions to consider adding to your typical routine.
Make Emotions Your Secret Health Weapon
You can eat all the right things and exercise often, but if you are holding onto emotional baggage you won’t be healthy. It just shows up when you aren’t ready to deal with it. It drags you down in ways you might not expect.
But instead, if you are proactively managing your emotions, you can probably get away with being less-than-perfect on your diet or exercise habits and still experience progress. This is because your emotions can absolutely become your secret health weapon. When you are doing the basic things to move the needle in all other areas of your health, your emotional regulation skills act as a buffer.
I hope this post has inspired you to take a more careful look and how your emotional life might be impacting your mental and physical health and wellbeing. It’s definitely another layer of health that is often overlooked even in the wellness and preventative health fields!
If you found it helpful or you have a personal experience to share, I would love to hear it. You can post in the comments or shoot me an email on the contact page. i would love to hear your story!
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