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Fitness Factor 4: Emotional Fitness

By Roland Pankewich

Up until now all of our factor focuses have been what I would consider tangible things; food, sleep, and breathing are all things you can influence by changing external habits and behaviors to get some aspect of measurable change. External feedback if you will. This month’s topic is somewhat of a departure as it is exploring the world, YOUR world internally. The world of emotions. When I say it’s a departure I don’t at all wish to imply that this topic is any less important to those who are in the world of health sciences. Although we cannot measure or verify an emotion outside of ourselves, I hope to convince you by the end of this article that if you are in the business of helping people get well, factoring in emotions is an essential piece of the puzzle because I personally have never met someone who was on their health journey that also didn’t have some emotional passengers along for the ride. This is going to be something of a release for me as this allows for the merging of physical and non-physical aspects of science which I believe our industry is pushing us towards in the name of TRULY returning to being holistically minded in thought and practice.

Emotions as a topic itself is very complex and also very individualized. In this way it is very challenging for two people to verify that each of them experiences the same thing when they experience joy, or its polar opposite in sorrow. The likely reality is that we all have our own subjective aspects of experience when we are in said situations and the only way to ever truly be understood by another is to become very good at understanding ourselves in the emotional context. I believe that experiencing intense emotion is THE most beautiful part of the human experience and an important understanding in that is emotions are often polarized. To explain what I mean ask yourself how is it you know what happiness is? Your experience of happiness is an innate thing we ALL have as infants, yet at that time we don’t know what we are experiencing because its just our normal reality. Then things change. Ever see a baby go from being happy to wanting food? What happens, they shift their state to the opposite emotion to communicate that they are in distress and that something needs to be done to allow them to return to being happy once again. As we get older and our brains develop, our conscious awareness develops to be able to identify our emotional states via experience. We don’t need to verify when someone makes us mad because WE KNOW WHEN WE ARE MAD……sorry, I got lost in the emotion there but you get the point. Emotions are part of who we are as humans and they are very fluid in that things both inside of us and outside of us are able to influence their activation.

Have you ever thought of emotions through the lens of our physiology? Western medicine over the last 100+ years has developed via the segmentation and specialization of these divided categories. We have the materialists and the non-materialists which we call mental health professionals. Here is where I am NOT going to skewer them because I believe that everyone who gets into the mental health profession really wants to be of service and help from a place of; interest, passion, or experience. Likely all three. The issue lies in the structure of the system and its lack of encouragement for cross-over collaboration in that a gastroenterologist and a psychologist likely don’t collaborate or cross paths unless it’s in a random social situation. Even then very few would understand that work a gastro could do within helping improve the innate health and function of the gut could help the psychologist’s client break through a level in their sessions because inflammation in the gut has been correlated to inflammation in the brain and when the brain doesn’t work well, what could that mean for our behavior?

From a physiologic perspective, the limbic system which includes multiple centres coordinating their internal reception, analysis, and output of information which happens faster than we can comprehend is really what underpins the binary aspects of emotion or maybe even that is too reductionist. We do know that structure changes function so any issues within these centres of the brain will cause disruption to the ability of an individual to normally experience emotions. What if we can’t know about our client’s brains? What else can we look at to determine any kind of emotional distress. The two things I rely upon are using heart rate variability because no matter how good a façade someone puts up, the nervous system will always betray them. Secondly, I believe we have to work with THE PERSON. We as health professionals don’t have lab values as clients. We have people with stories, experiences, personalities, and emotional traumas. I believe you don’t need a mental health credential to simply listen to a client. Let them tell you their story and not only will you form a bond with this person, you will give them the opportunity to set themselves free because often times these individuals may be suffering in silence hoping to find someone who can accept them for who they are and what they have been through. You may also find that a lot of their life events happened just prior to their physiology becoming compromised so you have to ask; is it the chicken, or the egg? Did their compromised physical health cause their emotionally unstable state or was it the other way around which is what I believe the truth to be more often than not.

If we address the person holistically, we take care of the body. We support ALL the interconnected pieces of the body so that it may learn to regain function as a whole and find its way back to health. We however shouldn’t stop there. We are layered beings and if we don’t address our mental, emotional, and spiritual health, holistic is nothing more than a buzz word in my opinion. This does not mean you need to become designated in all those professions, rather think collaboratively. Humans of different complimentary disciplines coming together and working as a team is a very powerful thing. You can learn to stay in your lane as a professional and trust that by working as a team you can help heal someone who can then go out into the world and help people as well. Maybe that is wishful thinking but we all as health professionals want to see humanity at its best and heathiest. There are MANY great resources out there for you to dive more deeply into emotional health and awareness. From of mind for me in Dr. Gabor Mate who has written multiple books on trauma such as “When the Body Says No”. Another great resource is “The Body Keeps Score” by Bessel van der Kolk for those who like a western-bias perspective. I also encourage you to explore the common themes of what comes out of the eastern disciplines like; TCM, Ayurveda, and Tibetan medicine. They all have one common theme in that emotional distress in the body creates imbalance in the physical tissues and that, when left to fester causes physical disharmony and illness.

We as humans are extremely advanced biological technology and we are NOT given an instruction manual when born, rather we are given “this little thing we call life” to quote Prince. A big part of making it healthy is doing so across ALL spectrums. A healthy body and a healthy mind help to create an open heart. I want to thank you for letting me open mine to write these articles and for all the support as we examine these monthly key health factors. As always, I wish you the best and we will see you next month for another change of pace; physical fitness.

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