Emotional fitness is the simple idea that our minds need regular exercise and training just as much as our bodies do in order to stay healthy and fit.
Consider the following:
- Have you ever wished you could handle stress with a little more grace and a little less anxiety?
- Do you frequently get the sense that your most important relationships would be stronger and more satisfying if you could get a better handle on your own emotional struggles?
- Or maybe you are about to enter a new phase of life—getting married, having a child, retiring—and want to be as emotionally available and balanced as possible but worry that you’re not quite there?
These are all problems that could benefit greatly from better emotional fitness. And as a professional psychologist and psychotherapist, helping people build emotional fitness is what I do every day.
In this article I want to share the 3 best exercises I know for building your emotional fitness:
- Train Your Attention Muscle with Mindfulness
- Eliminate Negative Thinking Patterns with Cognitive Restructuring
- Build a Better Relationship with Your Emotions with Validation
When practiced regularly, these simple techniques will lead to a stronger, healthier and more balanced emotional life.
Let’s dive in!
1. Train Your Attention Muscle with Mindfulness
The first component of a healthy emotional fitness regimen is attention training.
Most of what we feel and experience on a daily basis, including our moods, emotions, desires, and motivation is filtered through our thoughts. Which means that how we think about things largely determines how we will feel about them, a topic we’ll talk more about in #2 below.
But even before we can think about something, we have to attend to it.
Attention is the doorway to the mind. Like a spotlight that focuses and clarifies what our mind is able to consciously focus on, attention limits and constrains our thinking—and therefore how we feel and behave.
When we choose to focus on that sarcastic comment our co-worker made at lunch, we end up replaying the memory of what happened and rehearsing the entire scene, often many times over. Unfortunately, by choosing to place our attention there, we set ourselves up for an afternoon full of frustration and anger, which more than likely will have negative consequences for our ability to focus on our work and be productive.
As Winifred Gallahger puts it in her wonderful book, Rapt:
Your life—who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.
This means that if we want to get serious about changing how we think about things (worry and ruminate less, make better decisions, stay focused on the task at hand), we need to build up our attentional muscle and learn to control what we choose to focus on or disengage from.
We need to strengthen our ability to shift our attention from whatever event or stimuli happens to attract it and keep it focused on the things that will help us to make good decisions, do our best work, and move toward our values and goals.
In both my personal and professional experience, the best way to train your attentional muscle is with mindfulness.
How to Use Mindfulness to Train Your Attention
The term mindfulness, and especially mindfulness meditation, can often make people uncomfortable since it seems a little new-age and woo-woo for some folks. But mindfulness is really nothing more than a concentrated and efficient means of training your attention muscle.
With that in mind, here’s the best way to get started practicing mindfulness and building better control over your attention:
- Start a daily mindfulness practice. Briefly, this means carving out (initially) a few minutes every day to deliberately practice focusing and holding your attention on one thing. While there are many different forms of mindfulness and ways to practice, I describe the method that I think works best for most people in this article: How to Start a Mindfulness Practice: A Quick Guide for Complete Beginners
- Cultivate “Ordinary Mindfulness.” In addition to starting a daily mindfulness practice, you can maximize your attention training efforts with a practice I call Ordinary Mindfulness, which involves applying the skills you develop in your mindfulness practice to real-world, everyday situations. You can learn more about Ordinary Mindfulness here: Ordinary Mindfulness: 10 Simple Ways to Be More Mindful in Everyday Life
Developing more control over our attention is arguably the most essential and necessary skill for better emotional fitness and mental health generally. But our next topic—learning to identify and modify the way we actually think about things—has a powerful impact both on how we feel on a regular basis as well as our behavior and habits.
2. Eliminate Negative Thinking Patterns with Cognitive Restructuring
As the Stoics have been preaching for 2,000 years, things themselves don’t make us feel the way we do; instead, it’s the way we think about things that impacts us emotionally.
Here’s an example:
Imagine that you’re driving down the road on your way home from work when a car appears out of nowhere and dangerously cuts you off. As they’re racing past you, a hand juts out the window flipping you off.
Chances are, you’re going to feel some pretty strong emotions as a result of this scenario, likely some mixture of fear and anger.
But if we stop and think about it:
- Did the car itself literally cause the emotion of fear in you?
- Did the driver’s middle finger literally cause anger in you?
The answer, of course, is no. Things themselves don’t literally cause emotions.
If you’re still on the fence about this, try this simple experiment:
Walk out to your driveway or parking lot, look at your car and flip yourself the bird. How do you feel? Chances are, your car sitting in the parking lot didn’t lead to you feeling afraid any more than the sight of your own hand flipping you off lead you to feel angry.
The reason, of course, is that the story behind those things—that is, how you interpreted them and what meaning you give them—is what really matters when it comes to how we feel emotionally. It’s our thoughts that cause emotions, not things themselves.
If our thoughts determine the quality of how we feel on a regular basis, that means that by changing how we tend to think about things we can change how we tend to feel about things.
