Emotional Health: Don't Ignore the Warning Signs
As free agents, we have so many challenges to contend with on a regular basis: growing a client base or viewership, technological hurdles, cash flow, legal battles, industry disruption, rapidly changing trends, globalization, the rise of AI (no joke!)…the list goes on.
However, the biggest challenge I believe is not something that’s outside of ourselves but is intrinsic to our very nature, and that is maintaining proper emotional health. The capacity to embrace an authentically positive attitude, along with the ability to resist reacting negatively to the bad stuff that comes up in life, is not only something that’s possible to cultivate but feels like a superpower when it kicks into high gear.
The primary way I’ve developed this ability is through mindfulness exercises and spiritual development. But before you jump into how to solve a problem like ill emotional health, you need to know how to spot the warning signs. Here are a few I’ve come across:
Glass Half-Empty World
Some people are naturally optimistic. Other people are naturally pessimistic. I suspect most people generally shift back and forth depending on circumstance. I’m not here to tell you what your personality should be like—however, what should concern you is if you know you are normally an optimistic person but you find yourself in an increasingly pessimistic state of mind.
Does the phone ring and you instinctively seize up wondering if it’s bad news? Are you avoiding certain difficult tasks or conversations because you just can’t imagine it going well? Do you wake up in the morning and wonder what’s going to go wrong today? These are all signals that your typical personality is being hijacked by abnormal mental patterns.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
Anger is a valid emotion that we rarely feel equipped to deal with in a healthy, productive way. Anger is how we react when we feel liked we’re under attack or wronged in some way. The question to ask yourself is, do you feel angry only when you are legitimately being violated in some major sense, or are you repeatedly getting angry over trivial matters?
This issue was what finally convinced me I was struggling with depression in 2014. I was growing concerned and a bit baffled why things that seemed objectively like not a huge deal would set me off. The last straw was when I got unjustifiably mad at my wife and drove off to my office in a terrible huff, and then I quickly realized I was on a path to ruining our relationship. It was a clear sign I needed to reevaluate my emotional health.
Scary, Real Scary World
You’re going along, doing your thing, minding your own business, and suddenly you feel it coming on: the dreaded panic attack. Your heart starts racing, you feel a knot in your stomach, the walls start closing in…and the crazy thing is you can’t come up with a logical reason why you’re feeling this way.
The long-term effects of chronic stress are finally starting to come to light via the medical community, and it’s not pretty. If you’re used to working in conditions that are typically stressful, it’s only a matter of time before your emotional as well as physical health is severely impacted. Mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, and symptoms similar to impairment from alcohol or drugs will start to invade your every day. If it gets really bad, you may even experience abnormal symptoms in the organs and systems of your body.
I’m thankful my stress reactions never got too severe, but I was definitely struggling in this area (which certainly didn’t help matters as I tried to get out from under my cloud of depression).
So What Do You Do Now?
If you are dealing with any or all of these issues, I strongly recommend taking a course of action. If you do nothing and expect things to change, that is a dangerous road. Here are some of your options:
- Read the literature. By far the biggest help for me personally was reading Mindsight and practicing the exercises therein. Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help stimulate our brains to develop new neural pathways and grow the capacity to avoid negative mental patterns.
- Change your habits. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. While that might be poor English, it’s sound advice. I’ve written about the importance of switching up your routine and optimizing your work environment (here, here, here, and here).
- See a trained professional. While I didn’t see a counselor specifically for my depression, my wife and I went to a couples therapist who specializes in the Gottman method (highly recommended, by the way), and indirectly that helped a lot in understanding my emotional states and how those might affect others in relational contexts.
- Tell loved ones and friends what you’re going through. Sometimes all you need to do is just tell someone how you feel! Keeping your fears and concerns bottled up inside is a sure path to greater strain later on. If you don’t feel like you have enough people around you who you’re “safe” with and can share openly, that might be a contributing factor to depression all on its own. Even the most lone wolf person needs genuine connection with other humans.
Emotional health is just as important as physical health, and making your health a top priority is key to achieving outrageous success in life and especially as a free agent. When your performance on the job is directly tied to your income or appeal as a creator, as it is with so many of us, the most important thing you can invest in is yourself.