Women’s Emotional Health Is a Balancing Act
By Wendy Sterndale
Women experience and strive toward emotional health in different ways. We know when something just feels right, and when something feels off-balance. The apparatus of balance is somewhat dependent upon where and how you live. This dynamic balance is built on a foundation of physical survival.
There are some universal characteristics. When you meet a woman who exhibits these qualities, you are meeting an emotionally healthy woman:
• Resiliency: She adapts to the changing condi–tions of her life. She works to maintain foundational survival needs and physical health.
• Self-knowledge and self-trust: She is honest with herself about her strengths and limitations. This knowledge provides the capacity to receive help. Others see her as confident and self-aware.
• Social and emotional connections: She is likely to maintain a close circle of connections with people who know her well, along with a wider circle of acquaintances. Energy flows as fuel and food between her and the members of her inner circle. This flow moves to the outer circle when it is appropriate to the connection.
These qualities do not always support a drive to find love, feel happy, maintain good looks or get money. For many women, emotional health comes from surrendering to a greater purpose to contribute or create something that makes a difference.
Maintaining a Strong Physical Foundation
The body, mind and emotions work as an integrated system. The body is not shy. It speaks up about its needs. For instance, when the body tells the mind that it is hungry or thirsty, the rest of the system finds a way to feed the hunger or quench the thirst. When we crave human connection, our mind and body work together to put us in the presence of people with whom we feel good.
Sometimes the interpreter, the mind, doesn’t understand. If the unmet need intensifies, it will speak louder using increasingly uncomfortable symptoms. A basic physical need can evolve into poor physical health. In turn, disease could be the body screaming for help to address a deep emotional issue. Emotional wounds can hurt just as much as a physical ailment. Women suffer in greater numbers than men from depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress and other debilitating mental disorders that also contribute to physical problems. Mysterious illnesses and chronic conditions, especially those that don’t respond well to medicine, can get better when deeper emotional wounds heal.
Emotional shock can cause “broken-heart syndrome” — a heart attack, even in healthy women. Heart attacks are the leading cause of death for women in the United States. A Gallup Healthways Wellbeing Index survey, conducted over the entire year of 2012 from a sampling of over 350,000 adults, found that the rate of heart attacks among women is catching up to men and women are twice as likely as men to die within a few weeks after a heart attack. The survey also found that women who suffer diseases like cancer and diabetes are also more likely to suffer from depression. Just as it is not a good idea to self-medicate a heart attack, it is also not a good idea to self-medicate a broken heart. It is incredibly important for a woman to get help reevaluating her life after a heart attack or while working through a severe diagnosis. The underlying emotions need to be processed. Healthy relationships can make the difference between life and death.
Recent studies have uncovered connections between language and emotions. A woman’s choice of words can condition the body to show those words. As soon as we think something, the subconscious mind (also known as the intuitive mind, and also known as the body) looks for ways to make it happen. Have you ever said any of the following, or just thought the words: That person is a pain in the neck; I was all knotted up inside; or, the sadness choked me up. Thoughts set the body in motion to create ways to make those thoughts come true. Passionate, empowered and active thoughts create a positive cycle. Negative thought patterns can knock one’s power right out of balance.
Emotional Balance Starts Young
Achieving balance may require diving into and swimming through anxieties that started during childhood. Stephanie J. Dallam, R.N. M.S. F.N.P., wrote in a paper on the long-term consequences of childhood trauma: “Maltreatment can alter a child’s physical, emotional, cognitive and social development and impact their physical and mental health throughout their lifetime.” Taking care of the triggers of emotional imbalance goes a long way toward healing the present and future.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences study, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, identified at least four types of life experiences that can damage health:
1. Stress triggers the adrenal glands to produce consistent high levels of cortisol, which can cause weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, in addition to suppressing the immune system and accelerating aging as it fatigues the adrenal glands.
2. Emotions can affect more than the adrenal glands. They can impact women’s reproductive organs and the ability of cells to receive neces–sary nutrition.
3. Unresolved emotional issues can cause inflammation throughout the body. This contributes to the development of many diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
4. Unfavorable childhood experiences can cause emotional pain that lingers through life, resulting in poor self-medicating habits such as taking drugs, drinking, smoking and overeating.
Emotional Family Tree
Emotional healing work can start by learning more about your family’s emotional patterns. Consider mapping your family tree using a genogram. Originally developed by Monica McGoldrick, Randy Gerson and Sueli Petry, and written about in a book and on their website, the idea is to create a family tree with the usual information about relevant education, occupation and life events, and to also include additional details such as illnesses, disorders, social behaviors, and emotional or social relationships. There are some free resources online to help you create a genogram.
