It’s so easy to fragment people these days. In the western medical healthcare model we’ve become accustomed to, gone are the days of the country doctor who knew you well and treated all your ailments—usually starting with a good dose of common sense. Now, we see a host of specialists who break us down by symptom and system and rarely communicate with the other specialists on your team. And of course, that’s not all bad. Heck, if you need heart or brain surgery you certainly want someone who’s devoted his or her time to knowing the heart or brain inside and out.
But since the sum of our parts forms a complete and unique whole, an integrated approach is needed to fully understand the human person and to maintain health plus restore it when it’s compromised. This is particularly true for emotional health.
What do we need to be healthy, happy and holy individuals? Let’s look at three foundations which are essential.
FOUNDATION 1: Affirmation and Beauty
Now, if I were a Freudian therapist this is where I would blame your parents for your woes. Only kidding…well, a little.
The greatest predictor of future happiness and successful relationships is a strong foundation of affirming love for a child from parents and other significant adults.
A child experiences authentic affirmation through having someone who is fully present to her, allows himself to be moved in his heart by her goodness, and who reveals it to her in a way she can feel.
Affirmation is an endeavor of the heart—not the intellectual knowledge you’re loved, but actually being moved in your heart to feel it. And it begins with an authentic movement of another heart to which you respond. That’s why words are not always needed.
Living fully from the heart is what moves others…and even those proverbial mountains. Just contemplate the word emotion. The bulk of it is actually motion—movement. Emotions are what move us—both interiorly in our hearts and outwardly to action. So, when a person’s heart is not adequately watered by the affirming love of another, it will be stunted and will have trouble experiencing real joy and happiness.
But why affirmation and beauty? What role does beauty play? Think of this. We are drawn naturally (by nature) toward all that’s good, beautiful, and true. We’re made to be moved by beauty. We naturally recoil from things which are perceived as bad, ugly, or phony. And even when we are drawn toward what’s actually bad, it’s most often because it was perceived as good on some level in a distorted way.
To be affirmed, we need to live an affirming life—present to beauty in various ways. Nature, music, art, theatre all move us and bring us joy. It’s living a calm and unhurried life—stopping to smell the proverbial roses. It’s creating an orderly (or somewhat orderly) and beautiful environment in your home—no matter how humble it may be.
And this applies at any age. Even if we grew up feeling loved and affirmed, our joy and emotional health and stability can be choked off by the cares and pressures of life, if we let it.
Living more deliberately in the orbit of those from whom we feel love and being diligent in incorporating beauty and downtime are essential components to emotional health and happiness.
FOUNDATION 2: Spiritual Formation and Truth
St. Thomas Aquinas referenced the primacy of the heart and the tender, humane emotions which comprise it. Theological knowledge and reason have their place to guide the emotions but are actually subordinate to them. It is from a genuine openness of the heart that we hear and experience the Holy Spirit.
Spiritual formation grounded in truth is essential to emotional health and happiness. Even on the most basic level, putting all theology aside, the simple belief in a greater Being who created and sustains us soothes so many emotional fears and anxieties and propels us forward to a greater search for truth and relationship with this being we, as Christians, call Father.
But spiritual formation must always be addressed to the emotional level of the child (or the adolescent or adult) and their innate yearning for beauty and love. Rather than setting up rigid rules and regulations which often trigger fear, inspiring wonder and awe are the lynchpins of spiritual formation. The “fear” of God we hear about is not actually fear but, more accurately, awe and respect. The true understanding of the goodness of God, which for Christians is manifested in a Savior who died for our sins, engenders this reverence. The only healthy fear is of offending this One who we love and who loves us so tenderly.
FOUNDATION 3: Physical Health
God created us as both body and spirit…and an exclusive focus on the mind, the emotions, or the soul without deference to the good of the body is a distortion and great disservice. We often think of our thinking as somehow ethereal or spiritual in nature and not rooted in physical reality. But this is wrong. As immortal souls are embodied in flesh, our emotions and thoughts express themselves through physical and biochemical processes. Load the physical body with toxins, mess with your hormones, or deprive it of nutrition, and troubling psychological symptoms may manifest. I used to joke that God allowed me to have PMS to help me understand two things: mental illness and demonic possession. This is how strongly a hormonal shift can impact our emotional state.
It can be hard to be happy and peaceful when you don’t feel well physically. This is perfectly understandable. Just a common headache can make you pretty grouchy or even depressed and anxious. Add to the myriad medications prescribed for physical ailments and emotional ills which often have side effects which may make you feel even worse than the original problem.
But even without feeling or being aware of physical ailments, our physical state may be wreaking havoc on our emotional state. More and more research today is showing a definitive connection between gut and digestive health, hormonal imbalances, and toxic load. That gut feeling you may have, that it’s not really all in your head, is likely true.
Now sure, your thinking, your temperament, your attitude, and your past play a significant role in how you fare emotionally as well. But if you are struggling with bacterial or yeast overgrowth, hormonal imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, or toxicity, they can literally be poisoning your attitude and preventing you from changing it. After all, if our emotions are by nature biochemical processes which occur within our bodies, testing to uncover the root causes when they malfunction, and then correcting them is imperative to actually resolving them and effecting ultimate emotional healing.
A more functional approach to mental health is a promising field of endeavor which will be gaining great ground in the coming years. I’ve been excited to incorporate functional medicine practitioners into my practice to help clients seek relief from many emotional disorders they may have suffered from for years. Only a truly holistic approach which addresses all key aspects of the human person can help you live a whole and holy life.