Emotional Fitness Is A Thing — Here Are 7 Key Mental Muscles To Know + How To Get Stronger
Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen.
Yoga, walking, running, boxing, swimming, Pilates, strength training—whatever type of fitness you fancy, you're probably well aware that exercise is an integral piece of your overall well-being puzzle. Now, what if we took that same proactive approach and applied it to our mental well-being?
That's exactly the question that prompted Alexa Meyer and Emily Anhalt, PsyD, to co-found Coa, the world's first gym for mental health. "When people think of mental health, it's focused on the idea of 'what's wrong with you, and how can we fix it,'" Anhalt tells mbg. "We wanted to know what it looks like when you're working on these things before there's an issue? What's an emotional pushup? What's an emotional plank?"
Seeking some answers, Anhalt conducted a research project where she interviewed 100 psychologists and entrepreneurs. She asked them what proactive emotional health and fitness looks and feels like to them, then found common themes in the input. The result: seven specific categories, coined the "traits of emotion fitness"—which are now integral to Coa curriculum and classes.
Consider these traits the key muscle groups to work on strengthening, as you integrate more proactive mental fitness into your routine.
7 traits of emotional fitness.
"What we've seen is when you think of any type of emotional growth, it's going to fit into one, and often many, of these categories," says Anhalt. She and Meyer have seen these traits resonate for all types of people—business leaders, people in relationships, individuals who are struggling, or others who feel perfectly fine.
"By working on these in an ongoing way, it can help prevent a lot of the issues that will later send people to needing mental health support," says Anhalt.
This is the first trait on the list for a reason, says Anhalt, "It's really hard to develop or change anything if we're not able to see it." This first step is all about looking inward, getting in touch with your emotional triggers and biases.
"If self-awareness is understanding and tolerating your own emotions, empathy is understanding and tolerating other people's emotions," explains Anhalt. In other words: This trait involves putting yourself in other people's shoes. Consider (and care about) what other people in your life might be going through, then let yourself really feel what they're feeling.
You've probably heard the word "mindfulness" used to describe being present in the moment or in touch with your inner self. However, this emotional fitness trait takes on a slightly different definition: "Mindfulness is becoming more comfortable being uncomfortable," says Anhalt. "If you're not staying in the moment, it's probably because there's something uncomfortable about it—so by building that muscle, you'll get better about staying in the present."
"Our idea about curiosity is what does it look like to pursue growth over defensiveness," says Anhalt. That means asking questions when you're faced with a tough reality rather than pushing back or dismissing it. "It's about being able to face the things that maybe don't feel good to know in the moment but will, over time, help you be a better version of yourself."
One rule of thumb in improv theater is for participants to say "yes, and"—meaning they accept what another player has started and then build on their idea. The same concept applies to the emotional fitness definition of "playfulness." As Anhalt describes, "It's meeting people where they are, removing constraints, and being able to get to places that you wouldn't be able to get if you shut down the conversation—or if you felt like you had to talk about why an idea wouldn't work."
Resilience has become somewhat of a buzzword lately—encouraging perseverance through hardship. In the context of emotional fitness, resilience is indeed about bouncing back from setbacks and failures—but rather than just move forward, it's important to unpack them, too. "We're really trying to take some of the sting out of the word failure because it's an inevitability of life," says Anhalt, "so what does it look like to face it head-on and to really feel your feelings."
Of course, communication is always key—and in regards to mental fitness, it's an essential trait to practice. Consider these two questions from Anhalt: "How do we put words to our needs and expectations and boundaries? How do we hear people and speak what needs to be said?"
How to begin a mental fitness journey.
Now that you're familiar with these mental fitness muscles, what now? Do you work your way from No. 1 to No. 7, or begin anywhere? According to Anhalt, "We're actually pretty intuitive, so if one of these jumps out at you, there's probably a reason—and that's a great place to start."
Of course, some traits may feel more essential at certain times in your life. "Right now, we see the top trait people want to work on is resilience—I think it depends on what's happening socially and contextually in the world, along with what people are wanting to work on internally," says Meyer.
No matter where you decide to begin, you'll see benefits across the board. "They're really intertwined with each other—as one improves, others will naturally improve," says Anhalt. For example, "as you become a better communicator, you're going to become more self-aware—because you're hearing other things and saying other things than before."
Exercises to help hone your mental fitness.
Ready to flex a mental fitness muscle? Try some of these simple yet powerful at-home exercises:
Scheduling a worry hour.
With so much going on in the world, it can feel like worry seeps into every facet of our lives. Perhaps your entire day consists of worry-filled moments. To help quell these overwhelming feelings and build your resilience muscle, "Put an actual piece of time on your schedule that's just for worrying," suggests Anhalt. "You can ruminate and think things over a million times." Then for the rest of the day, whenever you feel a twinge of worry, tell yourself, "That's a problem for six-o'clock me to worry about, and I'll just focus on what I'm doing right now."
Create a smile file.
"We believe self-confidence is a really key ingredient to pushing through tough times because if you believe in your ability to handle tough things, then you're going to move forward in a more convicted way," says Anhalt. However, our tendency as humans is to let negative feedback stick in our minds while positive comments brush right off. One way to help bolster that crucial confidence and work toward resilience is with a "self-esteem file" or "smile file."
To create your file, any time you get some positive feedback, screenshot it or write it down, then put it in a folder (physical or digital). "What happens is, over time, you start to get this very compelling database of your value—of things people have reflected to you that are important," says Anhalt. Then, when you're feeling down, consult your file. "I've been keeping mine for 10 years. It's amazing how compelling it is to see all of these pieces of feedback I've accumulated over the years whenever I'm feeling low."
Try using "remoji."
Whether you're working from home or sheltering in place—this last year has made remote communication more widespread than ever. The issue? "A lot of our emotional communication is lost," says Anhalt.
To help make communication a bit more effective and empathetic, Anhalt, Meyer, and their team created what they call "remoji" (aka remote emoji). Over time, they picked emoji that represent emotional material they want to convey quickly. For example, "We use a cactus to say, 'Hey, this is kind of a prickly subject for me'; a baby when we want to say, 'I'm feeling a little sensitive, maybe it's not the best day for negative feedback'; the two girls dancing when we want to say 'I've got your back. You're not alone'; or the brain emoji to say, 'Hey, I'm kind of stuck in my head today. Give me some time.'"
To try out the technique, pick some emoji out with your team, your family, or your friends. Over time, this will become a clear shared language, so you can understand exactly where another person is at emotionally. This exercise can not only hone your communication muscle but also your empathetic strength.
As we continue healing from a particularly taxing year, making mental health a priority is crucial. In fact, that's why we highlighted proactive mental care as one of our mbg wellness trends for 2021. Perhaps the challenges of 2020 will encourage bigger steps toward normalizing emotional fitness and destigmatizing mental health care.
Anhalt and Meyer share in this vision and emphasize that community is a key component—which is why Coa's classes are group-based. "When you go to the gym, you have to do your own work, but having someone there to spot you and cheer you on is helpful," they say. So maybe in the near future, you'll be asking your fitness buddy to trade your weekly Pilates date for an emotional fitness class.
Kristine Thomason is the health and fitness director at mindbodygreen. Kristine is a New York University graduate with a degree in journalism and psychology, and also a NASM-certified personal trainer. She has spent her editorial career focused on health and well-being, and formerly worked for Women’s Health and Health. Her byline has also appeared in Men’s Health, Greatist, Refinery29, HGTV, and more. In her current role she oversees, edits, and writes for the health, food, and movement sections of mindbodygreen.