When evaluating this emotional family tree, you will see connections that run in the family like alcoholism, depression, diseases and unhappy living situations. Your emotional inheritance might not have a bloodline. It may be connected through abusive behavior patterns. You may go back far enough to find a catalyzing event. You can also see how others in the family reacted or responded to those emotional patterns. When you find someone on the family tree who made much healthier decisions for themselves in spite of negative influences, it may be useful to take a closer look at their supportive habits and relationships. If you are working to resolve an emotional pattern that you took on from another family member, would knowing more about their life and connections make it easier for you to let it go? And, you may look at the genogram and not see what is obvious to someone else. It may be useful to seek help from a compassionate, honest friend or someone appropriately trained when evaluating the genogram.
Pressure to Be Perfect
As far back as memory serves, women have been under pressure to do a perfect job at work, keep a perfect home, and look perfect while doing it all. In today’s world, advertising makes us feel bad if we don’t look like the pictures in the magazine. Social media makes us feel bad if we are not attending the events that it seems everyone we know is attending. Women are making more money than ever before, yet the cost of living is higher and we’re living longer, so we have to work more. Traditional gender roles continue to compel women to take care of family members. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that these demands are still placed on women everywhere in the world to a greater or lesser degree.
Through all those pressures, we now live with more opportunity to shake off traditional roles and choose something that comes from the deepest part of our hearts. Many societies don’t fully support some of the more creative opportunities, which can make it more challenging to find like-minded community. The wide-open field of choices can be overwhelming and regret over a road not taken has replaced work-related stress. And, the women who want to make the choice to have children but delay having them tend to panic when they realize that there is less time to find a mate.
Navigating from first date to relationship remains a mystery for many potential couples. A single-focused project management approach is getting applied to the dating world. We research our dating prospects online. All this research and evaluation doesn’t leave much room for emotional connection to evolve naturally. It is incredibly easy to get a first date, and then to get another first date with someone else after getting too easily disillusioned by that initial first date. Just as we have been pressured to be perfect, are we also pressured to expect perfection in men? Are we forgetting that the imperfections are often where compassion and empathy enter? We seem to have lost the patience to work through the uncomfortable challenges of shaping a relationship.
Multitasking Dates Back to
The pressure to multitask has placed women under enormous stress. The inability to meet life’s unrealistic demands are reflected in the WHO statistics on depression that show it affects more than 20% of populations in established economies around the world. Women suffer from stress-related depression in greater numbers than men. The WHO report also states that these mental disorders are under-diagnosed, yet the rates are increasing. It estimates that less than half of clinically depressed people are medically identified.
To correct an imbalance, we first have to become aware of it. It sometimes helps to understand the history of an ability in order to appreciate it, and to be able to notice when we are relying on it too much. The capacity to multitask goes back to the time of hunter-gatherer societies. While hunters developed skills useful for tracking their prey, gatherers developed skills necessary for following and then remembering convoluted paths along with subtle distinctions between plants. The gatherer needed to track the children and note the time of day while remembering a list of responsibilities. Alison Armstrong, founder of Pax Programs, an organization dedicated to teaching peaceful communication between men and women, calls this skill “diffuse awareness,” a “pouring out in every direction.”
The downside is the potential for overload. The modern gatherer may walk into a room and simultaneously notice almost everything in it while forgetting why she entered in the first place. Or, at the end of a busy day, she can’t recall what she did. An overloaded gatherer may get relief by using some of the hunter’s skills. If she were to stop a moment, take a few slow, deep breaths, and quiet her mind — in other words, tap into the hunter’s single-minded focus — she may remember why she entered a room.
The business world supports and rewards the hunter’s focus on a goal. Women can also focus and work long hours for weeks or months at a time. If this continues for years and she notices that relationships and fulfilling hobbies have dropped away, she may be paying the price for this imbalance with adrenal fatigue.
Arianna Huffington, cofounder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, got to thinking about how she may have been overdoing it when, as a result of exhaustion, she fell, broke her cheekbone, and got a bad cut over her eye. She had been very successful in her singly focused life, was rewarded with money and power, but was stopped in her tracks when she toppled over from exhaustion. In her book Thrive, she wrote about coming to a fresh understanding about the importance of embracing the feminine traits of intuition, wisdom, a sense of wonder, compassion, and of giving and caring for other people. She had to interrupt unhealthy patterns to create more peace for wellbeing. She discovered the value of regular meditation. She took a week’s vacation with no screens, didn’t pick up the phone, didn’t turn on the computer, and didn’t watch television. She learned the value of slowing down, getting enough sleep, and taking time to nurture her emotions with poetry.
The healthy feminine approach comes from the heart, body and mind working together to bolster each other up. Sometimes our decisions and plans are driven by a longing to soothe or satisfy a neglected emotional need, such as social connection and harmony. A woman’s emotional self-care contributes to her health and the health of her immediate community. Many women naturally act to take care of the people nearby, and doing so from a place of health creates a positive ripple effect.
The Buddha learned this lesson as well. In the book The Divine Feminine by Andrew Harvey and Anne Baring, the authors tell the story of how Buddha was engaged in ascetic practices so extreme that his health and sanity were threatened. A woman, Sugata, brought him a bowl of curds that he accepted, and then he realized that honoring balance is essential to the enlightened life. The “wise feminine” showed him the Middle Way.
Reinventing Valentine’s Day on
a Global Scale
One Billion Rising provides an annual opportunity to release emotional pain from abuse and violence through a positively themed event on Valentine’s Day, February 14th. Eve Ensler, activist, performer and author of The Vagina Monologues, started this event to raise awareness about the fact that one in three women around the world will be raped or abused during her life, which adds up to one billion. The theme in 2013 was “Strike, Rise and Dance.” Dance events were held around the world to empower the joy and self-confidence that gives energy to release old emotions, and increases resilience and emotional strength. In 2014, the theme “JustLove” was a day of music and presentations in New York that are now available online for anyone who can access the One Billion Rising website.
One of the presenters this year was Dr. Hyun Kyung, a Korean eco-feminist and Buddhist dharma teacher, now based out of New York. Her teaching and research interest includes Christian-Buddhist dialogue, Zen meditation and feminist liberation theology. She spoke about rising above han, a feeling of helplessness, anger, resentment, sorrow and oppression that many women feel for different reasons, though she was bringing attention to the many young, innocent women who have been kidnapped and used as wartime sex slaves.
Han has been referred to as a cancer of the soul, born of the injustice done to someone who has no power to respond. Joy can come from han when it is fermented through the soul and transcended through art, music, dancing, writing and social activism.
There is power to overcome han in the collective unconsciousness. Many of the great artists express han through their work. Mexican painter and political activist Frida Kahlo painted gorgeous canvases in vibrant colors through her pain from illness, a bus accident and the Mexican Revolution. Musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone sang so beautifully and honestly about racial injustice. This healing is called hng and comes from deep within the womb. Hng could also be called bliss, prana, shakti or qi. Salim is a Korean term for everyday activities like caring for family and making things full of life. Dr. Kyung refers to herself as a salimist, meaning that whatever she touches comes alive. She invites all women to overcome their personal han by activating and engaging their hng, and become a salimist.
Try this for yourself: Consider something in your life that upsets you and write about it, draw it, or let your inspiration creatively process it through your body.
How to Live to 100
In 2001, the Forum at Harvard conducted the Centenarian Study and found that people who live longer than 100 years experience the same proportions of ease and difficulty as the rest of the population. The distinguishing characteristic was that people who live longer handle stress incredibly well. They adapt well to life’s challenges and celebrate the good things when they happen. They don’t dwell too long on anything. These study participants also took great care of their bodies; they were very healthy, validating other studies that report a cyclical connection between emotional and physical health.
Sometimes symptoms like insomnia, headaches, obesity, gastrointestinal distress, chronic pain and fatigue are not easily connected to a standard diagnosis. Conventional doctors may assume the symptoms come from an emotional or mental imbalance and prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. They might be partially right. Whether or not they are right, these medicines may produce immediate, temporary relief, but do not help to return a woman to balance in the long run. For a return to equanimity, she needs to address the deeper emotional cause by doing her personal inner work.
Procrastination or dwelling on not having enough of something can be a sign of a fear of failure. Compromising and then feeling resentful may be a fear of change. If a woman has an ongoing feeling that others think she is weak, unintelligent or unsuccessful, it may indicate that she feels like a victim. Sarcasm and cynicism used often in conversation are indications of being actively unhappy with a current situation, and with the general direction that situation is heading. If she is always giving advice and is secretive and suspicious, those are indications of being overly controlling. None of these behaviors support emotional health, and they detract from a sense of purpose.
When the emotional, physical and mental systems become unbalanced, interrupt the unhealthy patterns by introducing a regular healthy practice of something like yoga, meditation or walking. Any one of these may eliminate the need for prescription medications. Ease your way in to these new habits. The key is regular practice, even if for just a few minutes, three times a week to start.
