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In this article, you’ll learn what it means to be emotionally healthy and various ways you can improve your emotional health.
What is emotional health?
According to familydoctor.org, “People who are emotionally healthy are in control of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They are able to cope with life’s challenges. They can keep problems in perspective and bounce back from setbacks. They feel good about themselves and have good relationships.”
Your emotional health is just as important as your physical health. And yet, many of us neglect our emotional health. We leave it on autopilot and hope for the best. Or we only pay attention to our emotional health when we’re in crisis. Or we simply don’t prioritize the things that will help us feel our best.
As a psychotherapist, I help people increase their emotional health. This includes healing from trauma, understanding their emotions, communicating their needs, pursuing their goals, creating healthier relationships, and increasing their self-esteem and confidence. How we go about making these changes is a more difficult question (and could easily fill an entire book).
In this article, I hope to give you a place to start – some things to focus on, that when done consistently, will help improve your mental or emotional health.
25 Ways to improve your emotional health
1) Forgive yourself for past mistakes.
It’s time to stop beating yourself up for things you did wrong, for missed opportunities, for not knowing what you know now. We all have regrets, but dwelling on them weighs us down unnecessarily. Self-forgiveness begins with acknowledging your mistakes, making amends (if appropriate), learning from your mistakes, and deciding to focus on the present and future rather than the past.
2) Treat yourself with the same love that you give others.
For most of us, it’s easier to be kind to others – even strangers – than it is to be kind to ourselves. We hold ourselves to mercilessly high standards and feel undeserving of a kind word or even basic self-care. Try treating yourself like a valued friend. Notice when you’re being cruel or withholding comfort from yourself and instead give yourself what you’d give a friend – a hug, validation, encouragement, or a treat.
3) Have fun.
Hobbies, play, and laughter are all good for our mental health. Be sure your calendar includes activities that you do purely for enjoyment. If you’re not sure what you like to do for fun, read more here.
4) Trust yourself.
To trust ourselves, we must consistently meet our needs; we have to show up for ourselves in times of need with kindness and comfort. We need to feel confident that we’ll act in our own best interest, value ourselves, and protect ourselves.
You can start building self-trust by committing to do one small thing for yourself today and following through. It’s essential that your commitment is doable, so don’t choose something that’s a stretch. It might just be saying you’re going to bed at 10 O’clock and then doing it. Consistently keeping your promises to yourself builds self-trust. You can learn more about trusting yourself in this article.
5) Rest when you’re tired.
Rest is essential and the appropriate response to both physical and emotional depletion. At yet, so many people feel guilty for resting, for not being productive all the time. Rest or taking a mental break improves productivity, memory, creativity, and concentration. It allows us to integrate what we’ve learned, rejuvenate, and clear our minds. It’s certainly not a waste of time!
6) Set boundaries.
Boundaries protect your time, energy, and personal safety. They communicate your expectations and help others understand what’s okay with you and what’s not. However, when you’re not used to setting boundaries, it can be scary and confusing. Take it slow. Learning to set boundaries is a skill that we learn with practice. Start by identifying what you need, how you want to be treated, and remind yourself that your needs are valid and communicating them assertively is healthy. Read more here.
7) Let go of resentments.
Are you holding onto anger and grudges? This sucks up energy that you could be using for more positive and productive pursuits. Letting go of anger doesn’t mean you’re forgiving or choosing to continue in a relationship with someone who has hurt you. It only means that you’re choosing not to put any more mental energy into negative thoughts and feelings.
Write (or talk with a therapist) about what happened and how it has affected you, identify what feelings you have beyond anger, acknowledge how you may have contributed to the problem, practice self-compassion, and consciously choose to release your anger.
8) Say goodbye to negative, difficult, or unsupportive people.
Ending a relationship – even an unhealthy or conflicted one – is painful. Spending time with people who are consistently negative, judgmental, critical, or unsupportive can contribute to anxiety and depression, deteriorate your self-esteem, make it difficult for you to pursue your goals, and take good care of yourself.
