Improving emotional wellness is one of the primary objectives in the counseling process. Emotional wellness can be described as an individual's ability to use coping skills, to express emotions appropriately, and the ability to integrate emotional experiences with values in the process of making decisions. In this post, I will offer my own insights about improving emotional wellness, although this is by no means an all-encompassing explanation.
What are coping skills? Everyone experiences emotions, both positive (ex. Happiness, excitement, joy, anticipation), and negative (sadness, anger, guilt, shame, regret, anxiety), and we must learn to cope with all of these emotional experiences. I like to think of coping skills as a learning process that we constantly hone as we move through the experiences that life brings to us.
In my experience, I have noticed three groups of unhelpful coping mechanisms. Some people try to cope by "checking out" or escaping the experience, and they may do so by engaging in what I call distraction behaviors like binge eating, watching too much television, spending too much time and money shopping, problem gambling, substance use, and other behaviors that distract us from our feelings. These types of behaviors may lead to negative consequences like substance use disorders or other harmful behavior patterns, while only worsening the emotional experience in the long-term. Some people "freeze up" in the experience and they avoid responsibility to act by making no choices at all. When this occurs, the person gives up their power to improve their lives because they are allowing the situation and others around them to make decisions for them. Others try to deal with emotions by fighting the experience through denying, controlling or suppressing their feelings. People who fight their emotions are usually seeking to maintain control of their experience and do not like feeling vulnerable, and often become very harsh and self-criticizing.
How can counselors help clients who have developed unhelpful coping mechanisms? As a humanist, I take the perspective that people do the best they can to survive and cope with the knowledge, skills and resources that they have. Therefore, my objective as a counselor is to help the client gain the skills and self-awareness that they need to accept their struggles and deal with life on life's terms. Here are 5 processes that have helped some of my clients cope with struggles and move towards a meaningful life.
5 Processes to Improve Emotional Wellness
- Accepting the experience. In my practice, I strive to help people build deeper awareness and acceptance of their emotional experiences. Clients often come into my office carrying so much resistance and shame because they do not want to allow themselves to be vulnerable to emotions like sadness, regret, or even anger. I usually begin by helping clients come to a place of acceptance that emotions are a normal, natural part of the human experience and that emotions perform certain functions in our lives. I like to say that when we accept, we are allowing the experience to unfold without judgment. I invite my clients to express openness to the experience through open body posturing paired with relaxation breathing, and sometimes we just sit in meaningful silent contemplation. I think it's important to note that we should never rush a client into acceptance, but allow the process to unfold naturally at the client's own pace. It helps me to keep my own mindfulness practices in my personal life in order to stay sensitive to the client's pacing and process.
- Making space. I help clients learn to make space for the emotional experience by slowing down using mindfulness techniques and asking the client to allow the feeling to sit with them. I attempt to help the client attend to physical sensations while mindfully observing his experience from different vantage points or perspectives. I endeavor to help the client build an atmosphere that promotes his healing process. Making space can mean that the person makes changes in his physical environment, psychological environment, social/relational environment, and so on. This looks different for each client, but it may include releasing thoughts, feelings, relationships, or even a job that is not conducive to the process. In addition, I invite the client to discover his psychological, social, and spiritual resources that will benefit this process. I like to look at making space as an act of empathy for oneself and one's own emotional experience because the person is recognizing the need for change and setting himself up for success.
- A Note on Mindfulness. In my practice, I help clients build awareness throughout the counseling process by incorporating mindfulness practices. I don't mean that I ask each client to meditate every time they enter a session, but I simply strive to help the client notice what is going on inside to build deeper awareness. I like how Kelly Wilson describes mindfulness in session as the process of "listening to the heart of what the client is saying." I try to help the client tune in deeply to what they are saying, feeling, thinking, expecting, and sensing. I take the view that emotions are cues that tell us information about our experiences. Rather than tuning out from painful emotions through thrill-seeking or addictive behaviors, etc. I encourage people to invite the experience of that emotion. Listen to it. Sit with it. Be gentle with it. Hold your emotions in your mind like a fascinating and valuable jewel, turning it over in your hand. Ask your emotions questions, like "What do I need to learn from you?" "What needs are you trying to call attention to?" Mindfulness means something different to each person, so I try to help clients cultivate a mindful practice that helps them contact the present experience and observe their inner processes in a way that is meaningful for them.
- Change what's not working. I attempt to help clients learn to be flexible and willing to change what is not serving them. Maybe the client is stressed out by a job that doesn't suit him, or stuck in an unhappy relationship, or perhaps there are some wounds or mistakes from his past that needs healing. As humans, we must realize that pain may not go away if we stay in the same cycle of behaviors. Healing is a process that takes time and effort. We must learn to commit to the process of change even if things get worse before they get better.
- Move towards Values. What makes the struggle worth it? Values are the character qualities that we aspire to manifest in our lives (ex. Integrity) and the things in life that we care about most (ex. family). I invite clients to connect the emotional healing process to what's most important. It takes a lot of courage to discover our values and begin moving towards them, especially when we consider the possibility of failure and falling short of perfection. However, I think it's important to help clients understand that even if we fail to "measure up" we are still able to learn and keep moving towards our values. In addition, we need to understand that values are different from goals. Goals are a "target" that we aim at, but values are a compass that guide us through life towards the important things that we want our lives to be about. I like to say that we can never fail our values because each choice we make brings us closer or farther from what's most important. Therefore, the more choices that we make in service of our values, the closer we become in our character to the meaningful life that we desire.
It's About Finding Meaning
Emotional wellness is a lifelong process that involves creating positive coping habits that allow ourselves to experience emotions deeply without becoming trapped in the experience. There are some unhelpful coping mechanisms that clients often engage in that may lead to becoming 'trapped' in cycles of addiction, avoidance, and psychological rigidity. When we are able to accept emotional experiences without judgment, our healing journey begins. Cultivating mindfulness allows us to become deeply rooted in the present moment and build awareness of the internal healing process. Making space for the experience is like moving things around in your house to allow a guest (or your experience) to come to stay with you for a while as you move towards healing. In order to get out of cycles of unhelpful coping mechanisms, we must develop psychological flexibility to make changes in habits that are not working. This is a painful process for most people, and it is imperative that we help clients connect the struggle to whatever makes it worth it for them.
Hanna Rodriguez is a counselor in training at McNeese State University, and is completing her internship at the McNeese Kay Dore Gambling Treatment Program in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She is interested in viewing mental health from a wellness perspective. Read more about Hanna at: