Google the word “detox,” and thousands of hits will appear outlining ways to eliminate impurities in the body. Whether or not you believe juice cleanses and detox diets work to make the body feel better (though if you ask me, I believe the body is designed to detox on its own if given the chance by treating it well), did you ever consider the fact that your emotions might need a detox too?
Our mental health has a huge impact on our physical health. With high-stress jobs, constant Instagram scrolling, and lifestyle that doesn’t always match up with our budgets, many of us suffer from chronic stress and generalized anxiety—every single day. Thinking about the profound effects of mental health on your entire wellbeing, which one do you think will heal you faster: a juice cleanse or an emotional cleanse?
Why you should consider going on an emotional detox
Do you ever feel so out of control with your feelings that you wish you could remove all the thoughts from your head, give them a nice washing, and then put back in just the squeaky clean thoughts (like an emotional car wash, if you will)? Or maybe you have childhood memories or breakups and rejections from the past that are still affecting your present and future. Perhaps you feel so stressed out that any minor responsibilities or decisions feel overwhelming.
Just like a detox for the physical body, sometimes we need a little extra focus on removing impurities in the mind. The goal of an emotional detox is not to totally get rid of negative emotions—ups and downs are a part of being human, after all—but rather to clear out emotions that are stagnant and no longer serving us.
10 Ways to Detox Your Emotions
1. Be aware of your emotions
How many times did you hear “keep your chin up!” or “big girls don’t cry” (the well-intended life lesson, not the Fergie banger) growing up? Many of us were taught to suppress negative feelings and pretend like everything is “all good!” In adulthood, this looks like suppressing emotions by turning to a distraction or denying the feeling. Breakups and grieving periods don’t just feel bad because of the loss; they feel bad because we’re uncomfortable with negative emotions. Our brains have been wired to believe that we’re not supposed to feel bad, instead of knowing it’s OK to feel bad sometimes.
Problems don’t just go away because you ignore them, so start noticing and being curious about what you’re feeling. Being aware of your emotions provides more space to work on and understand them. Whenever you feel stressed, sad, bored, anxious, or any other uncomfortable feeling, don’t try to distract yourself and push it back right away. Notice it and try to understand why that emotion is coming up. Where is it coming from? What’s causing it?
2. Make a plan of action
Now that you’re aware of your emotions (and maybe can identify the root cause), make an action plan when the emotions start to arise. Perhaps when you feel yourself getting angry, you go for a walk outside, or when that competitive coworker puts you down, you remind yourself that it’s an expression of her insecurities, not a reflection of your flaws. The goal of an emotional detox is not to prevent any future negative emotions; it’s to know healthy ways to acknowledge and work through the emotions when they come up.
3. Record negative memories
There’s likely a small list of negative memories that still bother you (or a long list for some of us). Write down as many memories that bring up negative emotions that you can remember. Then, go review each memory as a distant third party. For example, if a friend was telling you about this memory, how would you help them reframe the experience? Is there a bright side or positive outcome to the situation?
Just be aware that some memories may require professional help to work through (more on that below), but tackling some of the uncomfortable memories can help you understand where your current thought patterns are coming from, and rewire them so they no longer control you (like having trust issues because your college boyfriend cheated on you, or feeling inadequate because you didn’t get the promotion last year).
4. Get outside yourself
While being aware of your emotions is crucial for healing yourself, sometimes we need to get outside of ourselves to truly heal. If you’re in a rut or feeling abnormally anxious, bummed out, or sorry for yourself, the fix might be as simple as to stop making yourself the main focus. Volunteer at a charity you care about or check-in with a friend to ask how they’re doing and talk through whatever they’re going through. Focusing on someone else and giving positive, healing love to them helps us get perspective with problems we couldn’t solve before, and might even help us to feel more positive.
