The benefits of regular physical exercise are well documented but how many of us are aware that it is just as important to keep psychologically fit? In his new book, Emotional Fitness, therapist Paul Bird says we need to give our brains regular workouts to strengthen our emotional muscles if we are to survive the pressures of modern living.
I had clients with all sorts of issues, but it all boiled down to the same thing: they either worried about the past or the future
If we want to achieve inner peace, he writes, we need to master our emotions, especially the destructive ones that trap us in depression, addiction and downward spirals. By working out at the mind gym, we learn how to choose what we feel and think rather than letting our emotions overwhelm the ability to think rationally.
Human emotions and thoughts, he says, are guided by six core instincts. The physical feelings, thoughts and emotions we experience every day are the by-products of our brain’s ability to recognise our needs and motivate us into satisfying those core instincts. Emotional Fitness means taking back control of this process.
For example, an event that happens in the present could trigger a subconscious long-term negative memory. We suddenly relive those past feelings and emotions of anxiety and panic, and allow them to dominate our present thinking without realising what’s happening. This clouds our emotional clarity and hampers our ability to make the right decision.
If that sounds familiar, it shows you are emotionally unfit. The challenge, therefore, is to recognise when this happens and learn how to break the pattern by following a series of exercises and mental workouts that reboots your behaviour. And that is Emotional Fitness.
Identifying your emotional habits
Bird was a successful hypnotherapist and life coach when he began to identify the same pattern in many of his patients. “I had clients with all sorts of issues,” he says. “But for all the different kinds of problems they had on the surface, it boiled down to the same thing: they either worried about the past or the future. Very few focused on the here and now.
“These are all intelligent people who knew they had a problem. But all were suffering from not being able to change. Intellectually, they could identify what was wrong, but emotionally they could do nothing about it. They felt stuck. And that comes down to how you’re feeling and what you think.”
Bird wanted to explore why people get into this trap. “It involved a great deal of research into neuroscience, and what I learned backed up my view that if you’re stuck, your feelings override your ability to change the way you think.”
Using his research, he devised a series of questionnaires that identified different traits and habits and a series of exercises, visualisations and meditations that allow the users to work on strengthening their weak points. It is especially pertinent to 50-somethings, he says, because this is a time when we re-evaluate our life and what we want from it.
“Change can be hard,” he says. “If you feel scared and nervous, recognise the thinking in that and don’t let it stop you taking action. Push past that and do it anyway. That’s the key to making changes. The future is uncertain, and the past is gone, so it’s time to think about the present.
“My questionnaire gives a score for each of the six instincts, highlighting which are imbalanced and how they affect specific emotions. Start with the lowest score and follow the exercises that help you reboot.
“It’s like going to the gym: you’ve got to put in the work if you want to see results. But once you’ve had your Eureka moment, it is easier to maintain an emotional balance. You just need to understand how it works.”
Emotional Fitness: Changing The Way You Think and Feel by Paul Bird, Grosvenor House Publishing, £12.99