Emotional Fitness

Everything you need to know about emotional fitness in 5 minutes or less

🎯 What Is Emotional Fitness?

Emotional fitness is a commitment to a set of habits and exercise that support and strengthen your emotional health and resilience. In the same way that the body relies on good habits and exercise to stay fit and strong, our emotional health depends on healthy habits of mind.

đź‘€ Examples of Emotional Fitness Practices

There are countless examples of exercises that, when done consistently, improve your emotional health. Some are specifically psychological or emotional in nature (e.g.: mindfulness training) while others are primarily physical or social in nature but still exert positive emotional benefits when undertaken as an exercise. And most are useful in improving several different aspects of emotional health.

Here are a few examples to illustrate:

  • Morning gratitude. Spending 5 minutes each morning writing down a few things you’re grateful for can be a powerful way to retrain negative self-talk into more compassionate or constructive self-talk.
  • A mid-day walk in the park. Regular physical activity and exposure to nature have been shown to have generally positive effects on emotional health and wellbeing.
  • Reflective journaling. Spending 10 minutes each day writing about what’s on your mind—hopes and fears, dreams, worries, memories, goals, etc.—can be an effective way to increase self-awareness and emotional equanimity.
  • Monthly date nights. Protecting space on a regular basis for quality time with your spouse or partner sets the stage for increased intimacy, trust, understanding, and more effective communication in the relationship that most affects your wellbeing and quality of life.
  • Mindfulness training. Making time on a regular basis to train your attentional control abilities. This can have positive effects on everything from letting go of worry and rumination to validating challenging emotions like anger or shame.

NOTE: In the final section of this guide, I suggest 3 emotional fitness exercises that are a good starting point for most people interested in the topic.

âś… Benefits of Emotional Fitness

People who establish and stick with a consistent emotional fitness regimen tend to see significant improvements in the following three areas of emotional health:

  • Emotional Resilience. We all experience difficult emotions from time to time, whether it’s anxiety, anger, shame, or grief. Emotionally resilient people have the mental strength to respond well to those difficult emotions… They are able to acknowledge and let go of their worries, for example, instead of getting lost in them and having their anxiety spin out of control. They are able to validate their anger compassionately, and as a result, restrain their unhelpful aggressive tendencies like hypercriticism or stonewalling. Emotional resilience isn’t about having fewer emotions; it’s about having a healthier relationship with whatever emotions come your way.
  • Better Relationships. Speaking of relationships, most of our most important and impactful relationships—romantic partners, children, coworkers, etc.—thrive or deteriorate based on how well we manage emotions in the context of those relationships. And a high degree of emotional fitness allows you to, for example, respond calmly and assertively to your partner’s defensiveness rather than lashing out and exacerbating the problem. Or having the emotional confidence to be vulnerable about how you’re really feeling, thereby increasing trust and intimacy.
  • Confidence and Self-Esteem. Most people who struggle with low self-confidence or poor self-esteem have a fundamentally unhealthy relationship with difficult emotions—specifically, they tend simply take orders from their emotions and follow them blindly. Unfortunately, our emotions are often at odds with our values. And if you always take the path that leads to feeling better emotionally, you will end up chronically compromising on your values, which then undermines your confidence and self-esteem. But, by training you to acknowledge your emotions without reacting to them, emotional fitness can be a powerful way to improve your confidence and self-esteem.

🌀 Origins of Emotional Fitness

Here are a few of the most common sources of emotional fitness…

  • Parental modeling. If your parents or caregivers modeled emotional fitness practices, it’s likely that, consciously or not, you internalized and established at least some of these yourself. For example, suppose your mother and father had a habit of going for a walk every evening after dinner. This modeling of consistent exercise and physical activity likely made it easier for you to establish your own consistent practice of yoga every morning and, as a result, benefit both physically and emotionally from that activity.
  • Coaching or therapy. Effective coaches and therapists will often recommend exercises or practices to help their clients build on and internalize concepts or techniques from their sessions. For example, if your therapist is helping you do exposure work to overcome panic, they might recommend that you practice some deliberate emotional endurance work each day on your own—proactively bringing up a painful memory or emotion and then willingly tolerating it for a set amount of time rather than trying to escape it.
  • Self-help. Perhaps you read a book about anger by a well-known expert. And in the book they described a journaling technique for understanding the root causes of your anger and ruminative thinking, which you then commit to practicing daily for 30 days.