5. Go on a complaint cleanse
I’ve written about my experience going on a complaint cleanse before, and the results were lasting and drastic. Think about how many things you complain about in a day (the weather outside, the crowded public transportation this morning, the shirt you didn’t think looked good on you, the TV show you didn’t like), and how the immediate reaction of frustration and helplessness accumulates overtime.
I’m a big believer in the power of words (it’s why I dedicated my career to writing them) and feel that every word we say can make a difference in the world, for the better or worse. It’s why I choose not to judge strangers on the internet, why I refuse to talk behind people’s backs, and why I limit my complaining to constructive criticisms (if at all). If you try to not complain for a certain amount of time, you’ll not only feel better overall, but you’ll find that negative feelings will start to be crowded out by positive thoughts.
6. Identify and limit vices
It’s human nature to seek out comfort in uncomfortable situations. Things like food and alcohol are the most readily available forms of comfort in today’s world, which is why they’re the most common vice. Emotional eating and drinking are extremely common, but putting a band-aid in the form of a glass of wine or a plate of cookies is not actually healing the emotions (not to mention it can lead to serious complications like addiction and bingeing).
If you find yourself reaching for a glass of wine after a stressful day at work or can’t stop yourself from eating a whole bag of mini donuts when you’re feeling lonely (we’ve all been there), try to identify the uncomfortable feeling that’s making you crave comfort. If you have an emotional vice, it’s likely a sign there’s something you don’t want to deal with, like anxiety or feelings of not being enough.
7. Practice morning pages
If you’re struggling to find the root cause of your emotions, practice free writing to help illuminate the answer. Give yourself 20 minutes where you have to write (AKA no phone scrolling, TV watching, or mindless doodling). You can write down anything that comes to mind, or you can write based on a prompt or question (like “why am I so angry?” or “why does this situation bother me?”). The morning is a good time to try free journaling when your mind is clear, and you’re not yet consumed by to-do lists and work emails, but any time you can fit in 20 minutes would work. You’ll be surprised what your subconscious might know because, in the end, we know how to heal ourselves better than anyone else does.
8. Ask for help
Even as someone who has always considered herself a happy person that deals with stress fairly well, when I did start going to therapy, it changed my life. Not only did I realize how many buried emotions and anxieties were holding me back that I was not aware of, but I learned skills to communicate in relationships, recover from anxieties, and deal with negative emotions.
In my opinion, therapy should be like an annual pap smear: whether or not you have any major concerns, it’s just something you do to keep you healthy. Don’t be afraid to seek out professional help to work through difficult emotions, or just learn better thinking and communication skills (you can find a therapist or psychiatrist that’s covered by your insurance here).
9. Forgive yourself (and others)
No matter what your self-talk cycle is like, be empathetic to yourself. Do not beat yourself up for feeling anxiety or negativity, and do not judge the emotions that come up. Instead, thank the emotions. If you’re feeling anxiety, thank the emotion because it’s there to try to keep you safe (even anxiety over a fight with a friend or a big meeting at work comes from a biological “fight or flight” response that used to save our lives when being attacked by a bear in the old-school cavemen days).
As hokey as it sounds, thank your negative thoughts for their purpose (keeping you safe), and for helping you see how you don’t want to feel. After all, identifying emotions that don’t serve you is the best way to find out what emotions will serve you. Oh, and while you’re at it, forgive others, too. Not forgiving someone means you’re holding onto painful emotions and is causing you more negativity than the person you’re not forgiving. Forgiveness is not letting someone else off the hook; it’s freeing yourself.
10. Fill up with the good stuff
Just like any other detox, it does nothing if, after removing impurities, you don’t do the work to replace toxins with things that nourish you. Once you feel like you’ve properly worked through (or have started working through) the emotions that don’t serve you, fill up on all the good stuff. Everything you do, watch, listen to, and say should be an effort to feel happy. Gratitude journal, dance around to a happy playlist while you cook, practice compassion, and spend time with the people who make you laugh. Find the bright side in bad memories and actually notice when you’re in the good moments. Remember that happiness is not a circumstance or an outcome; it’s a skill.