Our Experts, Your Health

9 tools for your emotional toolbox

You lost your job and might lose your home.  A family member is seriously ill and you have to travel across the country.   Your divorce is finalized and your world feels strange and unfamiliar. We all experience major life events  that can rock our stability.  At these times we are frequently too tired, sad or numb to think about healthy eating.  If we don’t pay attention, our initial stress reaction of eating too little, too much or unhealthy comfort foods can contribute to chronic sabotage of our health.  How do we get back on track when life is feeling so challenging?

In my thirty-one years as a social worker I have worked with countless individuals and families in the midst of an immediate trauma as well as weeks and years after the event. I have witnessed a lot of pain and tragedy.  I have learned more from others than I have ever given and I am continuously amazed by the resiliency of human beings.  I am a firm believer that we handle stress and loss the same way we handle life.  If we have been a positive thinker we will use these skills to navigate loss and uncertainty.  If we have not taken responsibility for our own actions and have blamed others, we will do so at times of challenge.

In the midst of a crisis we are focused on surviving rather than developing new coping mechanisms.  So, my message is to practice daily self care and compassion so when we are confronted with challenges we can quickly return to our usual healthy routine. I often say that we need to have an emotional tool box.  Sometimes we need to add new tools, so we are prepared for the next unexpected breakdown.  So what tools do the experts recommend for a healthy lifestyle?

  • Exercise. This is the best stress buster and good for us in many ways.  It not only burns calories but increases a cascade of biochemicals that counter negative effects of stress hormones.  Choose an activity that you enjoy with a goal of 150 minutes of physical activity a week.
  • Eat a balanced diet and do not skip meals. Eat breakfast and try to consume six small meals rather than three huge meals, with foods from all food groups.  When you skip a meal your body thinks you are starving and your metabolism slows down.
  • Don’t lose sleep. When we don’t get enough sleep our cortisol levels rise, making us feel hungry which can eventually lead to obesity. Even in time of crisis do your best to go to sleep at your regular time with the goal of 7-8 hours of sleep a night.
  • Have a relaxation routine. Activities that help you feel calm and relaxed such as deep breathing, yoga or massage create the same positive brain chemicals as exercise. Regular practice of these activities when life is stable provides quick support when you are in the midst of a storm.
  • Snack on whole grain, high fiber foods. Avoid snack foods that are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, like white flour, cookies and pasta.  These foods cause your insulin level to rise which results in increased stress hormones.  High fiber foods like oatmeal and multi-grains keep insulin in check.
  • Avoid caffeine, cigarettes, and alcohol. These all contribute to increasing stress hormones. As well, numbing ourselves to relieve emotional pain just delays the healing that needs to occur.

From my own personal  experience in handling challenges and as a professional counselor, I believe the following skills are important to also add to our emotional tool box.

  • Develop a core set of values that nothing can shake. Examining your purpose in life and connection with faith and/or a higher power creates a lifelong foundation for handling loss and challenges.
  • Reach out for support when things go haywire. Sometimes it “takes a village” or at least some close friends or family to navigate huge stressors.  Remaining isolated can contribute to depressed feelings and anxiety.
  • Try to find meaning in whatever stressful or traumatic thing has happened. This doesn’t happen immediately but reviewing your life can show you how facing challenges has helped you grow and be prepared for the future.

Review your emotional tool box, check if your tools are working and whether some upgrade is needed.  It’s those day to day tools that help out in the time of crisis. And if things get bad and you can’t seem to get a handle on your weight or emotional health, please reach out for professional help.

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