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Hit the mental gym: Why our minds need daily exercise

June 3, 2016 General Wellness By Paula Durlofsky, PhD

Most of us are well aware of what it means to be physically healthy. A balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol use, avoiding smoking and other drugs, getting plenty of rest, and getting daily exercise all contribute to achieving optimal physical health.

But what about how best to achieve optimal emotional health? What does it mean to be 'emotionally healthy' and what we can do to improve our emotional health when needed? There may seem to be an obvious answer to this question, but emotional health is a multi-faceted concept and achieving it takes daily effort and commitment, just like our physical health.

Emotional health refers to our overall psychological well-being. This includes the way we feel about ourselves (self-esteem), the quality of our relationships (degree of meaningful relationships), our ability to modulate difficult feelings, such as anger, disappointment and frustration and our ability to manage difficult circumstance (grit and resiliency). People who are emotionally healthy feel in control of their emotions and behaviors, build strong relationships, and recover from setbacks.

It’s important to know that being emotionally healthy doesn’t mean never feeling badly or having to face hard times. Everyone will experience loss, disappointment, and transitions at some point and everyone will have periods of sadness, anxiety and stress, this is normal. But, good mental means having the tools to cope with difficult situations while maintaining a positive and hopeful outlook.

Despite old habits and attitudes being difficult to change, it is not impossible when we consistently work on replacing them with healthy new ones. Our brain develops new ways of thinking when we regularly train it just as our muscles develop and strengthen when we consistently train them.

Below are six mental workouts you can do every day to improve your emotional health:

  • Exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet and get enough rest. Physical health is closely connected to mental and emotional health. Regularly taking care of our bodies is a big step in achieving good mental and emotional health.
  • Do things that you enjoy and be around people you like. It is important to become aware of the times you feel happy, satisfied, and accomplished and the situations in which good emotions are felt. Pursuing things we enjoy and being around people we like releases endorphins, a chemical that makes us feel happy and good.
  • Make your important relationships a daily priority. Humans are social creatures who crave the company of others. Having a strong social network significantly improves our emotional health and reduces our risk for depression and anxiety. Work on developing a supportive and reciprocal relationship with someone you can talk to regularly, who listens to you and supports you.
  • Make time for contemplation and appreciation. On a daily basis set aside a few minutes to think about the things you are grateful for in your life, such as having a family, having good health and taking the time to appreciate nature.
  • Build resiliency and grit. Resiliency and grit are intricately related to good emotional health. People with high degrees of resiliency and grit remain focused, creative, and flexible when facing adversity. Resiliency and grit help us bounce back quicker from life’s inevitable setbacks and stops us from getting stuck in depression, anxiety, or other destructive mood states.
  • Ask for help. Sometimes our own efforts to improve our circumstances or our emotional health are not effective and when this happens seeking professional help can be life changing.

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples, and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.