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The Emotional Piece Of The Health Puzzle

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What was once speculation has now been firmly established as fact: A healthy body cannot be divorced from a healthy mind or a healthy spirit. Emotional health, it can be said with certainty, is an integral part of our overall wellness.

What was once speculation has now been firmly established as fact: A healthy body cannot be divorced from a healthy mind or a healthy spirit. Emotional health, it can be said with certainty, is an integral part of our overall wellness. Yet many people continue to neglect their emotional health and damage their physical health in the process. Stress caused by unresolved emotional issues, for example, remains one of the leading contributors to illness. Fortunately, as described in this three-part series, which has been excerpted from the revised edition of alive's Encyclopedia of Natural Healing, there are many things you can do to improve your emotional health.

Emotions And Health

Fear, joy, anger: such powerful feelings are what we generally think of when we hear the term "emotion." Psychologists define emotions as mental responses to events, circumstances, people, or our own thoughts and memories. They course through our conscious and unconscious beings at all times, whether at critical junctures or during seemingly inconsequential moments of our lives.

Biologists tells us that our emotions are rooted in self-preservation, triggering physiological reactions that enable us to find food, escape danger and reproduce. Noting that the word "emotion" stems from the Latin verb for "move," author Daniel Goleman pointed out in Emotional Intelligence (Bantam, 1995), "All emotions are, in essence, impulses to act, the instant plans for handling life that evolution has instilled in us."

In higher social species, such as humans, emotions have also evolved into facial expressions and body language so that each member of the group can signal his or her wants and needs to other members. As John D. Mayer, a leading expert in the study of emotions, has remarked: "Emotions convey information...about relationships."

Whether in the decisions we make or the way we conduct our relationships, emotions have enormous sway over our lives. They even have the power to make us sick or to cure us.

We now know that emotions are relayed to the immune system through a shared link, the autonomic nervous system. As a result, grief and other painful emotions can cause our immune system to shut down, putting as at risk for a whole host of illnesses. Conversely, a healthy emotional outlook boosts our resistance to disease.

Mayer has emphasized, "People can reason with emotions in the same way they reason with cognitive information. So you can solve emotional problems just as mathematicians solve math problems." But Mayer and other researchers acknowledge that some emotions, such as grief and anger, can be harder to reason effectively with than others. And in many situations, identifying the various emotions at play can be extremely difficult.

How We Develop Emotions

Few experts believe that human beings are born with a full range of emotions. Rather, they theorize, we enter the world with instincts and urges, along with an innate capacity for feeling. As we form personalities and relationships with others, these instincts and urges develop into full-fledged emotions.

The Five Components Of Emotional Health

Emotional health consists of five key components:

  1. Being aware of your emotions. Emotionally healthy people are in touch with their emotions and can identify and acknowledge them as experience.

  2. Being able to process your emotions. After connecting with their emotions, emotionally healthy people develop appropriate ways of expressing them.

  3. Being sensitive to other people and their emotions and having the ability to empathize. The ability to identify their own emotions enables emotionally healthy people to identify emotions in others and to have an intuitive sense of what it feels like to experience them.

  4. Being self-empowered. Emotionally healthy people honour their emotions, which empowers them to fulfill their goals.

  5. Being in healthy relationships. Using their emotional intelligence and empathy, emotionally healthy people build and maintain strong, functioning relationships.

Emotions and Lifestyle

If emotions have such a direct impact on our lifestyle, is the reverse also true? Do the ways we live our lives the foods we eat, the physical activities we engage in, even how we worship influence our emotional health? The evidence says yes.

Our intake of vitamins and minerals stimulates the production of chemicals in the brain, known as neurotransmitters, that regulate our physical and mental functions, including the way we process emotions. Particularly essential are the B vitamins, such as thiamine, pyridoxine, folic acid and vitamin B12. Even minor deficiencies of these nutrients can lead to depression and irritability, as well as hamper our ability to concentrate and stay motivated.

Unhealthy foods can adversely affect our emotional health. People who drink excessive amounts of caffeine demonstrate many of the same physiological and psychological symptoms as people suffering from anxiety, while a diet with too much sugar has been linked to depression, aggression and impaired judgment.

Exercise is another lifestyle factor that contributes significantly to emotional health. Numerous studies have shown that even short bouts of physical activity, ranging from eight to 10 minutes, can alleviate mild depression, calm aggression and reduce stress in people of all ages.

Getting a good night's sleep refreshes and revives both body and mind, allowing us to think and to understand our feelings more clearly. Sleep-deprived people tend to become easily angered and have less perspective on their emotions than people who are well rested and maintain regular sleeping patterns.

Our surroundings also have a tangible effect on our emotions. Noise caused by increased urbanization has helped push people's stress levels to an all-time high, and poor air quality is a proven trigger for anxiety and aggression.

More and more experts have begun to acknowledge the role of spirituality in emotional health and, by extension, overall health. Through a series of studies, researchers at Duke University determined that people who followed a religion tended to have stronger immune systems than non-followers and were less prone to depression and high blood pressure. They surmised that the faith of religious adherents gave them an enhanced sense of well-being and helped to reduce their levels of stress.

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