What is Emotional Agility?

by Krista Nadeau 

Life has been perfect. That is something very few, if any, people can say. Life certainly doesn’t always go as planned, but it does equip us with many feelings as we navigate its meandering journey. Happiness, sadness, anger, joy, frustration, grief… and on and on the list goes. Sometimes, response to these feelings and experiences is based on how we have been taught to respond or not respond. Sometimes we respond a certain way because it has been used before, and sometimes these are not beneficial responses. 

During challenging times in life, many maladaptive coping skills are used such as avoidance or using drugs and alcohol to diminish unwanted feelings or at least subdue them for a while. These skills have little long-term benefit- except unwanted ones, according to statistics. 

Researchers, psychologists, and other professionals previously thought the mind and body were separate and were often treated that way, but research has found that to be false. “In mind-body medicine, the mind and the body are not seen as separately functioning entities, but as one functioning unit,” according to Dr. Eva M. Selhub. “The mind and emotions are viewed as influencing the body, and the body, in turn, influences the mind and emotions.” 

People have a way they approach  life, handle challenges, and cope with and recover from experiences. While there are outliers, most will see life from the optimist or pessimist position. The eternal optimist is always looking for the bright side of things while the pessimist sees things very negatively. 

The Mayo Clinic gives these examples to help identify one’s position, in case there was any question. Are you more on the negative self-talk side or the positive thinking side? 

Pessimist: It’s too complicated. Optimist: I’ll tackle it from another angle. 

Pessimist: There’s no way it will work. Optimist: I can try to make it work. 

Pessimist: This won’t get any better.Optimist: I’ll give it another try. 

The pessimist often hears things like, “stay positive,” or other similar phrases. Deepak Chopra, a physician and alternative medicine advocate says, “Such phrases are often used to encourage you when you’re feeling frustrated or challenged. After a while, however, these words may feel empty or unachievable.” 

Experts now know that our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions affect our health. The mind-body connection concept is crucial to the mind and behavior. Denying negative thoughts, as researched by Susan David, Harvard Medical School professor and psychologist, is not the answer, either. She points to emotional agility as the key. 

Emotional agility happens when a person pays close, but disconnected, attention to internal experiences. “When harnessed, she asserts, the steady stream of thoughts, feelings, and personal narrative that makes up our inner self can become our best teachers. Our emotions can reveal what we value most, and we can then act on those values to evolve into our best selves — resilient, stable, curious, courageous, compassionate and empathetic,” David says. 

Not getting stuck or getting unstuck from repetitive responses pushes a person towards emotional agility and often leads to more positive thinking. There are numerous benefits to positive thinking including: reduced stress, increased life span, better heart health, better resistance to colds, better adaptive coping skills, and more psychological and physical wellbeing.  

“Positive thinking isn’t about keeping your head in the sand, ignoring life’s less pleasant situations,” but rather a response as opposed to a reaction to life’s situations. There is a link between an upbeat mental state and improved health, according to the National Institute of Health. 

The transition from a person who uses negative self-talk to being a person with emotional agility will not be an overnight transition. Many beneficial things take time to achieve. Is your health, your outlook, your mental state of mind in need of adjusting? The good news- it is doable.  

Start by identifying parts of your life that you think the most negatively about and find out why. This may take some soul searching and it may require help from a professional, but getting to the root of the negativity, even if painful, is an answer worth finding out. 

Check in with yourself throughout the day and evaluate your thoughts. 

Let some positive people into your life. 

“The goal of mind-body techniques is to regulate the stress response system so that balance can be maintained and sustained.”  

Be mindful. What does that even mean? This is very important for those who are struggling. It’s when thoughts are focused on something external allowing an escape from the grip of negative thinking. Think of the most peaceful place, imagine petting your favorite animal, listening to laughter- whatever thought makes you relax— focus on it. 

Meditation is another method to combat stress and negative thinking.  

Meditation helps move the body into a state of relaxation.  Often meditation involves breath work. Deep breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing a person to become more relaxed.  Breathe from your diaphragm- take deep purposeful breaths, breathing in through the nose and then exhaling through the mouth. There are many types of meditation—find out which one is right for you. 

Guided imagery, breathing techniques, biofeedback, self-expression through drawings and movement are just a few other avenues to explore to address the mind-body connection.  

If nothing else—FOCUS YOUR THOUGHTS ON WHAT IS TRUE. Don’t expect overnight success but do keep trying. 

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