Feeling high, feeling low? It’s all good for you.
Members of the legal profession are expected to be rational, objective and infallible – and not display emotion. But this need to constantly exude calm competence can become an emotional straitjacket. It can prevent people from experiencing a wide range of emotions, which isn’t good for mental health.
It is healthy to experience emotions. Don’t inhibit or deny them, but rather notice them and set them aside to reflect on later when, where or with whom it feels appropriate.
Mental health, the opposite of mental illness, can be described as the capacity to manage life’s stresses and challenges. Many factors influence mental health, ranging from having friends, supportive relationships, a sense of community and meaningful work to feeling in control of one’s life. Feeling a range of emotions is vital to maintaining mental health. How else can we gauge how we are?
But to reflect on emotions effectively, it is necessary to understand that all emotions have an important purpose. Our emotions are powerful messengers that break into our consciousness, telling us to pay attention and motivating us to fix a problem.
Each emotion is a strong feeling that is linked to neurotransmitters and hormones that change our body, brain and mind so we can act. For example, if we feel anger it is usually because someone has trespassed against us, and it mobilises us to assert ourselves and restore justice.
Fear indicates that we sense a threat, encouraging us to fight, flee or freeze. Joy indicates delight, telling us we should repeat what we are doing, to experience joy again. Disgust is a strong sense of disapproval or aversion that helps inform pro-social behaviour. Sadness indicates a loss of something or someone special and valued, signalling it is time to grieve and reflect.
So, accept your emotions, without judging them or yourself for experiencing them. It is better to welcome them, acknowledge what they mean for you, and act accordingly.
Seeing emotions as either good or bad is unhelpful. Our emotional responses have evolved to increase the likelihood of surviva. They are essential to our wellbeing. No single emotion indicates a mental health problem or illness. But feeling an intense emotion for a long period can be unhelpful and potentially contribute to mental illness. Most people experience stress and mental health issues at some stage.
Emotions can act as warning signs, as well as rewards that improve our wellbeing. A full life is one rich with emotions including joy, disappointment, sadness, frustration and anger. They are all worth celebrating – after all, we are not robots.
Use these strategies to boost your emotional wellbeing
Become mindful. Learn to recognise your emotions. Remain objective and do not judge them as good or bad. When you experience a strong emotion, accept it and try to understand what triggered it. The trigger may be something in the present, but often is from the past. Let the past go; remain in the present.
Pause. Taking a mental time-out can help replay a difficult conversation or experience and sort out your responses – your feelings and thoughts. You can also visualise scenarios to investigate how certain courses of action may play out, which helps you act differently in the future. Crucially, you can develop an inner dialogue about who you are and how you feel, forming your sense of self in the world.
Eat better. Eat a healthy, diverse diet full of protein, omega 3 fatty acids, magnesium, B group vitamins and foods rich in vitamin C to increase your brain’s ability to manage stress and boost your mood.
Sleep. Being tired or fatigued can upset your hormones and mood, and increase your stress response, making you vulnerable to mental health problems, and even mental illness. A good night’s sleep can put you in a good mood, supporting mental health. People with altered sleep patterns are prone to having high levels of cortisol, and to being stressed.
Exercise. The relationship between exercise and mental health is complex. But it is known that exercise helps release endorphins and dopamine, and increase the level of serotonin in the brain, which are associated with having positive emotional experiences while also reducing the stress response