Emotionally Fit: Feeling Good; Living Well
During the early 2000’s, I ran several fitness bootcamps. I conducted these fitness camps in local parks. Running through neighborhoods surrounding parks, I passed out fliers, knocked on doors and recruited everyday folks to join in forty-five minutes of exercise twice a week. I adopted the name “Fit for Life” for these programs. The goal wasn’t to chisel bodies or train for a marathon. The program’s goal was to improve students fitness for performing the daily activities of living. Emotional fitness, at least for me, serves the same purpose. We develop a healthy relationship with our emotions, utilizing emotions as a driving force to achieve life objectives. We can train to be emotionally fit.
An Emotionally Fit Response to Destructive Emotions
Emotions are life forces. They push, pull, and manipulate behaviors. According to an evolutionary perspective, they are our survival instincts. Yet, emotions don’t always serve us well. Sometimes angry or fearful reactions destroy the relationships we crave. Intense reactions to insults may place our lives in jeopardy. We lose employment, indulge in passions, and destroy our health.
Martin E. P. Seligman reports that as “emotional fitness goes up, health care costs go decline.” Our ability to manage emotions, cultivating lifting experiences is directly related to our health. Seligman continues, “you have the power within you to figure out what inspires you, what makes you laugh, or what gives you hope, and to cultivate those emotions… this can help you optimize your life by setting up moments of genuine positivity for yourself.” He concludes, “these moments can help you to build your own personal and social resources that can be drawn upon in the future” (2011).
Emotional fitness isn’t suppressing emotions. We need the vitality and richness they provide. Emotions provide the force to motivate healthy action. We need emotion to flourish. Suppressing emotion leaves a gaping hole in our experience.
Another misguided approach to emotions is manipulating emotions for the sole purpose of “feeing better.” This is analogous with walking a mile a day so we can improve our ability to walk a mile a day. Certainly, a consistent walking program will improve our fitness for the walking program. However, the goal of walking should be to improve overall health, boosting the immune system and increasing strength and endurance for performing the necessary tasks of living.
The goal of a healthy relationship with emotion shouldn’t be simply to feel “positive emotions” but to improve emotions influence on positive action. A welcomed by-product of this healthy relationship with emotion is experiencing more positive emotions.
When we focus on obtaining “positive emotions,” we allow defensive shortcuts to intervene, relieving discomfort but destroying healthy movement towards life goals.
For example, we may say something mean to a partner. Our attacking remarks originally spark discomforting guilt. However, instead of using the guilt to drive change, an apology or effort to improve relationship skills, we sooth the guilt through justification (or blame), damaging an important relationship. We protect our ego, soothing the discomfort, but destroy our lives.
We adopt unfit reactions to emotion. Often these maladjusted reactions are learned in childhood or stressful times during our lives. We become addicted to the quick emotional fixes that mitigate discomfort but damage futures, creating more problems later that will continue to interfere with our wellness and destroy flourishing.
Our emotional physique becomes flabby. Small events arouse emotions and we lose focus. Our lives blow in the wind, never achieving our wondrous potential because we crumble when in the face of emotion. We soothe emotions with another cigarette, a drink, and bout of blaming. We hide from the challenges of growth by immersion in social media or countless hours of watching television. Dysregulated and destructive responses to emotion destroys many lives. Sadly, many our emotionally unfit for the bounteous blessings of a flourishing life.
An Emotional Walking Program
Many of us need a walking program to improve emotional fitness. A couple exercise to help achieve better emotional fitness are mindfulness and self-soothing. Research has found that mindfulness practices improve our relationship with emotion. Mindfulness is a key component of dialectical behavior therapy and emotion focused therapy. Mindfulness is a practice of compassionate attention to emotion. During mindfulness practices, we learn to turn attention inward, examine felt experience without judgement, experiencing the emotion with curiosity. Emotionally fit people can do this.
Some bursts of emotion powerfully interrupt. They invade wellness and commandeer behavior. Self-soothing is a collection of practices used to combat overwhelming emotional arousal. For example, healthy distraction serves personal development well. Sometimes, we must step back and focus attention away from the emotionally stimulating event. Healthy distraction should not be confused with constant avoidance but is more of a measured exposure, allowing our system to rebalance before continuing forward.
Exercise, hobbies, house or yard work, or any pleasurable activities may serve as a temporary distraction.
Research has found that deep breaths calm the body. When upset, a series of deep, slow breaths may bring our bodies back into a homeostatic balance. Often, once our physiological systems calm our minds follow suit. Often our appraisal of an event is the stimulating force behind an emotional reaction. The event may be neutral until we infuse it with meaning. By taking a moment to consider alternate interpretations, we may find a calming interpretation that soothes the original reaction.
Conscientious Purposeful Work
Emotional fitness isn’t perfectly obtained through a set outline of behaviors. Fitness is very individual, finding a paths that blends with our unique learning and biological profiles. We may need professional guidance and medical assistance in our journey towards an emotionally fit life.
Seligman, Martin E. P. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. Atria Books; 1st edition.