Wellness Wheel

After months of pandemic lock-downs, many who thought they had emotional resilience are not so confident about it now. The troubling truth is that poor mental and emotional health can hide behind a pleasant-looking facade for years until something stressful comes along to expose it. How does this dynamic work, and how can you take a few simple yet powerful steps to strengthen your mental health? Consider Jane’s story:  

Jane is a married 34-year-old accountant living in a western U.S. city. Except during a difficult childhood, she has always thought of herself as a happy, well-adjusted person. Her five-year marriage to Tom has been full of excitement, love, and companionship. When her daughter was born three years ago, she was beside herself with joy. But the pandemic is making an increasingly bigger impact on her life. Shortly after the lock-downs began, every routine was interrupted: her exercise routine was the first casualty, then her once-a-week outings with friends. Thank heaven she and Tom have been able to keep their jobs by working from home, but they both missed the camaraderie of their work buddies. Little Diana’s pre-school closed down and they’ve had to create modified schedules to free at least one of them to watch the little girl. What seemed at first to be more time with her husband has developed into stressful days, longer work hours, and no end in sight. Jane has become irritable, anxious, and often distant from those she loves.

Sure, there are good reasons for Jane’s emotional difficulties. Wouldn’t anyone feel that way given such drastic changes in their daily routine, and the incessant news about “these difficult times”? Rather than do anything about her sinking mental health, however, Jane plans to wait it out. “I’m sure it will all be better once everything gets back to normal,” she tells herself.  

What Jane and many in her situation don’t realize is that the pandemic has done more than melt away their daily routines; it has ripped away a facade covering a scary secret. Jane’s mental health has never been that strong, but she never suspected it until now. What she does about it now, however, can either prepare and strengthen her for future challenges or keep the problem hidden, ready to eat away at her marriage, her job, and her happiness. Surprisingly, Jane could look at the pandemic as an opportunity to go a little deeper into emotional resilience than she had ever considered. And the effort could make her even happier than before the crisis began.     

Ask anyone what they could do to boost their mental or emotional resilience and they’ll recite a litany of advice: exercise, maintain social connections, eat a good diet, get plenty of sleep, practice meditation, etc. But something in this advice is incomplete.

We’ve all seen the “wellness wheel” showing the various dimensions of our lives. Analyzing the typical advice for strengthening emotional well-being, we see that most activities fit into “physical” or “spiritual.” But ask anyone to create a list of emotional “exercises” specifically designed for emotional health, and most people would be hard-pressed to name any. Why is this? For any other category, we’ve learned we can’t substitute one for the other. For instance, it would be absurd to say, “I don’t need aerobic exercise because I attend church regularly.” Likewise, we would never say, “I don’t need a college degree, I can bench press 200 pounds.” Think how ridiculous it would be to say, “I’ve got money in the bank, so I don’t need friends.”

Yes, it’s true that aerobic exercise releases endorphins and boosts our moods, and having a social life helps us regulate our emotions. Eating good foods and getting enough sleep help us physically feel better too. But these are merely “spillover benefits” when it comes to emotional health. What is the emotional equivalent of physical exercise? We need to apply effort directly to our emotional well-being, and not think we can replace it with physical, spiritual, social, financial, or intellectual exercises. But what are these exercises?

James W. Pennebaker PhD, once called the “founder of writing therapy” by the American Psychological Association, discovered some powerful benefits of journaling about stressful events. His research has been duplicated many times over the years and has become more mainstream, especially in the medical community. This kind of journaling, called “expressive writing,” produces such a powerful boost to emotional health that its “spillover benefits” actually improve other parts of the wellness wheel. Not only does journaling increase morale, reduce anxiety, and cause a more positive outlook, it also strengthens the immune system.

Dr. Pennabaker’s work has created a pathway towards greater resilience. Others have come forward with emotional health exercises using art therapy.  Lucia Capacchione, PhD, ATR, REAT was one of them. As an art therapist, Dr. Capacchione developed an unusual combination approach. As founder of Creative Journal Expressive Arts (CJEA), she combined a unique form of left / right hand journaling with art therapy for even more emotional benefits. CJEA practitioners are trained to help others use a variety of methods to overcome emotional obstacles and gain greater inner awareness.

There are effective best practices when it comes to self-directed journaling and art therapy, but even without any training the Janes of the world could benefit by simply pulling out a blank journal and expressing feelings by journaling and drawing. Doing this a few times a week, like using a gym, takes troubling thoughts out of someone’s head and puts them on paper.

Give it a try! Record how it makes you feel.