Sometimes ending relationships with such people is the only way to restore our emotional health. Ending unfulfilling relationships also makes room for healthier people in your life.
9) Accept your feelings without judgment.
How often do you dismiss or minimize your feelings or even tell yourself that your feelings are wrong? Your feelings are messengers trying to tell you something important and when you ignore them, they contribute to health problems, unhealthy coping behaviors like overeating or drinking, and stress. Instead, make space for your feelings. Invite them in without judgment. Be curious about why they are there, comfort yourself in healthy ways if they are difficult, and remember that feelings don’t last forever.
10) Take responsibility for your life.
Others may have hurt you or held you back in various ways, but ultimately you are responsible for your own life — and blaming others (or circumstances) doesn’t help you create a more satisfying life. Own your mistakes and choices; don’t blame others for your problems or get stuck in a victim mindset. Learn from what isn’t working and take responsibility for changing what you can.
11) Focus on what you can control.
Many things in life aren’t in our control, especially what other people think and do. And when we put our time and energy into trying to change people or situations that are beyond our control, we usually end up frustrated and resentful. It’s wiser to differentiate what we can control (namely ourselves) and what we can’t and then focusing on changing our thoughts and behaviors. You can read more about focusing on what you can control here.
12) Take chances rather than always playing it safe.
Perfectionism and fear of failure can keep us from trying new things and taking chances. We just do what we’ve always done (even if it causes problems) because it’s comfortable and safe. We don’t want to fail, or be criticized, or look foolish, so we only do things we’re already good at. We miss out on opportunities and we limit our success, creativity, and fun when we play it safe.
I’m not suggesting that you abandon reason, but that you step out of your comfort zone from time to time. Try something new and consider the possibility that things may turn out better than you think – and if they don’t, you can probably bounce back.
13) Notice the positives in your life.
It’s easy to notice everything that goes wrong, what we don’t have, our problems, failures, and frustrations. It’s much harder to notice what’s going right, how much we have, our joys, successes, and progress. But with intention (and perhaps some reminders), we can cultivate an attitude of gratitude that strengthens the neural pathways that promote contentment.
14) Speak up for yourself.
Many of us fail to be assertive because we think it’s rude or selfish, so we stay silent. We allow others to mistreat us, we don’t voice our ideas and opinions, and we build resentments because we expect others to know what we want or need – even when we don’t communicate our wants/needs. When we’re passive, we don’t respect and value ourselves. Assertive communication shows respect for ourselves and others. It’s thoughtful, polite, and calm. And we owe it to ourselves to speak up!
15) Deal with your past.
Have you been avoiding something painful from your past? Avoidance isn’t an effective long-term strategy. Eventually, our past catches up with us, and avoidance strategies (like drinking, overeating, playing video games) only make matters worse. So, getting emotionally healthy means dealing with our past, feeling our feelings, healing our hurts. This might include seeing a therapist, working a 12-step program, or using self-help resources.
16) Set realistic expectations.
If you’re frequently disappointed or angry, it’s time to adjust your expectations. As a therapist, I talk to many people who don’t realize that their perfectionist tendencies and impossibly high standards are making them miserable. They get fixated on how to improve their performance or get others to change, but this rarely works (and it involves lots of relationship-destroying nagging and complaining).
Often the answer is to pay attention to your expectations, adjust them so they’re likely to be met, and accept that most things don’t need to be perfect, people make mistakes and forget things, and some things are out of your control. You can read more in my book, The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism.
17) Make time to reflect.
Most of us live very busy lives. We run from one commitment to the next and still feel like we’re falling short, not doing enough. Instead of doing more, you may benefit from slowing down and making time to reflect on what you’re doing and why, to process your thoughts and feelings, rather than rushing past them. Try scheduling some quiet time with yourself, just 10 minutes once or twice a day. Remember, the goal is to reflect and be mindful, but not to dwell.
18) Prioritize your needs.
