Mental Muscles: How to Build Emotional Fitness

Do you ever struggle to shake off a bad mood? Or wish you could bounce back a little faster from a stressful client interaction or frustrating experience with your boss? If so, join the club. Most of us struggle with difficult emotions and moods because we were never taught much about our emotions, either how they work or how to work with them.

What is Emotional Fitness?

Emotional fitness is the idea that in order to lead healthy, happy emotional lives we need consistent habits and exercises that support our mental health and wellbeing.

Our physical health depends on a foundation of good diet and exercise habits, so too does our emotional health.  Think of these little positive habits, exercises and practices like doing 'emotional push-ups'. But as anyone who’s ever tried a new diet or signed up for a new gym membership knows, knowing what we need to do isn’t the hard part.

We all know we should eat more vegetables and less junk food and that we should go for more walks and watch less Netflix. But despite our knowledge and good intentions, we all struggle to do the things we know will help.

It’s no different with our mental and emotional health.

Having a solid base of emotional awareness and fitness goes hand in hand with increased productivity and performance, less stress and anxiety, and better relationships at home and at work. 

Reading all the best blogs or books on kayaking won’t actually lead to becoming a proficient kayaker unless you get in the kayak and train. The same goes for our mental health and emotional wellbeing. Knowing how your mind and emotions work is great, but you have to practice if you want to grow and become stronger. You have to build emotional fitness.

Benefits of increased Emotional Fitness

  • Understand Your Stress Triggers and Manage Your Responses
  • Better Communication and Relationships
  • Less Anxiety and Worry
  • Consistency with Your Goals and Commitments
  • Increased Self-Awareness and Mindfulness

So how do I start building Emotional Fitness? 

Warm-Up: Set a timer for 60 seconds and write down as many emotions as you can think of.

Ready? Go!

How many emotions did you come up with? 

If you're like most people you probably came up with 3-5 different emotions, if you got more than 10 you're doing well and if you could specifically name more than 15 well done, you are on your way to a healthy emotional vocabulary. Research shows that we need to be able to name at least 30 emotions to be emotionally fluent. 

Here's the deal - to effectively navigate anything we need to be able to identify it and understand it. It's really hard to navigate our emotional lives if we don't even have language for what we're feeling. 

The reality is that most of us had a really poor emotional education. We weren't taught how to name what we were feeling, let alone ask for what we needed. We also tend to have a lot of assumptions or believe some myths around our emotions so we need to eliminate these misleading or unhelpful ideas. 

Exercise 1: Practice naming the emotions as you feel them. 

This has two big benefits: first, you become aware of what it is you're actually feeling and two, you start to put some distance between yourself and the feeling. Most of us have a limited emotional vocabulary. We know some basic derivatives of sad, mad and glad.

The goal here is to get more specific, what kind of sad are you feeling? Discouragement? Grief? Loneliness? 

I'm feeling annoyed. I'm feeling content. I'm feeling frustrated. I'm feeling excited. I'm feeling confused...

Exercise 2: Stand your ground.

When we feel uncomfortable, we often want to avoid or run away from the emotion. One of the most important skills you can build is to realise that your feelings are just that - feelings. One of the emotional myths we need to bust is that there are 'good' and 'bad' emotions. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. They are just a part of being human.

When we start to label them as good or bad, we inadvertently teach ourselves that some emotions are to be feared. But emotions can't hurt us. Yes, they can feel awful and intense and overwhelming but that's about it. They come and go and if we don't run away or repress them or attach to them, (all learned skills) they will pass. 

Exercise 3: Practice curiosity.

Once we can identify the main emotions, it's helpful to get curious about the specific flavour that we're experiencing. If we can get curious about it we can begin creating some space for our brains to start to ask ourselves where it's coming from.

Emotions come and go. Sometimes it's obvious why we're feeling a certain way, other times we get hit with an intense wave of emotion and can almost feel blindsided by it. This takes some consistent training but the next step is to ask yourself what exactly it is you're feeling and which thoughts are driving the feeling. 

I'm feeling angry. Hmm, actually I think I'm feeling resentful. I do a lot to help out my coworkers but no one seems to be doing anything to help me...

Exercise 4: Practice compassion.

Sometimes when we're feeling difficult emotions like discouragement, sadness or shame, we can make things worse by heaping judgement and criticism on ourselves. We can beat ourselves up for feeling bad. 

When you're struggling with a tough feeling or feeling overwhelmed by it, the best thing to do here is to give yourself a little kindness. This is not the go-to reaction for most of us. We tend to think we need to 'harden up' or 'get on with it' when really, we probably just need to sit with the discomfort and let it be what it is. 

Brushing your emotions aside or trying to repress them or numb out doesn't lead to any kind of emotional or mental health. There may be moments when we do have to disconnect to carry on and we can't always process things fully at the time, that's part of life. But never taking the time to acknowledge or work through what just happened is a recipe for emotional disaster. 

The next time you're feeling something difficult, show yourself some compassion. If it helps, imagine your best friend or child feeling the way you are. How would you comfort them? How could you empathise? Do this for yourself. It's not weird, it's actually really healthy. 

Cool-Down: Take a moment and think about how you want to respond to your emotions.

The next time you feel a strong emotion, try to identify it and get curious.

What we resist persists. Those unprocessed feelings are going to show up one way or another. Whether they show up as physical symptoms, random outbursts or destructive behaviour, they are going to surface and want to be released in some form. 

One of the most healthy things you can do is to face what you're feeling and actually feel it. If you allow yourself to physically feel what you're feeling, without trying to do anything about it or start ruminating about it, it will pass.

Key Message

Just like physical fitness, we can build emotional fitness. The same principles apply - understand the fundamentals, put in some reps and slowly start to build up. There's heaps more to building emotional fitness but these are some solid basic exercises. Start practising and remember to be kind to yourself, a lot of this might feel new or foreign. It doesn't mean it's wrong, it just means it's unfamiliar. You gotta start somewhere, so begin now, with what you have from wherever you are. It gets easier with time. 

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