And there’s one little exercise that you can do that will get you started learning how to change your style of thinking in order to more consistently feel better. It’s called Cognitive Restructuring.
How to Use a Cognitive Restructuring to Change Unhelpful Mental Habits and Thinking Patterns
The best place to begin changing our negative e or unhelpful thought patterns and habits is to learn to identify and then modify Cognitive Distortions. If you aren’t familiar with that term, you can learn more about them in this article: 10 Types of Negative Self-Talk (and How to Correct Them)
Here are 4 specific strategies you can use to become more aware of your negative thinking patterns and re-structure them in more helpful and realistic ways:
- Identify negative self-talk in other people’s speech. Of course, the idea is to change our own thoughts, not other people’s. But, it can often be easier to identify examples of negative self-talk in other people first. Once we get better at noticing them in others (via their speech), we can more readily start to see them in our own thinking and self-talk.
- Change your (inner) tone of voice. We all know that the way someone says something to us often affects how we feel at least as much as what they say (think about sarcasm). The same thing applies to the way we talk to ourselves. In addition to paying attention to what you say to yourself, try and be attentive to the way you talk to yourself. Are you harsh, judgmental, and sarcastic with yourself? What would it look like if you were more gentle, empathetic, and straightforward in the way you talked to yourself?
- Be intentional, not habitual, with your self-criticism. There’s nothing wrong with self-criticism, pointing out your own mistakes, and holding yourself to a high standard. But you’ll be much more likely to do this productively (and accurately) if it’s intentional and deliberate rather than a gut reaction. Instead of instantly passing judgment on yourself in the moment, schedule a time to reflect on a perceived mistake or flaw intentionally, maybe by journalling about it or talking it over with someone you trust.
3. Build a Better Relationship with Your Emotions Using Validation
Many people have terribly unhealthy relationships with their own emotions.
Of course, this isn’t surprising given our cultural and societal view of emotions, especially negative emotions. Growing up, most of us are taught to think about negative feelings and emotions as bad things that we need to either fix or avoid.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that most of us approach negative emotions like we would a virus. We instinctively want a medicine or “tool” that will help us to eliminate negative emotions and feel better.
And while this dominant view of emotion is understandable—nobody likes feeling badly—it’s both untrue and destructive to our mental health and wellbeing.
And the reason is actually quite simple: Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean that it is bad.
Just because pain is sometimes an indicator of danger or threat, it’s a mistake—and a grave one, I think—to assume that this is always the case, especially when it comes to something as core and essential to who we are as our emotions.
Because when we think about and respond to our negative feelings as if they are bad, we train our brain to be afraid of them, which leads to some pretty unhealthy behaviors and habits in the long-run.
In order to combat this vicious cycle and re-build a healthier more productive relationship with our emotions, there’s one crucial skill that we could all benefit from learning and practicing regularly: Validation.
How to Practice Emotional Validation
While it can sound technical, the concept of emotional validation is simple: Rather than trying to fix or eliminate our emotions, we can acknowledge them instead.
Here are a handful of techniques you can implement to build up your ability to acknowledge and validate your emotions and begin building a healthier relationship with them:
- Label your emotions clearly. Most of us are surprisingly bad at the simple act of labeling what emotion we’re experiencing at a given time. We tend to intellectualize our emotions and use vague, conceptual terminology in order to avoid discomfort. Instead, whenever you feel “bad” or “upset”, ask yourself, what specific emotion am I feeling right now? Frustrated? Nervous, Ashamed? Sad?
- Notice the complexity of your emotions. Most of us make the mistake of assuming that we can only experience one emotion at a time. In fact, the vast majority of the time our emotional state involves many different emotions of various intensities. Whenever you find yourself upset, imagine your mood a pie chart, and then ask: What are the different pieces of this emotional pie and what are their respective weights?
- Practice tolerating and accepting emotional discomfort. Of course, we don’t enjoy feeling sad or anxious or guilty. But negative feelings, no matter how intense, can’t actually hurt us. To begin proving this to yourself and building up a tolerance to negative feelings, use a timer on your phone and practice sitting with and accepting emotions for a given time limit. Then, as you get more practiced, slowly increase the duration of your practice.
These are three quick suggestions, but if you’d like to learn more about building a better relationship with your emotions, I think you’ll find these articles useful:
- How to Think About Feelings: 7 Things You Should Have Learned About Emotions in 3rd Grade
- A Few Principles for Better Emotional Clarity
- Trying to Control Anxiety Will Always Backfire
Summary and Key Points
Emotional fitness is the idea that the mind needs regular exercise and training just as much as the body if we want to stay mentally and emotionally strong and healthy.
Three of the best exercises for building emotional fitness include
- Learning how to train your attention with mindfulness, both a formal practice and informal “ordinary mindfulness.”
- Learning how to identify and “restructure” negative thought patterns and mental habits.
- Improving your relationship with your own emotions by practicing emotional acceptance and validation.