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Emotional Competence: a Preventive Medicine

April 2nd, 2012

Blog Format

This week I would like to reflect on emotional competence and its positive impact on our health. I will quote a wonderful book by Dr. Gabor Maté, that I am reading and that I highly recommend to anybody: When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection

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The idea that stress can affect our health is not news, we all know it's a fact. However, many people are unable to avoid stress because many do not even recognize it.

"The experience of stress has three components. The first is the event, physical or emotional, that the organism interprets as threatening. This is the stress stimulus, also called the stressor. The second element is the processing system that experiences and interprets the meaning of the stressor. In the human being, this processing system is the nervous system, in particular the brain. The final constituent is the stress response, which consists of the various physiological and behavioral adjustments made as a reaction to a perceived threat" -Dr. Maté

So, in other words, there is the stressor, the processing and the response. The last two elements are so unique to each individual that there can't possibly be a uniform and universal relationship between a stressor and a stress response. And even the first element "the stressor" could be unique to the individual as well, because although it can be an obvious threat to everybody, such as an earthquake, it can also be a psychological perception of danger (non real and unique to the individual). Our brain can't tell the difference between a real threat and an imaginary one, furthermore, the imaginary threat can be conscious or unconscious.

We need to remind ourselves once and again that mind and body are inseparable and that our state of physical health can not be understood fully without taking our social context and emotional patterns into account. Unfortunately most doctors in the developed world especially, where the level of specialty is so high, have lost touch with this fundamental truth, and are trained to treat only the symptoms that occur in one organ or body part without looking at the patient as a whole.

Therefore, we can't possibly trust our health fully to a professional, no matter how good they may be in their field, without working on our personal awareness of wholeness. I use the word awareness here and not "responsibility", because as Dr. Maté says: "There is no true responsibility without awareness" in other words, we can't be held responsible for our health unless we are aware of all the intricate functioning of our whole being.

In order to enrich our awareness, we don't necessarily need to do endless research or therapy, but we need to seriously examine our emotional competence, our behavior patterns and our beliefs. Today I will focus only on the first.

In many developed societies there is very little encouragement to be in-tune with our emotions, in fact, being emotional or sensitive is considered a flaw as opposed to a strength, however we should rethink this outlook, for being in touch with our emotions and being sensitive to our environment can be a life saver.

In many studies, including those cited in Dr. Maté's book, there is a clear commonality to many patients with chronic or autoimmune diseases: their incapacity to identify and/or assert their emotional needs.

This is where Emotional Competence becomes so important, but what exactly is it?
According to Dr. Maté:

"Emotional Competence Requires:

  • The capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress;

  • The ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries;

  • The facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue form the past. What we want and demand from the world needs to conform to our present needs not to unconscious, unsatisfied needs from childhood. If distinctions between past and present blur, we will perceive loss or the threat of loss where none exists; and

  • The awareness of those genuine needs that do require satisfaction, rather than their repression for the sake of gaining the acceptance or approval of others."

"The higher the level of economic development, it seems, the more anaesthetized we have become to our emotional realities. We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot therefore act in self-preserving ways" Hans Seyle

Emotional Competence is the best preventive medicine!!!

Have a great week!

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