Getting Emotionally Fit

09/02/2017 12:21 GMT | Updated 10/02/2018 10:12 GMT

Most people have attempted to get physically fit at some point in their lives. The desire is understandable. You will be healthier, and feel and look better. And physical fitness is tangible. As you exercise and build your fitness there are very real differences that are seen and experienced. You lose excess weight, you breathe more easily, you recover from physical exertion quicker. Yet how many of us have actively and deliberately worked on our emotional fitness? How many of us have worked on our ability to bounce back from adversity and operate effectively in emotionally challenging situations?

Our lives are full of the stressors that surround relationships, children, work and finances. Not to mention the stressful and often impossible to meet societal messages we get about who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to look. These stressors sap our emotional resources in the same way that prolonged exercise saps our physical energy. To show up as the best versions of ourselves and experience the greatest wellbeing in our lives it is crucial that we are emotionally fit enough to deal effectively with stress, pressure and challenge.

So why don't we expend more time and effort on building our emotional fitness? One of the reasons is that many people are under the mistaken assumption that resilience and the capacity to cope with stressful situations are fixed traits or characteristics. Capacities that you only have a fixed amount of. People don't realise that while some might have different natural starting points when it comes to their emotional fitness, we can all increase our capacity to demonstrate resilience and effective emotional management. This increased capacity comes through deliberately and consciously employing strategies that exercise our emotional fitness and prompt us to recharge/recover between emotional sprints or marathons.

There are four areas in which your emotional fitness can be built and maintained and people will tend to orientate more towards some of these than others. To optimise your emotional fitness you need to be employing strategies from all areas.

The first area is relationships. We are a social species, and when it comes to dealing with stressors and feeling equipped to manage life's challenges, having social support is important. Having a mentor to get advice from or a trusted friend to speak to about what's going on for you, are examples of ways in which relationships can be leveraged to build and maintain emotional fitness.

The second area is thinking. Thinking strategies that reduce the emotional impact of adversity include learning to view things from another perspective, challenging the accuracy of the thoughts that are causing you distress, mindfulness, and focusing on solutions rather than the problem.

The other two domains are that of the physiological and the environmental. The physiological captures activities like exercise, healthy eating, and breathing regulation. The last domain is the environmental, which my experience suggests is the least deliberately used and the easiest to add to your emotional fitness regime. People often forget or fail to realize just what an impact our environment has on us. Yet all you need to do to experience this first hand is to get into nature, and do so regularly! Other environmental techniques include tidying your home or desk, listening to relaxing music, getting outside during the day, and having visible pictures of loved ones or holiday destinations.

As well as deliberately building and maintaining your emotional fitness, you need to be monitoring your emotional fatigue levels. No matter how physically fit you are, you will become exhausted with enough exertion. No matter how emotionally fit you are, you will experience burnout and fail to cope if put under enough prolonged pressure.

When running, I listen to audiobooks. Yet my wife recently pointed out to me that running with such distractions stops you from avoiding fatigue by tuning into how your body is feeling, and gauging whether you can increase your pace or need to ease off. The parallel for emotional fitness holds true. To avoid emotional fatigue and burnout you need to self-monitor your emotional energy and resources. If we tune into our emotional state and pay attention to the symptoms of fatigue then we know when we need a break, need to reduce unnecessary causes of stress, or when we have the capacity to take on additional tasks or responsibilities. Short-term distractions such as alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, and over-eating are often used to tune-out from the pain of emotional fatigue. However, these distractions only temporarily mask the symptoms of fatigue and stop us from more effectively monitoring and managing the cause of our distress.

Key take away messages:

  • Emotional fitness is a process not an attribute: We all have the capacity to become more emotionally fit, but this requires deliberate and active exercise.
  • The four areas through which we can exercise our emotional fitness are relationships, thinking, environmental, and physiological: To optimize your emotional fitness you must be incorporating activities from each of these areas.
  • Self-monitor your emotional fatigue: Learn to monitor your levels of emotional fatigue so that you can reduce stress and pressure instead of risking burnout by masking the symptoms with short-term distractions.