Cultivating Healthy Emotions in Distressing Times: Self-care tools

By Ore Taiwo Makinde.

Distressing times come and go. Several months ago, there was no single case of COVID-19 infection within our borders but alas, it visited the high and mighty in the land with the threat of community spread to the masses. The panic mode that many of us switched into earlier led to hasty decisions and errors in judgement but worse still, it reduced our quality of life and increased the risk of dying.

However, the situation seems to have improved as the heated reports of the viral spread are on a downward trend. In addition, the Federal Government has given directives for all students to resume schooling. Most of our fearful, tearful and angry emotions towards the political, economic and social circumstances surrounding the pandemic seem to have ‘calmed’ down as well.

Almost everyone will admit to having feelings of intense fear, anger, sadness or anxiety in the past. At the same time, we welcome feelings of joy and excitement. Ever hear about the person who had a heart attack after hearing he had won the lottery? Or the patient who panicked and gave up before going in for surgery? Some of us break out with acne during stressful periods such as final exams or when trying to meet deadlines. Our blood pressures surge from watching seasonal football games. Folks have pointed out the sudden greying edges of their hair after going through stressful seasons. Even the former President of the United States, Barack Obama was not immune to this.

Have you ever told someone who lost a loved one not to cry? A dermatologist turned-psychiatrist inferred that his patients “wept” through their skin (skin infections worsened) from being unable to weep openly following a life event. Clearly there is a mind-body connection.

Emotional extremes whether positive or negative are interpreted by the human brain which responds by flooding our bodies with signals depending on the degree of thoughts and emotions coursing through our system.

Intense joy is exerting but intense sorrow is more damaging. Negative emotions include fear, panic, anger, rage, guilt, worry, frustration and unforgiveness. There is increasing evidence to show that these emotions can hurt and maim us.

A study suggested that men who worried about social conditions, health and finances had a higher risk of having a heart attack compared to those who didn’t. Immune cells that attack tumor cells have also been shown to be corrupted by stress. So what can one do to avert the damaging effects of negative emotions? How does one choose healthy emotions in the face of disturbing news or in the midst of crises both now and after the COVID-19 pandemic? Here are some self-care tools that can be used to cultivate healthy emotions:

1. Choose what defines your identity. As Dr Don Colbert said, ‘No event can change you on the inside except you allow it’. This is why Corrie Ten Boom could survive the hatred of Hitler’s men in a German refugee camp for years and still come out to impact her world positively. The late President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela had something in him that refused to die even after several years in prison.

2. Choose to love. Choose to care for others. Give and give again. Don’t hoard at the detriment of others. Share. Volunteer. Help the vulnerable. Build a sense of community in the face of physical distancing. Compliment others and offer positive critique instead of ridicule. 

3. Neutralize negative life beliefs. Switch from saying,’Nothing ever goes right’ or ‘Nothing can work in this country’ to ‘Things may not be going so well now, but it will get better’. Your brain will interpret the positive signalling from your positive thoughts. Thoughts translate into emotions and finally actions.

4. Spend time in meditation. You can do this at the start of each day. Engage kind thoughts. Look for mantras, scriptures, positive quotes, poems and songs to guide your thoughts. Before long, your heart will be welling up with positive emotions. When you feel overwhelmed by the negative news waves, switch off your TV and devices for a while to refresh. Visit your social media apps only at designated times of the day.

5. Practice forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean letting the person who has done wrong off the hook such that he merits no justice. Rather, it means letting go of the hurtful and angry emotions that stem from the offence the person has caused and leaving the person in the hands of God or the law as the case may be. It means not to avenge your cause. This is the season to let go of grudges and bitterness. 

6. Choose joy. Smile until it becomes a trademark. Laugh. Share kind humor. Research reports that the effect of laughter in the body is similar to that of aerobic exercise because it utilises muscles in the chest and abdomen. This however does not replace your daily work-outs. Laughter can also help the immune system by increasing protective body hormones such as endorphins.

7. Explore new activities. Learn to do something new. It could be cooking a new recipe, playing those old games we played as children, drawing, painting, writing or teaching yourself piano lessons. Read a good book. It will slow your risk of dementia.

8. Engage in regular, moderate intensity physical activity. Moving is known to elevate the mood and is a modality in the treatment of depression. You can brisk walk within the confines of your compound. You can jog on the spot or dance.

9. Love yourself. Care for your body, your hair and your skin with natural products and avoid chemicals that slough off the skin’s protective covering. Your skin houses thousands of receptors which send signals to the brain. Get a massage which can help ease muscle tension, lower stress hormones and induce a feeling of relaxation and comfort.

10. Connect with loved ones. The rule may be physical distancing now but keeping in touch with family and friends is possible with the optimal use of phone devices. The sound of their voices can calm down the swelling agitation in your heart. Those who have the unique privilege of being home with their families can also learn to bond better with their spouses and children.

Our emotional well-being depends on our ability to feel, to recognise and give an expression or voice to feelings in an appropriate manner so as not to damage our health. Choosing the above actions may look rather simple but their consistent and deliberate practice will lead to an increase in overall happiness, self-confidence and self-esteem leading to improved emotional, mental and physical well-being. 

In conclusion, healthy emotions have the potential to promote your longevity and quality of life. Why don’t you start today?

Dr Ore Taiwo Makinde is Consultant Family Physician and certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician