Emotional Wellness: What It Is and How to Achieve It

For a few years, I've held a certain amount of pride in being an "emotional person." It took me a long time to get here. I remember the toll of repressing my sensitivity physically, viscerally. A pressure behind my temples. The burning in my eyes that was always a hallmark of blinding frustration. "Zero to 60," my mom always said. For a very long time, I didn't know that these outbursts were the byproduct of an unnecessary inner struggle.

Because once I came to terms with my emotions—once I truly realized and internalized their validity, as well as why I had avoided them for so long—they magically lost their control over me. I was no longer locked in an exhausting brawl with myself. It was terrifying to me to allow my feelings to just be, but that acceptance had been the key all along. "Expect sadness like you expect the rain," says the poet Nayyirah Waheed in her acclaimed book Salt. "Both cleanse you." These are words I return to again and again, now that I understand the cathartic power of emotion. I try to greet each of my feelings as I would an old friend, even if it isn't always comfortable or easy. (Don't we all have those longstanding relationships that are a little more fraught than others?)

A more recent development in this personal journey is the realization that we are all "emotional people." Every single one of us grapples with this beautifully complex, colorful web of feeling day to day, minute to minute, second to second. The same thing that makes us so "other" from each other is also our great equalizer. And that's why it's so unfortunate that our society often teaches us—especially women—that emotions are a sign of weakness.

In reality, neglecting our emotional wellness isn't just bad for our mental health. It can take a toll on our physical well-being, too. There is a ton of science that illustrates exactly how our emotional state manifests in physical symptoms. That's why many of us experience depression as overwhelming fatigue or a dull headache, why you might actually feel the stress of heartbreak as a pain in your chest.

If "emotional wellness" seems like a vague term, it might be out of deference to the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all, universal path—or even destination, for that matter. "Emotional wellness is multifaceted and personal to the individual and their circumstances," says Audry Van Houweling, a holistic nurse practitioner who specializes in mental wellness. "What may keep me grounded and emotionally content may be much different for someone else."

Still, the first step in your own journey might be understanding emotional wellness in a general sense, as well as certain tools that might help you feel more at ease with your own feelings. Keep reading to learn what emotional wellness could look like for you.

What Is Emotional Wellness?

"Emotional wellness is not a destination that is achieved and therefore complete, but an intentional, daily practice of being mindful of how our circumstances, lifestyle, and beliefs may be impacting our emotions," says Van Houweling. "It's about becoming aware of the necessary elements that need to be present in order to maintain a sense of grounding and contentment."

So much of emotional wellness comes down to a willingness to be very curious about yourself, as well as withholding judgment from what you see. When we "spiral," it's often because we question the validity of our own anger or sadness and frustration, which only leads to more self-beratement (and in turn, more emotion). We're human beings; even the most well-adjusted person (whatever that means) is going to feel shitty on a given day. The question is how we deal with those negative feelings.

"Emotional wellness is a spectrum," iterates Van Houweling. "Some days we find ourselves balanced and content while other days we may feel unbalanced for reasons that may be beyond our control or even identifiable. Stress and struggle are inevitable for us all, and therefore, emotional wellness is something to strive for but may not be achievable without professional guidance or help from others."

The Foundation of Emotional Wellness

While it generally varies from person to person, Van Houweling notes that there are a few key, consistent components of emotional wellness. "Universal foundations of emotional wellness include safety, shelter, access to nutritious food, sleep, physical movement, and social connectedness," she says.

These are the basics, but there's so much else that impacts us on any given day. "Additional influences may include core beliefs, self-talk, exposure to trauma, societal expectations, cultural influences, connection to nature, and the environments in which we live and work," she says. In order to better assess your current emotional state, it might be worth running through this list and really thinking about where you stand with all of them. Have you been feeling pressure to act a certain way at work? Does spending time outside boost your mood? How does scrolling through your Instagram feed really make you feel? These are all relevant questions that can help shape your "prescription"—or at least offer a little clarity.

You Are Your Own Anthropologist

"Practicing mindfulness and strengthening our 'inner observer' is paramount in learning to question our thoughts and feelings," says Van Houweling. This is why journaling is considered so helpful from a psychological point of view—putting pen to paper allows us to really assess what we're feeling, and seeing the words in front of us can often provide us an unrivaled clarity. (True story: The first step toward my own emotional freedom was starting a journal, and I haven't stopped since.)

But beyond actually writing things down, experiment with slowing things down a bit when you feel your mind start to race. Take a few deep breaths, and ask yourself—gently—why you think you're having this reaction. What specific emotions are you feeling? Do you feel a correlation with a past event? This exercise isn't just limited to uncomfortable circumstances—ask yourself why you're feeling joyful, too, so you can return to the feeling in the future.

Get Physical

"Your emotional and physical well-being are one and the same," says Van Houweling. Again, your feelings can manifest as physical symptoms, just as physical symptoms can impact your emotional state. It's a two-way street. "This is important to recognize in order to lessen stigma because it largely debunks the myth that your emotional state is 'all in your head,'" says Van Houweling.

It's yet another compelling argument to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible—to eat well, stay active, and take other steps to support your overall well-being. But it's also a reminder to avoid taking physical symptoms at face value. "Inflammation, hormone imbalances, nutrition, detoxification, immune health, and gut health all have huge ramifications on emotional wellness, which is often not fully addressed or explained in mainstream medicine," she says.

The idea that our symptoms can mean more than they seem is a little overwhelming, sure. But the flip side of this is that small changes in our diet, physical activity, and overall lifestyle can benefit our emotional well-being as well. We know that spending time outside can help mitigate anxiety levels, for example, and that eating healthy fats can seriously boost your mood. Once you start to get a better idea of areas where you'd like to find some more balance, it's worth making small adjustments to see how they impact your emotional wellness.

Don't Play the Comparison Game

It's human nature to compare ourselves to others, and our highly connected world has only exacerbated this truth to the nth degree. There's the blogger who seems to be living her best life on Instagram; even the posturing (and flaking) on dating apps can feed our deepest insecurities. But while social media can be a wonderful thing in many respects, its one-dimensionality does a huge disservice to our innate complexity. Even though we know that the aforementioned blogger has her own complicated life behind doors, we don't see that, so do we really know it? This mental gymnastics is enough to make us question the validity of our own feelings, our own happiness.

"It is important that in our world of comparisons, façades, and social media, people are given room to be vulnerable and disclose their struggles," says Van Houweling, who notes that it's more important than ever to make the time to connect with people in person, to interact with each other unedited, no filter. "We all have to face our own uphill battles. It is not black-and-white. We are not simply 'okay' or 'not okay.' It is possible to be both."

And that, perhaps, is the core truth of emotional wellness: that it's complicated and often murky. But knowing that this fact is not a reflection of our own worth (or perceived lack thereof) is a huge step. So too is learning to not just acknowledge our messy emotions but to really make room for them, to show them compassion.

Next up: four "taboo" sex topics all women should be talking about (but aren't).