We all seek emotional balance, but what exactly does that mean?
There's no 98.6° of the mind, no 130 over 85 for mood pressure. And, although the popularity of drugs like Prozac and Zoloft might lead us to believe that brain neurotransmitters can be mixed like a smart martini (one jigger of serotonin, two of dopamine...), so far no one has come up with a cocktail for happiness. Most of us know, however, what it feels like to be emotionally out of whack. Patience rubbed bald, making the slightest irritation unbearable. No energy to care about anyone else's difficulties. A shuttered outlook, leaving you increasingly closed to both pleasure and possibility.
Now is the time to attend to your inner fitness, says LLuminari, O's team of 15 doctors and wellness experts who are coaching us toward greater health. It doesn't take decoding the genome to prove that when you're feeling good about yourself, your body stays in better shape and your general condition is more resilient. "The people who age best are those who have positive things happening in their lives and positive feelings," says Norman Rosenthal, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and the author of The Emotional Revolution, which details the latest science of emotions and argues that they profoundly affect your health and survival.
Forty to 55 percent of a happy disposition is genetic, studies suggest, but the rest can be learned. It may be helpful to think of emotional balance as mastering a surfboard—honing the ability to take life's gnarliest waves without wiping out, while catching the good ones and riding them all the way to shore, enjoying every last splash. What it takes to stay on the board will vary for each of us. Outwardly, life delivers different ups and downs; inwardly, there are many styles of maintaining equilibrium.
To dive in, the LLuminari experts suggest first giving yourself an emotional checkup, then practicing a few basic mood-stabilizing techniques, and finally determining, if appropriate, when it's time to get help. "Some days are tougher than others," says surgeon Nancy Snyderman, MD, the author of Dr. Nancy Snyderman's Guide to Good Health, "but if you generally love waking up in the morning, you're in a good spot. If you're not, challenge what's amiss and see how you can fix it."
Step 1: Emotional Checkup
Sit down with a calendar and ask yourself how you've been feeling over the past couple of weeks—depressed, anxious, joyful, angry? Do you seem uncharacteristically blue and lethargic? If yes, can you see a good reason for it? The questions may seem obvious, but if you don't ask them, Rosenthal says, "it's easy to shove the problem out of your mind."
Next check your expectations. The big mistake people make is confusing emotional balance with happiness, says Alice Domar, PhD, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Boston IVF and the author of Self-Nurture. "The huge number of people on Prozac in this country includes many, I think, who were experiencing life's ups and downs normally but had an expectation of constant happiness," she says. "A normal life means feeling pretty satisfied with the way things are, having some moments of joy and some moments of sadness and anxiety."
No matter where you are on your emotional surfboard (even if you're off it), these mood-steadying strategies make for easier riding.
1. Mind Rx: Taking a break—imaginary or real—can help settle emotions on a bumpy day.
2. Daydream: "When you think about pleasurable things like sex or food, PET scans show different patterns lighting up in your brain than when you think about work or something unpleasant," says Mehmet Oz, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.
3. Fake it: Research shows that when you put on a smile, even a forced one, your mood often follows. Hold your head high, walk confidently, pretend you're Serena Williams after winning the Grand Slam.
4. Listen to music: Put on a pair of headphones and let yourself get carried away.
5. Go to a bookstore and just browse. "Look at travel books, photography books," suggests Byllye Avery, founder of the National Black Women's Health Project. "Dip into some fiction and let your mind go there."
6. Run away: Spas are ideal, Snyderman says (when she books herself for a quick getaway, she tells her kids to "call only in an emergency—and homework doesn't count"). But you can also escape to a friend's house for the weekend, get in the car and just drive, or take a day to be a tourist in your own town.
Depression and anxiety, which often occur together, may be pulling you off-kilter, and subtle symptoms can creep up on you without your realizing it.
With mild depression, you might get your work done and perform all your other duties but have trouble mustering enthusiasm for any of it. Getting ready to go to a party often requires a gargantuan effort (although if you can manage that hurdle, you're capable of having a good time). And when little things go wrong—a train is late, a friend cancels—you can be totally knocked off course.
With mild anxiety, you worry about things that most people don't: If there are rumors of a management change at the office, you'll stay up all night thinking about it while everyone else waits for more information before getting worked up. You wish, perhaps, that you were more easygoing—sometimes your fears keep you from trying things.
In both cases, the LLuminari experts recommend the following:
1. Meditation: A proven treatment for anxiety, and, to a lesser extent, depression, "it lowers blood pressure and heart rate and counteracts the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol," Oz says. "We use it in the hospital for anxious heart surgery patients and for post-op depression."
2. Yoga: The mental focus, breathing, and limbering postures combined into one activity work like a multivitamin for inner stability.
3. Reorganization: Look at your daily schedule and sort out what gives you pleasure and what stresses you out. Then think of every way possible to remove the latter from your life.
4. Saint-John's-Wort: Although a large study funded by the National Institutes of Health recently suggested that this herb has no effect on severely depressed people, more than 20 studies, mostly in Europe, show that the herb helps alleviate mild depression. Christopher Hobbs, a clinical herbalist and consultant to the herb industry who has written 22 books, including Herbal Remedies for Dummies, says the optimal dosage is 300 milligrams three times a day (of a formula with 0.3 percent hypericin), although a small person might try twice a day. He also says it may take four to six weeks to notice any effects. Caution: If you're on any medication, consult your doctor before trying Saint-John's-Wort, because it has been shown to interfere with a number of drugs, including some types of chemotherapy and possibly birth control pills.
If none of these strategies make you feel better after six weeks, you may want to consult a mental health professional. Certainly, if you're having trouble functioning—work is suffering, nothing excites you, you've stopped seeing friends, your mind is racing, you can't even get out of bed—you should go straight for help.