A Psychologist Explains How Mental and Emotional Health Changes Your Body (No Matter How Much You Work Out)

No matter how physically fit you are, your wellbeing will be thrown off balance if your mental and emotional health are out of whack.

Holistic well-being combines elements of body, mind, and purpose. For many people, “body” gets the most attention: we try to eat right, exercise regularly, and sleep enough. But no matter how fit your body is, if your mental and emotional health are out of whack, likely your well-being will be thrown off balance too.

So I talked with my colleague Deborah Miscoll, a licensed psychologist who leads mental health programs for Deloitte.

Jen Fisher: What impact does stress have on people’s mental and emotional well-being?

Deb Miscoll: It’s not all bad. When stress works properly for us, it helps maintain our inspiration and drive, helps us stay focused, engaged, energetic, alert. In short bursts it can be exciting, even fun, and you can learn and grow from it, even after the short challenge is over. The problems can arise if the stress is sustained. Chronic or long-term intense stress can make us feel burned out. It often affects all of our human response systems—gives us a negative outlook, makes us irritable, degrades our ability to solve problems. At its worst, it can lead to chronic anxiety, depression, poor self-care, social withdrawal, and even substance abuse.

JF: Does stress affect everyone the same way?

DM: No, it’s really a bell curve. Some people can eat stress for lunch and use it to really drive performance. For most of us, it’s something that has the potential to impact us in our life and work—and a little support in effective coping can help us keep it together. How much it negatively impacts us, well that depends on the individual. And in some small percentage of outlier cases, it can lead to real trouble. But wherever you fall on the bell curve you shouldn’t dismiss stress. We all need to pay attention to it.

JF: Can we control our stress response?

DM: That’s my favorite question. Yes! It’s a skill we can learn. Decades of research show that we can teach people foundational core competencies to help them self-regulate—things like developing effective mindsets, establishing emotional control, managing our physiological response systems like slowing your breathing or relaxing your muscle tension. Those skills are easy to learn and they can let us keep ourselves primed for peak effectiveness professionally and personally. But what’s really interesting is that all of those skills have a protective feature. They stall the development of more serious mental health issues—or if you have experienced a mental health issue in the past, they can help mitigate symptoms. Really simple skills training can give you a lot of bang for your buck.

JF: If I have a moment of intense stress, what should I do to immediately address it?

DM: First you have to see it. You know, we check the oil in our cars more frequently than we check how we’re doing from a psychological perspective. Learning to monitor your system, routinely check in so you know what’s going on and where—that will help you get a jump on stress. The important thing is that when you see it, you understand you have the capacity to do something about it. Accepting it without judgment, and deploying skills to manage it can expedite the experience of comfort. Establishing an effective mindset is an important first step in self-management. Remember, we assign meaning to the conditions in which we are faced. If we misinterpret events or put a subjective “spin” on things, we can escalate stress unnecessarily. Often, if you check your thinking and perspective, you can get a quick lift. And from there, you can plug in other appropriate skills to reduce the stress experience even further.

JF: Why should leaders pay attention to things like stress or, more generally, mental/emotional health and well-being?

DM: On an organizational level, I think it’s about doing the right thing for the people that can sustain the organization, to include mental and emotional health and well-being. Further, addressing mental health issues has been shown to affect the bottom line, to include the maintenance of strong performance but also managing health and organizational risk. It truly benefits all involved to care about it.

Statistics show that about a quarter of American adults have a mental health issue. That’s not just stress, that’s also serious, diagnosable disorders. And there’s a real stigma around mental illness in this country. So many people are afraid to seek help because they worry that it will be held against them somehow. Offering a range of solutions will most likely result in some type of supportive engagement. For example, someone skittish about seeing a clinical psychologist may find working with a consultant or coach less intimidating. But people who might resist therapy are often happy to take on a “coach.” You have to be nimble and creative when you’re trying to encourage people to do something they may be afraid of.

Early detection and early intervention—especially if something has the potential to impact your business—will likely result in fewer problems not only for the individual, but for the organization.

Bottom line, we’re never going to be able to fully anticipate everything that can happen in the world. But if we give people tools to take charge of any situation, they can take control of their emotional lives more abundantly.

JF: What about you personally? How do you release stress in your own life?

DM: I’m from Texas, so I’m a big fan of high school football. And that’s taught me the importance of pregame prep. “Pregame” in the case of work means maintaining a healthy lifestyle—eating right, working out, regular energy checks. That keeps me primed and ready for whatever the game or the workday may bring. And I’m super conscious of having a resilient mindset. I know one of my vulnerable areas is getting in my head too much—my train of thought can gather speed if I don’t check it. So I watch for anything drifting toward unnecessary anxiety. I spend the first hour of my day making sure I’m physically prepped and ready, while setting my mindset, because I know that’s a trouble spot for me.

Building a resilient mindset also starts with a conscious decision to be grateful and optimistic. That mindset allows me to live fully in the ways that are important to me and fulfill the things that are meaningful to me. It allows me to be present with my family and friends, give back to my community, enrich my work, and enjoy those all-important Friday night football games.

Want more insights on well-being at work? Check out the WorkWell podcast series

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