Have you ever been so frustrated that you ‘felt your blood boil’, ‘got all steamed up’, and ‘started seeing red’? While we have a wide range of colorful expressions about how emotions can affect us, there’s a grain of truth in these phrases — because our emotional states can have a significant impact on us physiologically. Stress can negatively impact just about every part of our bodies.
Stress can make it harder to breathe, even inducing hyperventilation or asthma attacks in extreme cases. Chronic stress can cause our muscles to tense up, inducing headaches and migraines in the process. Over years of chronic stress it can contribute to long-term cardiovascular problems, increasing the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. While not all stress is bad, how we manage that stress can have substantial implications for our well-being.
In fact, stress can even change our brains.
It was once popular belief that our brains finish developing after critical periods of growth during adolescence, but we now know that our brains are constantly forming new neural pathways to help us retain and use new knowledge. This concept, called neuroplasticity, essentially means that our brains are designed to constantly rewire themselves throughout our lives in response to our experiences. These changes can sometimes be for the better — in response to positive experiences or therapy, for example.
However, negative experiences can cause us to engage in maladaptive behaviors that can contribute to mental conditions and disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, and many other conditions.
In one new field of counseling called neurocounseling, researchers and therapists are studying how our brains change in response to trauma in an effort to better diagnose mental conditions and create effective treatment plans. A common goal of many neurocounseling techniques is training clients to become more skilled in self-regulating their emotional and physiological states.
This is most evident in the practice of neurofeedback, in which clients are trained to self-regulate their brain activity with the aid of real-time displays. However, neurofeedback is far from the only method of achieving better self-regulation of our emotions.
Here are a few strategies you can use to better manage your emotions for a healthier body and mind:
- Grow your emotional intelligence
The first step to self-regulating your emotions is to understand them. Emotional intelligence, or EI, refers to the skills we need to understand and manage emotions effectively. Those with high EI are good at recognizing their own emotions and the emotions of others. People with high EI communicate their emotions productively, but act according to their values rather than their emotional impulses.
To gain these skills, begin by recognizing the emotions that drive your behaviors. How are your emotions influencing your daily choices, your communication with others, and your general feeling of well-being? By starting with these questions, you’ll be more able to take responsibility for your own emotions, and share empathy for others. If you need professional guidance, consider seeking compassion training classes to help train your empathy.
2. Try mindfulness meditation
While there are many different forms and techniques to mindfulness meditation, the practice is essentially about experiencing the moment. While sitting still in an upright position, practitioners focus on their senses and breathing while nonjudgmentally guiding their attention away from the distractions of thought. In addition to helping us becoming more self-aware, published research shows that this activity can substantially help us reduce and manage stress.
In fact, one major new study affirms that the general practice of mindfulness therapy can be as effective in alleviating the symptoms of depression as well as antidepressant medications. While there are plenty of online tutorials and resources for getting started in mindfulness meditation, consider attending a local class in mindfulness meditation, or seeking a certified trainer in mindfulness-based stress reduction.
There is a wide range of techniques and tools to help people who struggle with chronic stress and their emotions, and this post only scratches the surface of all that is available to you. While stress can change our bodies and minds for the worse, it can be comforting for those with these conditions to understand how self-regulation — in addition to therapy and a treatment plan when necessary — can guide our minds back to good health.