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Why Emotional Health Is Important & How It’s Different than Mental Health

Mental health appears to be a hot cultural topic these days, but sometimes emotional health isn’t given quite the credence it deserves.

Mental Health vs. Emotional Health

Mental health often refers to a person’s ability to think clearly, make good judgements and decisions, choose their focus appropriately, and turn their mind off when they need to relax. But emotional health, intertwined with mental health, affects a person’s ability to recognize their own emotions, express them appropriately, and care for the needs that drive those emotions.

Emotional health greatly affects our ability to regulate, self-soothe, and stabilize in the midst of stressful situations. If we can’t take good care of ourselves, not only do we personally suffer, but we also wreck havoc in our relationships. If you have kids, you can see the effects of emotional unwellness when they appear to lose their minds over seemingly small tasks (completing homework or doing a chore you’ve requested.) In the case of children, this is often seen as immaturity—which is exactly what it is. When it happens in adults, we view them as being emotionally under-developed or traumatized. 

Here are some examples of emotional health: 

  • When a friend doesn’t show up for a coffee date, you recognize that you feel sad and disappointed, maybe even hurt. You go for a walk to get the stress out, spend some time journaling your thoughts and emotions, and then share with your friend how you felt when she didn’t show.

  • You’re out with a buddy who gets a little worked up one night at a party and calls you a vulgar name. He leaves with someone else. You recognize that it makes you mad, so you spend some time the next day chopping wood to get out your frustration. You also feel a little lonely, so you call your buddy (or a more committed friend) and let him know how you were affected by his behavior.

  • You have a rough day at work. On the way home, you’re able to name the emotions that have come up… frustration, anger, disappointment and disrespected. You take your time making dinner in order to process the emotions. Then you make a plan to make some adjustments at work (or change jobs!).

Relational Health

An even more complex element of health is relational or social health, which is affected by both mental and emotional health. Relational health refers to a person’s intimate connectedness within a safe community. All three are intricately woven together. As a licensed practicing counselor, I deal with all three in my office every day.

A likely effect of emotional unwellness is a sense of isolation and frozenness. Humans who can’t navigate their own emotions sometimes lean too heavily on logic and reasoning. Not that thinking is bad! (As a former philosophy major, I love to think long and hard about things). It’s just that thinking is only one element of the human experience, so when overly relied upon it leaves a person unable to feel connected to others and unable to access the help needed from others!

Here are some examples of relational health: 

  • When you’re hurt by a friend you’re able to share with them clearly how you have been affected and you’re able to ask directly for what you want from them.

  • You know who will show up for you and who will listen. You utilize those resources regularly and provide those same resources to others on a regular basis.

  • You allow your friends and family to play limited roles in your life—getting your needs met from a diversity of people, so that no one in your system is overtaxed.

How to Develop Emotional Wellness

Step 1: Acknowledge & Identify

The first step of emotional health is paying attention to your own emotions. This can be an incredibly hard task for those who grew up in emotionally stunted environments. Some cultures are more prone to this than others, especially stressed cultures such as those in poverty or war-time where humans have had to do whatever they can just to survive. In those eras, there often isn’t time available in the day to spend on paying attention to one’s feelings. You just have to keep walking, keep working, and keep fighting. Sometimes emotions are stifled on purpose because they are too overwhelming or cause an even greater experience of vulnerability. 

If you grew up in a family that was scary, such as in the case of a major addiction or mental illness in a caregiver, it may have been unsafe to acknowledge emotions, as they could have ushered in additional pain.

For this reason, people who want to heal emotionally have to first make sure they are in a safe environment. This is where good counseling often comes in. The professional setting of counseling provides an ethically bound, well-trained, committed person who can safely hold space for you while you learn to acknowledge and identify your own emotions.

Learning to acknowledge your own emotions sometimes starts with paying attention to your body’s physical responses to its experiences. Because the heart, body, and mind are so entwined, you can start any one of those three places to find your emotions. Once you’ve identified one response, you can support it so that the others will start to “speak louder” to you as well.

Acknowledging emotions also includes learning to speak the language of emotions. When I first meet with emotionally underdeveloped clients they can sometimes only name three or four emotions (e.g. sad, mad, happy, scared). I often use a color wheel of emotions, such as this one, to help clients learn more diverse options for describing their responses.

Step 2: Express (For Self and To Others)

Once a person can identify and name their emotions, our next step is to clearly express those. Of course they are supported in my office to speak those out loud, but outside my office may be more difficult, especially if their homes and relationships aren’t supportive of that process. In that case, I encourage clients to utilize regular journaling to begin recognizing their emotions outside of my office. (E.g. Answer the question, "How am I feeling?" multiple times a day.)

There are two parts of expressing emotions. The first is allowing the stress out of your body. If you want to learn more about completing the stress cycle, consider this podcast by Emily Nagoski and Brene Brown. Our bodies are made to handle and process stress, but stress creates energy that needs to go somewhere or else it makes us sick. Some of my favorite ways of expressing stress are walking, journalling, cleaning, making art, and cussing! I know lots of people who love to listen to music, dance, and mow the lawn.

The second part of expressing emotions includes communicating those to other people. Passive aggressive communication of your emotions may have been the only way that was safe for you to communicate your emotions as a child, but as an adult you have new options! Being honest, direct, and open about how you’re feeling allows the people who love you to respond with care and compassion, rather than having to hide or defend themselves from you! Speaking accurately about your emotions also prevents confusion and unnecessary hurt.

Learning to express emotions accurately can also be difficult when the emotions are big. It’s certainly easier to just fly off the handle and throw a destructive fit–but again, you’re an adult now. I’m definitely not against throwing fits, but as an adult you have the option to thoughtfully choose your location, method, and means, thus preventing unnecessary harm. You also have the option to ward off giant emotions most of the time by taking care to regularly manage and process your everyday stress. 

Step 3: Care for the Needs

Once you’ve learned to acknowledge, name and express your emotions clearly, the last step of emotional health is to identify the needs driving the emotions. Think about it… when you need to eat you feel hungry. When you need to sleep you feel tired. When you need to drink you feel thirsty. And those are just physical needs and feelings! 

Because humans are created as herd animals, our emotional needs include support, encouragement, reassurance and the deepest of all: attachment. We are not designed to live as lone wolves.

attachment (noun) - a strong emotional bond that forms between a person and their caregiver that includes a sense of safety, connectedness and belonging.

According to scientific research, attachment is the most basic of all human needs. When we are not securely attached, our bodies let us know with a LOT of emotions... insecurity, fear, depression, anxiety, etc. Anytime our connections feel threatened, we get a flood of emotions warning us to do something to prevent a breakup. 

3 Steps to Improve Emotional Health


If we want to be healthy, we have to take quick action to make sure we can remain closely connected to the rest of our people. And to do that well, we need to be emotionally healthy for ourselves, our partners in life, and our kids if we have them!

Understanding emotional health can help us to take better care of ourselves and help us to understand the behavior of people around us. This means accurately assessing what’s going on with our favorite people instead of interpreting them to be unkind or intentionally hateful when they get dysregulated. It can help us better understand our friends, lovers, and kids—and then care for them better!

If you’re loving this topic and would like to learn more, consider joining me for a Live Emotional Health Training on how needs drive behavior this Thursday, February 22, at 6:30pm CST. The training will include some practical exercises to help you implement these ideas into your life, learning to recognize and care for the needs driving your own behaviors, and those of your partner and kids if you have them. I will also be answering any questions you might have right on the spot. Hope to see you there!

How Needs Drive Behavior, Emotional Health Training

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