I am back in school. The picture is of my cohort and I’m on the bottom right. At 55 I started a Ph.D. program last August. I’m in the Counselor Education and Supervision doctoral program at the Townsend Institute at Concordia University in Irvine, CA. The program is online so I didn’t move to California…although it sure is beautiful there. I have been teaching for the Townsend Institute’s Master’s in Counseling program since 2017. I love teaching but realized I want to increase my effectiveness in my work with students. It’s also a benefit to my clients. The program focuses on expanding my counseling skills, increasing my effectiveness in educating and supervising future counselors, equipping my research-brain to expand knowledge in counseling and counselor education, and advocating for various aspects in the counseling field.
It’s a long road and if all goes well I hope to complete the requirements by December 2024. I hesitated to start this program since I’m kind of old. I know, I’m not 80 but most people my age are starting to think about retiring. I’m not. I’m getting a second wind. I want to stay active both physically and intellectually and this is my way of achieving that. Well, not the physical part. That’s up to me to make sure I take care of my body. But the intellectual part is definitely being challenged right now. I’m in a research methods class that has been kicking my butt! Youtube videos of research terms has been invaluable!
The point of all this is to say, I’m so sorry but posting on this site is going to be very sporadic…like it has been lately. If you are ever in need of encouragement, I have hundreds of posts. I posted nearly every week from 2012 to 2021. That’s a lot of posts! Go check them out.
So far I have addressed the reality that we are not emotionally healthy all the time, it’s simply not possible to be perfectly consistent. I encouraged you to seek out healthy relationships to help heal your attachment deficits. Now, we’ll delve into the value of spiritual connection to our emotional health. One caveat here is that not all spiritual practices are the same, even within the same branch of spirituality. I am referring to practices that promote the well-being of individuals in body, spirit, and mind, not to practices that promote hate or preservation of the self without regard for how one’s behavior negatively affects others who have different beliefs.
A spiritual practice can help a practitioner tolerate uncomfortable feelings by connecting to the benefits of conflict and struggle as being important to our development as a person of faith. When we connect to the larger purpose of challenges, we shift our view from, “This is awful!” to “What can I learn about myself from this?” or “How can I use this experience to draw me closer to the source of my spiritual practice?” “This is awful!” can be a necessary step in the process, as honoring our actual experience is critical to our emotional health, but staying in that space will not lead to growth.
We connect to the global community instead of isolating ourselves. Healthy spiritual practices promote the good of all, regardless of other’s beliefs. There is a consideration for how our actions will either help or hurt others. This tie to the collective good can ease our sense of isolation in day to day life. When we are connected to others, we can develop or grow our emotional health.
Many spiritual practices encourage prayer or meditation. These can help calm the mind and relax the body which promotes healing and releases stress and tension. Relaxed muscles promote healthy blood flow throughout the body. Blood carries nutrients as well as aids in the process of removing toxins. Think of a river dammed up by debris. It reduces the flow of water downstream and causes flooding upstream. Our bodies don’t do as well when flow is decreased and many spiritual practices have the capacity to relax a person. When we are physically healthier we can be emotionally healthier and connect with others from a grounded, relaxed place versus a stagnant and tense place.
So what are you doing with your spiritual practice? Do you have one? I’ve listed just a few benefits. There are many more. Consider how you can use a spiritual practice to increase your enjoyment while you are on this planet, including increasing your emotional health.
The second truth about emotional health is it is achieved with others, not in isolation. We can’t simply will ourselves into emotional health by reading a book, listening to a podcast, meditating on a verse or meme. We are social beings. Our emotional health is directly tied to how well we are connected with others. This connection is directly tied to attachment.
Attachment is essential to human growth and development. From the moment we are born, we need to be held, comforted, talked to, and provided for. Remove these elements and there are going to be problems. Just look at the work of Bowlby and Harlow (warning, the Harlow study on baby monkeys is tough to read but it did shine a valuable light on the need for attachment in healthy development). We must first experience our caregiver attaching to us, connecting with us, in a loving, caring, nonjudgmental, and nurturing way to learn how to healthily attach to others.
Unfortunately, flawed people raised us. They were raised by flawed people, who were raised by flawed people, and so on. Mistakes were made. Caregivers were sick, too tired, or perhaps too messed up themselves to attach to us in the most healthy and consistent way. Some caregivers are better than others so the wounding that gets passed on in the attachment realm varies from person to person.