đź’ˇ Key Insights About Emotional Fitness

  • Emotional fitness is about exercise, not coping. Coping is something you do in the moment to relieve or avoid emotional pain. On the other hand, emotional fitness exercises are practices which are done consistently—regardless of how you feel in the moment—to build emotional strength and resilience so that you’re less affected by difficult emotions in the first place. For example, you might use mindfulness as a coping skill to distract yourself from feeling anxious. Or you might do mindfulness training every morning for 15 minutes so that you’re better able to notice and let go of worries, and as a result, feel less anxious in the first place.
  • Emotional fitness is about what you do, not what you know. Emotional intelligence means understanding how emotions work and how two work with them in a healthy way. Emotional fitness is a commitment to consistently doing things that improve your emotional health. Emotional intelligence is knowledge. Emotional fitness is action. And while emotional intelligence is important, it won’t help you much if it’s not paired with emotional fitness. All theory and no action is a recipe for stagnation and frustration.
  • Emotional fitness is not sexy, but it is effective. Most people’s approach to emotional health is a never-ending quest for newer and more interesting insights into themselves, their past, and what they’re future might hold… which is why they stay stuck. They use superficially exciting insights to procrastinate on and avoid the real work of emotional health which requires the frequently dull, difficult, and time-consuming task of building better habits. But at the end of the day, we are what we habitually do (or don’t do). And the people who do break free from their struggles are the ones who are willing to patiently and persistently put in the work. Emotional fitness is about embracing this decidedly unsexy and workmanlike approach to emotional health and wellbeing. Like your local gym rat would say: If you want results, you gotta put in the reps.

🛠️ Tips for Getting Started with Emotional Fitness

A few principles to help you establish an emotional fitness regimen:

  • Consistency over intensity. Especially in the beginning, what matters most is sticking with your emotional fitness exercise and getting into a firm routine. A one-minute gratitude exercise each morning will be much more effective than one 30-minute session each month.
  • Experiment liberally (and selfishly). There are no absolutely right or wrong exercises for emotional fitness since everyone’s situation, goals, and values are varied. The key to building emotional fitness long-term is to find an approach that’s a good fit for you. And to do that, you need to experiment and try different exercises, approaches, and rhythms. For one person, 30 minutes of mindfulness training every morning at 5:30am might be wonderful. But for another person, 10 minutes of breathwork during their lunch break might be far more enjoyable and sustainable while still achieving the same ends. You must be willing to experiment enough to figure out what works for you.
  • Start small. Very small. What matters in the beginning is that you A) just get started, and B) stay consistent. And a great way to address both of these is to keep the scope of your emotional fitness regimen very small. If you have trouble sticking with an exercise, try making it significantly smaller and/or briefer.
  • Schedule it. Everyone would admit that their emotional health is hugely important. Yet how many people treat it that way? If you want to be successful with your emotional fitness regimen, you need to treat it like a priority. And a big part of that is scheduling it—yes, literally putting it into your calendar, setting a reminder for it, and being willing to protect that time in the face of competing activities.
  • Make it social. Many people find that adding even a small social element to their emotional fitness regimen makes it both more enjoyable and easier to stick with. Maybe you join a yoga studio instead of doing it at home alone? Maybe you convince your buddy to be an accountability partner for your journaling practice? In almost any case, there’s usually a way to make your emotional fitness routines at least a little more social.

🏋️‍♀️ Start Here: 3 Emotional Fitness Exercises Everyone Should Try

Here are 3 of my favorite emotional fitness practices:

  • Mindfulness Training. Mindfulness training is a simple exercise that strengthens your attentional control, which is the ability to manage your focus and attention skillfully. This is a core skill, especially if you struggle to let go of and move on from difficult thought patterns like chronic worry and rumination or painful emotions like anxiety, shame, or anger.
  • Scheduled Worry. Scheduled worry is a highly effective exercise to reduce chronic worry, stress, anxiety, and insomnia. It’s counterintuitive, but by making time to worry on purpose, you train your brain to perceive worries (and the anxiety they produce) as uncomfortable but not dangerous, which lowers your overall worry and anxiety long-term.
  • Self-Gratitude Journaling. A variant of the traditional gratitude practice, self-gratitude journaling involves making time each day to reflect on and articulate things about yourself for which you are grateful. This practice is especially useful if you struggle with negative self-talk or self-criticism and want to be more compassionate with yourself.

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🧠💪 Work with Me to Build Emotional Fitness

Twice a year, I lead a 5-week live course on emotional fitness called Mood Mastery where I teach students advanced skills for building emotional strength and resilience.

Learn more about Mood Mastery →