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Life is stressful — it’s time for a mental health check-in

How are you feeling? How have you been feeling the past week? Most importantly, what are you doing about how you’re feeling? Let’s talk about the importance of checking into our emotions and mental well-being, and explore a few tools that can help us begin to notice, process and regulate emotions during stressful times. (Say, a pandemic or political unrest, for example.)

With that being said, it’s important to note that no two people are alike. Feel free to take any information you feel applies to you and leave any information that may not.

Schedule an emotional check-in

By emotionally checking in, we can allow for space to better understand what we need to honor our feelings moving forward. You can start by asking yourself, “How am I? What emotions am I experiencing right now, in this moment?” Recognizing and labeling our emotions is difficult depending on how honest we want to be with ourselves and how aware we are of what we are feeling.

As you begin to pause and tune in to how you are feeling, I invite you to notice what is arriving without judgement, without a desire to change anything and maybe with a hint of curiosity.

Dr. Marc Bracket, author and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, created a tool called the Mood Meter to help us get in touch with how we feel. To start, you might ask yourself: How pleasant or unpleasant do I feel? How much energy do I have? What’s the best word to describe how I feel right now?

Then, you can place yourself on the Mood Meter as follows:

  • Red: Feeling unpleasant, high energy emotions such as anxiety, rage, frustration, anger and fear
  • Blue: Feeling unpleasant, low energy emotions such as disappointment, sadness, discouragement, hopelessness and loneliness
  • Green: Feeling pleasant, low energy emotions such as calm, relaxation, serenity, contentment and balance
  • Yellow: Feeling pleasant, high energy emotions such as joy, excitement, enthusiasm, elation and empowerment

See your “best self”

Complex and multifactorial emotions such as sadness, anxiousness and disappointment are part of what makes us human — and that’s okay. While it’s a beautiful part of us, certain emotions might lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed, especially if we don’t have helpful ways of recognizing and regulating these emotions.

In addition to the Mood Meter, Dr. Brackett created a four-step process to help us when we experience a triggering emotion. The process, coined the Meta-Moment, gently guides your focus onto noticing your “best-self” as a form of understanding how to, or how not to respond to an intense emotion. It’s broken down as such:

  1. Sense a shift: Are you activated? Are you caught off guard? Did your thinking shift? Do you want to say or do something you might regret?
  2. Stop or pause: Step back and create space before you react. Take a deep breath, then, take another deep breath.
  3. See your best self: Activate your best self. You can do this by thinking of your core values or of an image that allows for your best self to be seen in your mind. You might ask yourself, what would I do if someone I respect was watching?
  4. Strategize and act: Trust your best self, your wisdom and begin to emerge into your best self. (Note: this does not mean that everything will turn out for the best — it is simply an invitation to align with and act on your core values.)

Process difficult emotions

What happens if we have been sitting with difficult emotions, unable to process them or understand them fully? First of all, this is completely normal and part of being human. Emotions can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to process.

In a podcast episode, Brene Brown, Emily and Amelia Nagosky, authors of “Burnout: the Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” talk about how burnout is actually a result of not processing difficult emotions. They also talk about the importance of “completing the stress cycle” and how to do so:

  1. Practice kindness and compassion: The first and arguably most important step is to turn toward the difficult emotions with kindness and compassion. Remind yourself that it is okay to be feeling whatever it is you’re feeling.
  2. Movement: Emotion happens everywhere, it affects everything and it can get stuck within the body. Therefore, the most efficient way to process emotions is through movement. Any kind of movement counts! Some ideas include dancing around the house, sitting on the floor and stretching, going for a walk or throwing a frisbee around outside.
  3. Breathing: Take slow breaths in and even slower breaths out. This will help regulate the parasympathetic nervous system and remind our body that we are not in danger.
  4. Positive social interaction: Being a part of positive social interactions such as giving/receiving compliments, sharing a genuine laugh with someone, reminiscing about a time when you had a belly laugh or having a 20-second hug with someone you find comfort in is important.
  5. A big cry: A big cry allows the body to move through the stress cycle by physically expressing and letting out any emotion tied up within the body.
  6. Creative expression: Processing an emotion by expressing it through any kind of expressive outlet is a great way to allow the space and time to feel the emotion through.

Related: Feelings about feelings: Navigating meta-emotions during a pandemic

Give happiness (to others and to yourself)

It’s amazing how much joy we can feel after receiving even the smallest acts of kindness. Whether it’s affirmation from a loved one, a hug from a friend or a smile from a stranger — these acts can sometimes affect us in a deeper, unexpected way and may mean more to us than we make known.

The feeling of giving happiness seems to relieve some of the heaviness in our own lives. Though this relief may feel brief, it can at least give us a chance to breathe, let go and give in to happiness.

Sometimes, the act of giving may actually cause us to give too much of ourselves to a point where we begin to neglect our own needs and well-being. Giving, then, is about both giving to others and to yourself. By putting yourself first, you will be more able to give to others and be that loved one, friend or stranger who provides a sense of relief to another individual.

Some ways you can put yourself first include:

  • Seeking out opportunities to laugh a bit more to improve your mental and emotional health as well as strengthen relationships.
  • Show your gratitude by reflecting on what you’re thankful for.
  • Volunteer your time to experience a reward, social connection and community engagement.
  • Take some time to be alone in solitude.

Remember that finding time and space to recognize our emotions takes a conscious effort. If we can take the time to create a personalized practice, we can better process and honor our emotions.

All emotions are valid and are a reflection of our experience in life. By validating our own feelings and allowing space to process and understand them, we give ourselves the freedom of genuinely experiencing our lives with an abundance of self-compassion.

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This blog post was authored by dietetic interns Esmeralda Vilche, Cali Assaf and  Jerrica Garza.

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Life is stressful — it’s time for a mental health check-in