Dr. Deb Gorton, psychologist and author, advocates for all of us to get more in tune with how our mental and emotional health is impacting our physical, more noticeable health. If you’re on a mission to get healthy, read Dr. Gorton’s four tips for shifting your emotional health in a direction that will help you achieve whole-self wellness.
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Do you think there’s a disconnect between connecting the reality of our mental health to our overall holistic health?
Yes! Too often we fail to see the connection between our mental health and our overall health in other categories: physical, spiritual, relational, etc. We are created as wholistic beings with a system that is intricately interconnected across our mind, body, and spirit. Jesus himself declared that we are to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Matthew 22:37).’
One example of this is how research consistently points to the impact of stress on not only our mental health and wellness but also our physical health, with stress contributing significantly to vulnerabilities with our heart, brain, and lung functioning, our immune system, hormone balance, fertility, and much, much more. I like to remind people that every thought and emotion is just as physical as every bump and bruise you might develop.
How are our emotions connected to our health?
Emotions have a significant impact on our overall health. I believe a great example of this is when we consider the call to peace described throughout Scripture. In John 14:27, when Jesus comforts His disciples He says, ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ A Biblical understanding of peace encompasses our total well-being (mind, heart, body, soul). It involves the status of healthy relationships between ourselves and others and ourselves and God, harmony with nature; it’s gifted by God and stewarded by humanity. A discipline or lack thereof of reflecting and meditating on God’s peace has direct implication on reducing or increasing anxiety, reducing or increasing gratitude, reducing or increasing stress levels, and reducing or increasing rest.
Much like a car that functions at its optimal level with regular tune ups, our body functions at its optimal level when we address challenges to our emotional and mental health and wellbeing. Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders can impact sleep, energy levels, organ function, and the body’s ability to maintain healthy immunity and fight off infections and disease. This doesn’t mean we need to avoid or prevent challenging emotions; it means we need to be willing to acknowledge and address those feelings and what they’re communicating about our situations and circumstances.
What are some warning signs that your mental health is not contributing to whole-self wellness?
Burnout is significant right now and can be best described as ‘the state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in emotionally demanding situations (Pines & Aronson, 1992).’ Just navigating the global pandemic we’re in is a significant primer for burnout and challenges to our mental health and wellness. Some warning signs that your mental health is at risk could include isolating from places or people which typically bring you joy, bottling up your emotions, experiencing difficulties in sleep as well as reoccurring nightmares or racing thoughts when trying to fall asleep or stay asleep, an increase in substance use or misuse to mask your feelings, poor self-care, chronic physical pain or ailments, difficulty with concentration or preoccupation, feeling mentally and/or psychically tired, and feeling consistently apathetic or sad.
How can someone shift and change their emotional health?
- Develop a Buddy System. God created us for community, not to be independent, isolated people. We’re embedded in a broader Christian community and we’re accountable to it. In seasons of BOTH mental health and un-health, it’s important to surround yourself with people who will check up on and in with you. If you find yourself in a difficult season, give those people in your inner circle signs to look for and clues that would suggest you’re struggling and need support.
- Prioritize activity and exercise, even if it’s something as simple as taking a walk during your lunch break, using the stairs instead of the elevator, or gently stretching out the muscles in your body when they become tense.
- Just as God created us as wholistic beings, He also created us to connect with His creation. Using your sensory anchors, focus on the environment immediately around you and consider what you are seeing, what do you hear, what do you feel on your skin, what might you smell or taste? Sensory input serves as a way to ground us when we’re feeling out of control, disregulated, or overwhelmed. King David so beautifully articulates the refreshment of nature when he states in Psalm 96:11-12: ‘Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.’
- Commit to checking in on your body daily. Work on bringing awareness to how your body is feeling in a given situation and if you discover any tension, try to relax it and take deep breaths, holding them in and then slowly letting them out.
Dr. Deb Gorton earned both her MA in Psychology and her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, CA. Additionally, she holds an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. Presently, she serves as the Gary Chapman Chair for Marriage, Family Ministry, and Counseling at Moody Theological Seminary as well the Program Director for Moody’s Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program. Dr. Gorton recently published her first book Embracing Uncomfortable: Facing our Fears While Pursuing our Purpose, and co-hosts, with fellow Moody professor Dr. Mary Hendrickson, Becoming Well, a podcast that explores the intersection of faith and mental health.
Dr. Gorton currently resides in Chicago, loves the Cubs, the city’s architecture, and, believe it or not, walking daily to work even in the dead of winter. If she’s not home in the city or traveling for work, you’re likely to find her with family in Colorado or Arizona.