It’s hard for anyone to make their way through modern life without succumbing to the stresses that await us around every corner. We’re all under a great deal of pressure to succeed in both our professional and private lives, and when we feel we’re falling short or hit a couple of unlucky breaks, our emotions will naturally reflect this. Unfortunately, most people are taught from a very young age to overlook or ignore their negative emotions the better persevere through our problems.
While there is an argument to be made for the benefits of self-possession, more often than not when people power through their negative emotions the feelings do not simply disappear. Instead, they linger on in our conscious and unconscious minds – in some cases for decades – before overwhelming the walls we’ve built up in our minds and expressing themselves in even more harmful ways. These coping mechanisms manifest themselves in a variety of popular, and negative, expressions: self-medication with alcohol and drugs, and escapism into our various digital and social media formats. As much as we’re told to “suck it up” and “get a grip”, smothering or blocking out our emotions can actually have grievous repercussions and lead to mental health problems whilst taking a toll on our physical health as well.
Bottling it Up
Subconsciously, ignoring our emotions can passively drain us of energy and actually manifest our mental health problems as physical symptoms: muscular tension and short breath are just two of the most common examples. Anxiety and depression can often be a side effect of the toll that our “coping” takes on our constitution. Some of the many other physical maladies exacerbated by mental health problems can include obesity, insomnia, high blood pressure, stomach disorders, headaches and autoimmune problems.
We may like to believe that we have our emotions in check at all times, but ignoring problems isn’t the same as solving them. Conversely, the simple act of accepting the existence of emotional difficulties can itself provide genuine relief, and begin the process of externalizing, and ultimately, treating these issues once we start to acknowledge their presence.
Mind, Body and Mental Health Problems
Modern schools of neuro-scientific thought have begun to discover palpable byways in our nervous systems that bridge our physical and mental wellbeing. The vagus nerve is one of the biggest physiological determinants of our emotional state, converting stimuli into altered activity in the lungs, heart and digestive system. When we feel stressful emotions, we enter into a state of anxiety as we adopt a low-level state of survival readiness, which strains our systems over long periods, often without our being consciously aware of these negative changes.
This knowledge is beginning to gain a lot more traction in the realm of psychotherapy, but, unfortunately, it hasn’t yet made enough of an impact in mainstream schools of medical thought as is very probably warranted. Undoubtedly, there are limitations to linking physical and mental health when prescribing treatments: there is, for example, a widely held belief that exercise can relieve many of the symptoms of depression. Now, while it is obvious that there are many benefits to staying in shape, eating well and incubating good physical health, there are many kinds of mental health problems and consequential emotional trauma that cannot be cured with jogging and salads. The link between mental and physical health is a two-way street, but needs to be approached with patience and circumspection if we are two balance the interdependent qualities of both worlds to gain the maximum mutual benefits.
A Problem Shared
Making people aware that their emotions are often outside of their conscious control is a great first step in the process of tackling issues of stress and anxiety. By doing this, we can begin to understand that negative feelings aren’t something we choose to incubate, and therefore not something we ought to feel guilt about. From this basic understanding, we can then begin the process of healing from a position of honesty, and start tackling these processes as we would any other condition, with the knowledge that negative emotions aren’t something intrinsic to our personalities, but often the natural by-products of environmental influences.
We can then begin to look at systems of constructive coping mechanisms that can minimize the mental and physical impact of emotional difficulties with skill sets and techniques that help release stress and alleviate mental health problems in a constructive and long-term capacity. Mindfulness is an excellent way of identifying ingrained propensities towards negative thinking that we’ve picked up as habit during our lifetimes, and with this we can begin preemptively intercept negative feelings before they surface.
Thoughts inform our actions and our actions define our lives, so taking control of our behavior at the earliest possible opportunity is critical to improving our well being. After all, facing these feelings is the quickest and easiest way of identifying and neutralizing their source whilst achieving the prospect of eventually gaining closure. We have developed emotions to identify and inform us of sources of happiness and unhappiness: once we start listening to them, we can understand that they have important things to tell us, and provide information that we can wield to achieve a better quality of life.