Good Emotional Hygiene
By Jenny Heckman, MS, LPC, NCC
In the last column, we looked at the importance of the ability to identify emotions and the many ways we get stuck in doing so. Now we will look at practical ways to identify our emotions with the purpose of allowing them to function the way our Creator intended.
In reading the gospels, I am struck by the accuracy with which Jesus expressed His emotions. When a person moved Him to compassion, it was felt and expressed. When the loss of friends through death occurred, He felt and expressed sorrow. When injustice and abuse of power confronted Him, anger was felt and expressed. During His crucifixion, the experience of abandonment was met with anguished cries to the Father. The sinless One felt and expressed the wide range of human emotions without shame.
We are made in God’s likeness, designed to feel and express what happens in our soul with similar accuracy, fluidity, and freedom. For most of us, our stuck points create either an over-intensification of emotional experience or a diminished emotional experience. If we apply some general principles of good emotional hygiene, we can gain more accuracy in identifying, feeling, and expressing our emotions.
Principles of Good Emotional Hygiene
1. Unplug from technology.
Keeping tabs on how much time we engage with technology is important. Research has shown that overuse diminishes our ability to empathize with others and communicate to others. Many use technology as a numbing agent that keeps them disconnected from what is happening internally. Technology can escalate feelings of anger, loneliness, and poor self-esteem as we are exposed to inflammatory comments and comparisons with others. Consider reducing your usage or even taking a sabbatical from technology for a season.
2. Tune in to your body.
Emotions are not just in the brain; they are experienced in the body. We feel “butterflies in our stomach” when we are nervous, tightening in the jaw when we are angry, a rush of adrenaline when we are afraid. When we have trouble identifying an emotion, if we pay attention to what the body is expressing, we pick up important clues.
3. Sleep, eat, and exercise.
Our emotions get out of sorts when we are sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, undernourished, and inactive! I will sometimes recommend to clients that they put a hold on the counseling process until sleep, nutrition, and exercise are more in balance. Two colleagues who are psychiatrists will “prescribe” exercise and reduced caffeine intake along with medications. Our mind, body, and soul work in tandem. American culture does not do us any favors regarding pace of life, nutrient-dense diets, and activity levels; making these things a priority is a gift to ourselves and to others around us!
4. Make yourself known to others.
Opening up our internal worlds to trusted others is extremely helpful in identifying what we are feeling. Talking out loud helps our processing. The acceptance we receive creates safety to go deeper. The feedback through another’s face, tone, and words assists our emotional accuracy. A good friend reminds me often: staying in our own heads is a sure route to insanity!
5. Use your senses to awaken emotions.
Psalms tells us, Taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). Our senses provide avenues for us to come alive and connect with emotions and reality. A strong, steaming coffee is enjoyable and relaxing. The sound of a gorgeous work of music paired with profound lyrics moves us to joy, tears, gratitude, hope, etc. Magnificent works of creation and art evoke emotions we can hardly articulate. Through our senses, we come alive to God, self, and others in ways external processing and internal soul-searching cannot do.
These five principles give us a good foundation from which to build. Enjoy the process!