Everyone has needs. And whether you need food or companionship or a sense of purpose – your needs are valid and you shouldn’t neglect them. If you have codependent tendencies, as I do, you may find yourself tending to everyone else’s needs and leaving yourself with the scraps. Certainly, other people’s needs matter, too, but they can’t routinely come at the expense yours. That’s a recipe for exhaustion, burnout, illness, and resentment.
19) Connect with others.
Positive, healthy relationships improve our quality of life, but they can be challenging to form and maintain. Relationships take time and energy and vulnerability. In order to connect in meaningful ways, we have to share our feelings, needs, and hopes. We have to trust, have fun together, and work through conflicts. And when we do, the benefits are great – to be understood, valued, loved, and accepted.
Exercise is important for physical health, but it’s also incredibly beneficial to emotional health. Exercise improves mood, reduces stress, and builds self-esteem. And you don’t have to be a world-class athlete or buy an expensive gym membership to get these benefits. When it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing. So, do what’s realistic for you.
21) Get enough sleep.
Like exercise, sleep is also important to both physical and mental health. We all know that staying up too late or a bout of insomnia leaves us irritable, fatigued, unfocused. Getting enough sleep can help improve mood and decrease stress and anxiety. It leaves us fresh to solve problems and face our challenges. The problem, of course, is that when we’re depressed, stressed, or anxious, we’re prone to insomnia which can worsen symptoms. Meditation, relaxation, and good sleep hygiene can help – or speak to your doctor. I find a consistent bedtime and keeping a journal next to my bed for anxious thoughts is helpful.
22) Stop trying to please everyone.
Trying to please others seems like a good thing (and sometimes it is), but when we do it out of fear – fear of criticism or rejection – we betray our authentic selves. Authenticity means sharing our ideas and feelings, pursuing our goals, being true to our values, and knowing what we like. When we lose these important aspects of ourselves, we feel disconnected, we don’t get our needs met, we stay in unsatisfying relationships and jobs. Instead, we need to embrace our true selves and accept that not everyone will like our choices, ideas, or beliefs.
23) Say nice things to yourself.
How often do you compliment yourself or acknowledge your progress? Most of us are quick to notice our faults and failures and struggle to acknowledge our strengths. And yet, people thrive when they are encouraged and validated. So, say nice things to yourself and you’ll probably feel more motivated, hopeful, and self-assured.
24) Cultivate a gratitude practice.
Research has repeatedly shown that gratitude has a multitude of benefits. It increases happiness, improves relationships, strengthens the immune system, and lowers blood pressure. Even more exciting, is that gratitude has lasting effects on the brain. Essentially, the more you practice gratitude, the more adept your brain gets at noticing good things; by strengthening these neural pathways you develop a more positive outlook.
25) Spend time in nature.
Did you know that spending time in nature is associated with reduced anxiety, depression, and stress? Nature seems to disrupt the loop of negative thoughts common in anxiety and depression. And the benefits seem to go beyond exercise (which we commonly do outside) and include the calming sights and sounds of nature. So, certainly, a trip to the beach or a stroll through the park is beneficial, but so is watching the birds from your porch or taking in the beauty of a sunset or the fresh snow on the trees.
What steps will you take to improve your emotional health?
Which of these practices do you think will improve your emotional health? Or perhaps, you’ve identified something else that would be helpful (in which case, feel free to share it in the comments).
If you’re serious about improving your emotional health, write your goals or intentions down (and share them with your therapist, if you have one).
Next, start to create a plan. What steps will you take? When and how will you implement them? What obstacles might you encounter? How will you handle them? What resources or support do you need?
Change is a process. Take it slow. And be gentle with yourself along the way.
©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
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Affirmations, Worksheets, Tips, and More
Simple tools to help you stay focused on your personal growth! It’s hard work to set boundaries, create healthier relationships, build self-esteem, and overcome codependency. That’s why I created a variety of print-ready resources to support your goals in these areas. View all of the designs HERE.