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The Emotional Piece Of The Health Puzzle

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Attitudes toward emotions have changed over the centuries and a lack of emotional awareness plays itself out in different behaviours.

Attitudes toward emotions have changed over the centuries and a lack of emotional awareness plays itself out in different behaviours.

Emotional Awareness Through The Ages

Attitudes about emotions have changed throughout the course of history. To this day, many cultures differ in how they view the appropriateness of emotions and their expression.

The ancient Greeks and Romans saw emotions as potentially dangerous, believing that intense feelings upset the body's natural balance. In the Middle Ages, people suffering from depression were considered possessed.

The prevailing view during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods was that the superior rational mind our "reason" operated separately from the inferior emotional mind--our "passions." This wariness about emotions became strongly tied to sexism, with women considered the more "emotional" sex and therefore intrinsically weaker than men. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, parents continued to remind their male children that "big boys don't cry."

A shift occurred in the postwar era. Women challenged sexism and its dismissive attitude toward emotions, while indisputable evidence emerged of the powerful impact of emotions on all aspects of our being.

Still, the "intelligence quotient" remained the benchmark for individual achievement until the end of the 20th century. Only in the last decade has western society begun to reassess its traditional relegation of emotions as secondary to cognitive thinking.

Emotions And Behaviour

Our emotional health relies on our ability to identify and process feelings. Buried emotions never really disappear. Instead, they appear in the guise of emotional behaviours, which often create vicious cycles or become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Below is a partial list of emotional behaviours. The key to deciding whether or not a behaviour is unhealthy is if it starts to take over your life.

Fear is our first signal that we are not safe. We may fear success or being inadequate. We may fear abandonment or being tied down in a relationship. Most fears revolve around issues of control and play themselves out in behaviours that either assert power or relinquish it:

  • controlling
  • demanding
  • people pleasing
  • phobias
  • suspiciousness
  • prejudice
  • competitiveness
  • procrastination
  • anxiousness
  • relationship avoiding
  • obsessing
  • getting into debt
  • aggression
  • panic
  • lying
  • betrayal

Anger is our emotional security system. When someone or something invades our emotional, physical or spiritual boundaries, we become angry. But few people know how to deal with their anger in a healthy way. Angry behaviours do little to address the root causes of this primary emotion and may, in fact, perpetuate them. Anger often emerges through behaviours such as:

  • self-pity
  • martyrdom
  • teasing
  • aggressiveness
  • abruptness
  • rudeness
  • irritability
  • temper tantrums
  • raging
  • sarcasm
  • whining
  • complaining
  • avoiding
  • pacing
  • poor self-care
  • blaming

Loneliness combines a sense of loss with a feeling of sadness and disconnection. Feeling lonely alerts us to our need to connect with others. If this basic need remains unmet, it can do physical and psychological harm. Behaviours that arise out of loneliness include:

  • withdrawing
  • fantasizing
  • partying
  • sexual promiscuity
  • relationship hoping or avoiding
  • emotional eating
  • TV watching or other numbing behaviours
  • moping
  • negative self-talk

Sadness stems from a sense of loss and may be one of the most suppressed emotions. We may feel sadness for what may have been or what we believe to have been ours by right. It materializes through behaviours such as:

  • lack of motivation
  • lack of energy
  • isolation
  • chronic weepiness
  • chronic fatigue
  • poor self-care
  • poor eating
  • sleep disturbances
  • memory problems

Anxiety is a sense of pending and unspecified dread. Often, it will serve as a cesspool of other emotions that we repress. Behaviours that arise out of anxiety include:

  • agitation
  • restlessness
  • poor sleep
  • worry
  • fretting
  • obsessing
  • disturbed/distorted eating
  • overachieving
  • memory problems

Joy is the emotion we all want to feel, but it may be suppressed by people who were not allowed to express their emotions when growing up. People unable to deal with joy in an emotionally healthy way will often indulge in self-sabotaging behaviour, including:

  • overactivity
  • hyperactivity
  • unanimated, "flat" energy
  • inappropriate joking
  • childishness

Tools And Techniques For Achieving Emotional Health

Emotional health is a state of wellness that comes from understanding and acknowledging your own emotions and finding appropriate ways to express them. Here are some common tools and techniques for helping us improve our emotional health.

Coaching and counselling can provide an external source of strength and insight for working out emotional problems. One of the hallmarks of emotional health is the willingness to ask for professional help when we need it.

Self-help groups are designed for those who feel alone in their emotional situation. Their purpose is twofold: to allow people to safely feel and express their emotions, and to help break their isolation and reintegrate them into society with the support of a peer group.

Journalling has become one of the most popular tools for identifying and processing emotions. People record their emotions in writing as they experience them, in whatever form they wish. This brings greater clarity, which helps them make more emotionally informed decisions.

Letter writing enables people to identify and process the emotions they feel in relation to others. The letter does not have to be sent or its contents shared; it simply provides a place for the expression of feelings.

Friendships and support systems help sustain people through their emotional journeys. At the same time, they give the opportunity to develop empathetic skills.

The Primary Emotions

Most experts agree on the existence of powerful primary emotions from which all other emotions derive. The great French thinker Rene Descartes named six love, hate, astonishment, desire, joy, and sorrow while German philospher Immanuel Kant proposed five love, hope, modesty, joy, and sorrow. In 1890, the first textbook on psychology narrowed the field down to four: love, fear, grief, and rage.

More recent research has tried using sociology and physiology to distill the primary emotions from the rest. In his study of how different cultures perceive emotions, psychologist Paul Ekman discovered that people everywhere could recognize fear, anger, sadness, and enjoyment when they saw it in another person's facial features or gestures. Contempt, disgust, and surprise were later added to the list of universal expressions.

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