• Regular movement enhances endorphins, chemicals that circulate throughout the body, improving natural immunity, reducing the perception of pain, and boosting mood. Try walking for 15 minutes, 3 times a week. After a while, you may notice that you’ve begun to walk for 20 minutes, or that you went out in weather that you would not have gone out in before.
• Regular meditation coordinates, softens and evens out the energy flow between eyes, mind, hands and heart. It balances the energy running through the body and actively releases negative influences — helpful for an overwhelmed multitasker. Meditation practice could begin by consciously taking a few deep breaths when you get up in the morning. After a while, you may notice that you are stopping to take slow, deep, even breaths multiple times a day, and then you start playing The Meditation of Purity CD to release the day before you go to sleep.
• Adequate sleep every night replenishes the capacity for kindness, resilience, compassion and serenity. Patience is one of the qualities most often reported being experienced when people get enough sleep each night. It is an incredible feeling to wake up rested and welcome the day with a few deep breaths followed by a big glass of water. The exact number of consecutive hours can vary from woman to woman. Get enough sleep for you.
Goals, Intentions and Desires
When we set goals, conscious and unconscious intentions are set in motion to support the desired outcome. The goal is the endpoint. The intentions are the path to achieving the goal, and the desire is the hunger felt by the goal’s absence that provides the required energy to achieve it. When our intentions are aligned with a goal, we tend to feel good (assuming there are no extreme stresses interceding, like war or profound environmental damage). When we see our actions producing the result we would like to see, we then have passion.
This alignment can also generate supportive relationships with people who are connected to one’s ideals. Some of our hidden nature is in our control. The complete human being is multidimensional. These greater purposes often come from acknowledging the feminine traits of inclusiveness, social connection, and taking care of each other. When a woman’s heart and mind are aligned in this way, she may feel an overall sense of peace, even when in challenging circumstances. That calm is often felt in the low abdomen. She may experience uncanny synchronicities. This alignment is also referred to as deep presence, from which intuition arises. Perhaps this is what is referred to by the phrase “we make our own luck.”
Practical Application of Spiritual Practice
A woman who makes her own money is more resilient and more capable of self-trust. When she knows she can feed herself and take care of her family, she moves a long way toward emotional balance. Muhammad Yunus, Ph.D., Bangladeshi Professor of Economics, Chittagong University, founded Grameen Bank in 1997 as a microcredit institution. In 2006 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the work of his expanded international organization, Grameen Foundation, which applies “mother principles” to social banking in an effort to end poverty around the world. These principles focus on soul, connectivity, and finding meaning in what we do with our lives. Grameen Foundation applies economic principles to empower and care for others by extending microcredit loans to the “have-nots” of the world. The loans are given based on trust in the recipient’s future. No collateral is requested. The philosophy is “trust consciousness” that recognizes and supports each person’s dignity. The bank’s principles are based on belief in abundance, with awareness that each person is a multidimensional human being. Grameen Foundation connects poor women to loans, and since 70% of the world’s poor are women, they have an ample pool of clientele. Grameen Foundation serves Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.
In the book The Purpose of Your Life, Carol Adrienne states, in agreement with the other experts mentioned, that life mastery is about surrendering to an integrated heart, mind and body. Our personality and mind are too often mistaken as dominant. Surrender occurs when the personality yields to a greater purpose. That purpose could be a concept, like world peace or civil rights. It could be a project, like raising children, even if they are not your own, starting a community garden, or doing what you see needs to be done in your community. It could be a movement, like reinstating art classes in schools. A woman who is surrendered to her purpose is more likely to feel a spiritual connection to that purpose. She is also more likely to allow and act on synchronicities as they occur.
Surrender is not about letting the winds of fate take over her life. It is about relaxing into the moment, staying aware of what is going on externally, and staying tuned in to her body’s messages. Surrender supports perspective and emotional maturity. An integrated woman who is surrendered to her purpose interprets meaning in the moment by how she feels. Activities that “feel right” usually are, as activities that “don’t feel right” usually aren’t.
An emotionally healthy woman sends a palpable wave of healing around the planet simply by the way she lives. Emotional health improves when she takes steps to return to balance.
Many women are choosing a life of less work and less money, but with more purpose and balance. When a woman concentrates less on forcing herself to conform to external demands and shifts her attention inward, taking note of how she feels in the moment, she may notice that what she thought was important has changed. Change occurs when she asks herself how she would like to feel each moment and takes action to create and sustain that feeling. This is not necessarily about striving toward happiness; a feeling of greater life purpose aligns the heart, mind and spirit through actions that support these larger ideals.