Everything from genetics to early childhood experience plays some role in our emotional health. But we don’t have a whole lot of control over the genes we inherited or the past we lived through.
All we have is the present and what we choose to do in it.
If you want to feel better emotionally, the best place to start is by making small, consistent changes in your behavior. Over time, these will become habits that keep you mentally strong and emotionally resilient.
Here are 10 small habits that will improve your emotional health.
1. Use simple language to talk about how you feel
Most adults are in the habit of using overly-conceptual or metaphorical language to talk about how they feel. For example: stressed rather than afraid or upset rather than angry.
We do this because it feels a little less painful to describe how you feel with ideas instead of actual emotions. But long term, this avoidance only hurts us by lowering our emotional self-awareness and making it difficult for others to understand how we really feel.
Instead, practice using plain language to describe how you feel emotionally: sad, mad, afraid, ashamed, lonely, scared, frustrated.
Learn More: The Dangers of Intellectualized Emotions
2. Do your overthinking on paper
From worry and catastrophizing to rumination and self-criticism, we all fall into overthinking from time to time.
The trouble is that thoughts happen really fast in our head. Which means you can do a lot of overthinking (and generate a lot of painful emotion) in a short amount of time.
Instead, try to constrain your overthinking to pen and paper. You can’t write nearly as fast as you think. So if you force yourself to only overthink on paper, you’ll end up doing a lot less of it. And as a result, feeling a lot better.
Learn More: Why You Should Write Your Worries Down on Paper
3. Validate before you analyze
Trying to understand why we’re feeling bad is perfectly natural. It’s also pretty unhelpful a lot of the time.
For example: Immediately analyzing why you’re anxious is a great way to end up worrying about anxiety or criticizing yourself for being anxious.
Instead, you could validate that experience:
I am anxious, and I don’t like it. But it’s okay. A lot of people feel anxious in stressful situations. Just because I feel anxiety doesn’t mean I have to do anything about it.
Emotional validation is like a pressure release valve for difficult feelings. You’ll be much more likely to react to that emotion productively if you’ve taken a second to validate it before you start analyzing it.
Learn More: How to Validate Your Emotions in 3 Simple Steps
Just because the origin of a difficulty is in your head doesn’t mean the response to it needs to be.
When people struggle with difficult thoughts or emotions, it’s natural to respond to them with more thinking. But often the best way to manage an emotionally-difficult situation is to first move your body and change your environment…
- Go for a 5-minute walk.
- Work at the coffee shop for the afternoon.
- Pick some weeds in the garden.
When you’re upset, don’t just sit there. Your chances of dealing with whatever struggle you’re experiencing go way up if you engage your body, refresh your environment, and get out of your head for a little while.
5. Replace self-judgment with curiosity
Many people live under a surprising double standard: They tend to be compassionate and supportive of other people’s struggles and then critical and judgmental of their own.
For example: They feel anxious and immediately criticize themselves for being weak. Or they feel unmotivated and immediately get judgmental about themselves for being lazy.
Unfortunately, this only makes the situation worse because beating yourself up is actually a pretty lousy self-improvement strategy.
Instead of defaulting to self-judgment when you’re struggling, what if you tried to be curious instead? Instead of assuming you feel anxious because you’re “broken,” what if you got curious about your anxiety and where it comes from instead?
The road to compassion begins at curiosity.
Learn More: The Beginner’s Guide to Self-Compassion
6. Be gentle in your self-talk
We all talk to ourselves all day long. This is called self-talk. It’s like the narrator of our life.
Unfortunately, for a lot of us, that narrator is pretty intense and harsh—even mean—much of the time. And just like another person using harsh language with us can be upsetting and demotivating, being harsh and intense in our own self-talk is equally problematic.
So, start to pay attention to your inner tone of voice. And if you find that it tends to be somewhat harsh, consider gentler substituting gentler forms of self-talk.
Learn More: Why You Should Keep a Self-Gratitude Diary
7. Build more white space into your life
Chronic stress is not normal even if it is common.
And it’s certainly not good for your emotional health. But superficial coping strategies and temporary stress-reduction techniques rarely help long term because they don’t address the root cause of chronic stress, which almost always boils down to doing too much too often.
To counteract this, it’s important to build white space or margin into your life. And then protect it vigorously.
No amount of mindfulness sessions or soothing incense will reduce your stress if you aren’t willing to make time for downtime. Instead, try committing to taking a real lunch break each day. Or avoid checking work emails on the weekends.
8. Spend quality time with people that matter
One of the great ironies of our time is that we’re more connected to each other than ever, and yet, we often feel more isolated and alone than ever.
We’re constantly connected to coworkers over slack and email, but it’s been months or years since we had a real conversation with our best friend. And as more and more shallow connections demand our attention, we have to fight harder and more intentionally to make space for deeper, more meaningful connections.
This might mean scheduling a regular call with a good friend once a month and treating it like an appointment. Or writing a letter to your grandchild each week. Maybe it just means one night a week we turn off the tv and just talk with our partner before bed.
Emotional health depends on social health. And social health depends on quality time, not just more connection.
9. Set tiny boundaries
The ability to communicate assertively and set healthy boundaries is absolutely fundamental for emotional health and wellbeing.
But for most of us, the idea of assertiveness and boundary-setting is understandably intimidating because it’s a skill we rarely practice.
So start small. Look for little opportunities to practice setting tiny boundaries:
- Tell your coworker you can’t get to that report today but will tomorrow.
- Or tell your spouse you actually don’t want pizza tonight and would prefer Thai.
If you want to feel confident setting big boundaries, start by becoming competent at setting small ones.
Learn More: 5 Rules for Setting Healthy Boundaries
10. Distinguish wants vs values
From breaking your diet with a sugary dessert to avoiding difficult conversations because you’re afraid of intimacy, the tendency to act against our own best interests is incredibly common.
But to really break the cycle of self-sabotage requires not just that we are aware of these unhelpful tendencies, but also that we’re clear about what we really want. It’s easier to stick with a diet, for example, if you have a clear, compelling vision for why you want to get healthy and all the benefits it will lead to. On the other hand, when the why behind our goals and commitments is vague, our odds of self-sabotage go up.
One simple way to avoid self-sabotaging behaviors and better stick with our goals and commitments is to clarify the difference between immediate wants and long-term values. I want dessert, for example, but I value being fit, trim, and having lots of energy to play with my kids.
Remind yourself of your values in the moment and you’ll have much more motivation to follow through on them.