Now, more than ever, it's clear that emotional health is an integral part of overall health — and research shows that it can improve over time, if we take steps to support it. But why does emotional health matter? And what are the implications of not prioritizing emotional health at an individual and societal level? Let’s take a closer look.
What is emotional health?
Emotional health is the ability to be in tune with your thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It is a form of self-awareness that enables us to cope with life's challenges and find resilience in the midst of setbacks. It's important to note that being emotionally healthy doesn't mean you're constantly happy –– it just means you are aware and able to deal with your emotions, whether they are positive or negative.
Why is emotional health important?
Emotional health contributes to overall health. Emotionally healthy people feel good about themselves and tend to have healthy relationships. It also affects physical health –– research demonstrates that there is a connection between a positive mental state and physical signs of good health, especially when it comes to stress. Studies as far back as 1991 have found the correlation between poor emotional health, specifically stress, and illness. (1)
What is the difference between emotional health and mental health?
Our emotional health and mental health are deeply intertwined, but they differ in a key way. While emotional health defines our connection to our feelings and emotions, mental health impacts our ability to process information and our surrounding circumstances (2). For example, our emotional health gives us the tools to express our dissatisfaction if a situation makes us upset or angry, while our mental health affects how we understand and process the situation at hand (3).
It’s important to note that emotional health can thrive when our mental health is at its best, and vice versa. For example, if you’re struggling with stress, your emotional health can help guide effective ways to respond to your stress.
What is emotional stress?
Emotional stress has both physical and psychological features. It’s a feeling we all recognize: heart and breathing rates increase and muscles tense, as blood flow is diverted from the abdominal organs to the brain. As a regular emotion, this is a healthy, functional “fight or flight” response that enables the body to take extra precautions to protect itself — the body is essentially preparing for a crisis. But emotional stress in the absence of a real crisis interferes with both our daily lives and long-term health. Nearly two-thirds of those estimated 40 million adults struggling with emotional stress are women (4).
So what causes emotional stress?
The root causes of emotional stress are broad and complex, ranging from parental pressure during childhood, financial problems, traumatic experiences, and even loneliness and spending too much time online — and every case of emotional stress is different. A situation that triggers emotional stress for you may not affect someone else, so the root causes of emotional stress are highly individualized.
What can trigger or worsen emotional stress?
Even though much of our emotional health is an internal process, external factors can shake even the strongest emotional foundations. Even the most emotionally healthy people may experience disturbances that can throw them off-kilter. Some events that could trigger or worsen emotional stress include:
- Professional transitions, such as being laid off from work
- Love life transitions, such as a breakup or divorce
- Children moving out or moving back home
- Moving to a new city or state
- Being diagnosed with a chronic or serious illness
How can you improve your emotional health?
- Make self-care a priority. Self-care isn’t necessarily about a taking a relaxing bath (although that's often a welcome addition). Preserving your mental and physical energy is just as important. Self-care can take many forms, including carving out time for quiet journaling and introspection, prioritizing a hobby or interest, or creating a healthy bedtime routine.
- Call a friend. Having strong relationships not creates a sense of community and support — it’s science (5). Many studies have demonstrated the impact of social support on our emotional wellbeing. Human connection keeps us engaged and grounded, so even if digitally, continue to prioritize connection in the ways in which you can. It truly matters.
- Explore herbal supplements: Select natural remedies may support our emotional health by impacting the neurotransmitters which keep our moods balanced.
- Check your physical health. Emotional distress can often manifest itself in physical ways, including loss of sleep or appetite. Focus on the basics that keep your body healthy, such as eating a healthy diet or getting a good night’s sleep. Changes to your sleep or appetite may be a sign to check in on your emotional health.
- Explore ways to manage stress. Just like our causes for emotional distress vary, the ways we manage stress for optimal emotional health vary as well. There are many options to consider:
- Meditation: A 2014 study published in JAMA found that meditation can help reduce psychological stress. (6)
- Yoga: A 2018 study published in Anxiety, Stress and Coping measured a significant reduction in stress in those who practiced yoga regularly. (7)
- Exercise: The connection between exercise and stress reduction has been known to researchers for decades. A 1988 study of adolescents published in Health Psychology found that stress decreased as their activity levels increased. (8)
In times of uncertainty and adversity, emotional health may seem difficult to prioritize. But in doing so, we can find the reslience to manage the realities of our circumstances — and push through them.