We know our minds and bodies are connected, but how much do emotions affect our physical health? And are there things we can do to manage them?
WellTuned checked in with Dr. Jill Amos, licensed behavioral health psychologist for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, to find out.
“Our emotions affect our bodies and vice versa,” says Dr. Amos. “If you feel depressed, you may start sleeping too much or too little, overeating or not eating enough. That makes your body feel run down, which leads you to become moredepressed, and that impacts your hormones, brain function, metabolism, heart and so on. The same is true of anxiety or grief, which can even make you feel physically ill or in pain. We start by treating the symptoms to get back to the root of the problem. If you’re not sleeping, how do we improve that? If it’s a lack of exercise, let’s start there. Taking things one-by-one is important.”
Here are 6 steps to help you manage your emotions in a productive way.
1. Expect your body to react.
The first job our bodies have is to keep us alive, says Dr. Amos.
“If you feel scared, your body goes on high alert,” she says. “Your heart rate increases and adrenaline floods your system. This strong natural response will be triggered even more quickly if you were exposed to a lot of stress when you were young, or if you experienced trauma as an adult.”
One key to managing this reaction lies in our actions. Our first impulse may be to get aggressive or fall back on unhealthy behaviors to manage stress. It’s helpful to recognize the triggers and address them with healthy alternatives — exercise, mediation, mindfulness. Here’s how:
2. Treat the symptoms, not the emotion.
Many emotional responses can be managed by doing two things:
- Recognizing the triggers, and
- Treating the symptoms.
That’s good news for all of us who have felt overwhelmed by the idea of tackling complex emotional problems like guilt, grief or depression.
“If someone is depressed and we give them a long list of changes to make, they’re going to say, ‘This is too much,’ and they’re not going to do any of it,” says Dr. Amos. “We want to find the thing that feels most realistic and make a plan to achieve that. Once that’s under control, we’ll find the next thing within reach.”
3. Keep track of your progress.
Accountability is a crucial part of understanding our emotions. Keep a record of the steps you’re taking and how you feel when you do or don’t take those steps. For example, if you’re trying to treat stress with exercise, rate your mood before and after you walk to see if it improves.
4. Smile, even if you aren’t feeling it.
Did you know that studies show people who smile in the mirror a few times a day can improve their mood? Our body and mind connection is so strong we can actually trigger our brains to be happy simply by doing something that seems happy.
5. Control what you can and forget the rest.
The happiest people are those who realize that they can’t control the world but they canbe mindful of their reactions to it, says Dr. Amos.
“Taking a moment to step outside any situation is an important skill, and one that will allow you to assess your emotions, manage them and set them aside as needed,” she says.
6. Get the tools you need and practice using them.
Deep breathing, meditation and exercise are all excellent tools for managing emotions in the moment.
“Mindfulness kind of captures both relaxation and meditation,” says Dr. Amos, “Also, yoga practice allows you to develop and engage physical and mental control all at once.”
It’s okay to start small — download a mindfulness app for a guided imagery session or find a book of 10-minute daily meditations — and know it will take a while to get the hang of it.
“Like every important skill, mindfulness requires practice,” she says. “You may find it difficult at first, but if you stick with it, you’ll increase your control over your body and your brain.”
For more tips on practicing mindfulness, click here.