If you received healthy-enough attachment bonding, you likely have healthy relationships with those around you. You have people in your life you can share your messiest parts with and they can sit with you in your mess without criticizing you, fixing you, or trying to solve your problem for you. You can be in their mess with them. You enjoy being with each other. You can share all your emotions and hold all of theirs. When you are troubled, you lean into others instead of withdrawing. When no one is available, you remember the times they have been there, and you don’t feel alone; you can sort of take them with you wherever you go.
Perhaps you read that paragraph and thought you don’t have those people in your life. You don’t open up with others and you feel sad about that. Or, you realize you don’t have people in your life and you feel good because you don’t want to get close to anyone. Perhaps you thought, you’re always there for others but never let them see the real you. These are indicators of a problem with attachment. Lack of healthy attachment equals emotional unhealth.
What can you do about it? Start with therapy. It will be helpful to uncover the underlying attachment deficits you experienced in your childhood. You can gain understanding and some healing experiences with an attachment theory based counselor. It will also help to get involved in a community of safe people so you can start practicing being real and vulnerable with others. It can be tricky to find safe people. Look for those who are working on their own emotional health and making progress. I am partial to the Cloud and Townsend communities. You could start there if you don’t know where to begin.
A good resource for finding a therapist is PsychologyToday.com. I get nothing from them for saying that. It’s where I go to find my own counselors. They have parameters on the site so you can narrow down by preferences like location, insurance they take, cost, and models of therapy they use (like attachment theory, emotionally focused therapy, and EMDR – my personal favorites). You may have to try out a few therapists before you find one you like so give the process some time. You’re worth both the time and money it takes to develop emotional health!
Want to know the truth about emotional health? I think we all want to know what we can do to have it and keep it. No one really enjoys being in an emotional spiral or even an emotional swirl. We like it best when we are stable, when life around us is stable, and we have a sense of all is well. Unfortunately, that is not reality. And that is the first truth.
Accepting the hard moments or hard days is necessary for experiencing emotional health. Emotional health is not synonymous with emotional neutrality. Living in a narrow range of emotion with no high or low is denying reality. Life is full of pain, hardship, uncertainty, disappointment as well as exuberance, explosive joy, and celebration. Actually feeling the rhythms of life is not being bipolar. If you find yourself so low you cannot get out of bed for several days in a row and at others so high you don’t sleep at night for several days in a row while rearranging your home, for instance, it’s possible you are bipolar and you may need an evaluation. The normal highs and lows of life however are not a cause for alarm. But many of us don’t like those highs and lows. What’s your alternative? To live in a restricted response to life around you and that is not emotional health. You are stunting your true experience.
To enlist the first truth of emotional health, start noticing what you are feeling. Allow the feeling to be there for as long as you are comfortable with it. Name it. Are you feeling sad, discouraged, disgusted, pissed off, concerned, unsure, afraid, content, excited…? Notice the full expression of the emotion in your body not just the cognition of it. If you are feeling pissed off, what does it feel like in your body? Be aware of its physical sensation. Simply let it be there. You don’t need to do anything with it, just notice and let it pass, like a wave.
For some, allowing emotion to be fully experienced is unsettling and may even trigger such an extreme connection that you feel out of control, like the emotion is going to take you over. If that’s the case, don’t feel it. Shut it down. Anchor yourself to the given moment: My feet are touching the ground, I can see the clock on the wall, I hear it ticking, I am right here in this room. Then, find a good counselor to help you with processing your emotion.
Sometimes, especially with sadness tied to grief and loss, it feels so strong that we cannot sleep well or we sleep too much, our appetite changes, our interest in things we once enjoyed disappears, we have lethargy, maybe even an increase in anger. These are all signs of depression. Depression can be situational: I lost my job, I’m going through a breakup or divorce, my child died, I have cancer. It can also be a physiological issue in your brain. For both, see a counselor and a medical provider. You may benefit from working through the situation with a counselor and taking medication, either to help you through a really challenging time or to help balance your body’s chemical production.
To sum up this truth: feeling deep feelings is normal, being neutral all the time is not emotional health. Sometimes we do feel too deeply and we can serve ourselves well to get that checked out by a counselor and a medical provider. If looking for a counselor, check out your insurance for covered providers or PsychologyToday.com. You can put in parameters for location, insurance they take, therapy techniques they use, and more.
If you can’t wait for the rest of this series, check out my book: The Journey Forward Workbook: Daily Steps to Achieve Emotional Balance and Healthier Relationships or my course The Journey Forward Workbook Series
What do you need to feel balanced? Some days it might be a hug, a deep breath, a walk, a real conversation, the reminder that you are enough. Not one of those is about material items or even things you buy. They are about caring for yourself in deep and meaningful ways. Are you getting those ingredients in on a regular basis? Do what you can in this moment to care for yourself.