Emotional Fitness

blog image of Inside OutIf you have not seen the movie Inside Out yet, you need to run to the theater right now. While I believe this is advertised as a children’s movie, it is absolutely meant for adults too. The creators have done a terrific job of demonstrating the ways in which our emotions are connected to how we feel and act.

We can all appreciate the influence emotions have on how we live our lives. As a coach, I engage with clients in this domain all the time. A journey along the emotional path can open doors of understanding that are unavailable to us in any other way. We can begin to see how strongly emotions are connect to our learning and the way we see things. We become aware of ways in which our emotional habits and patterns serve us, or not. (Have you ever tried to learn something when you are angry? Doesn’t happen…)

As we engage with others in our daily lives, we regularly pick up on their emotional state – “Geez, she’s not very happy.” or “She seems afraid to talk.” Being an observer of our own emotional condition takes more work however, and lots of practice. But when we gain an appreciation for the value of attending to it, we become more motivated to pay greater attention. The return on investment when we decide to be deliberate about this can be priceless.

There is a great segment in today’s Brain Pickings on how emotions affect our susceptibility to burnout and disease. All of us have had the experience of having been under significant stress and as soon as it lets up, we get sick. This article looks at the science of ongoing stress and its impact on our health in some really interesting ways. They explore the ways in which our feelings and memories influence how our body reacts in certain situations. Perhaps you have had something like this happen to you – you are driving down the road and you encounter a particular smell. A memory of a time when this smell was present jumps into your brain (this happens to me when I smell french fries). Depending on the emotion associated with that memory – pleasure, disgust, fear – the biological response of your body can be very different.

“These memories become connected to emotions, which are processed in other parts of the brain…these emotional brain centers are linked to  …the coordinating centers of thought and memory. The same sensory input can trigger a negative emotion or a positive one, depending on the memories associated with it.”

So now you might be saying, “Well, I can’t exactly change my memory of something!”, and you are right to a large degree. But if the memory evokes a negative emotion, you can often shift the story associated with it so it doesn’t adversely impact your biologic self. For instance, someone close to me struggled for decades with alcoholism until it landed him in a nursing home. For years, as I thought of him and his situation, an array of emotions would arise – all negative. Anger, despair, frustration, etc. During that time, I suspect that the impact those emotions had on my physical self did not support my well being. Once I was able to shift the story of what had happened and move into a space of acceptance, I had the actual sensation of a heavy weight being lifted off my chest. Now I can bring him to mind and feel only love and compassion, emotions that serve him and me much better.

Emotions have such an obvious impact on how we live our lives. Being awake to the interplay of our emotions and our physical health just seems to make a lot of sense. Maybe the new guidelines for healthy living should include

  • regular exercise
  • good nutrition
  • a practice of paying greater attention to our emotional self

Something tells me that as scientists research what keeps up in top shape it’s going to have a lot more to do with the last thing on that list than anything else.

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