In the course of a day we are active in a range of activities and modes of being. We think, reflect, and remember about events; we experience a range of emotions and reactions both to what is happening to us currently and in the past; we walk, breathe, stretch and step; we engage others in conversation, observe their actions and join them in activities; and finally we pray, worship, create, lose ourselves in music, and/or other activities that connect us with a world larger than ourselves. While these experiences may overlap, each represents a distinct area and function. We are drawn to and are more attuned to a particular aspect of ourselves when we are immersed in them.
These five areas- the mental, the emotional, the physical, the social, and the transcendent– in my experience, exist in a balance to each other. While our preferences and lifestyle may require us to spend more time in one area than another, in each day we spend at least some period of time in each of these five areas. When there is not a balance in these five areas – when we spend too much time in one area or do not allow ourselves to experience an area- we begin to experience a feeling of imbalance that in time can built into larger issues of stress, anxiety and depression.
Very often I see this imbalance at work with clients who struggle with mood and thought disruptions- anxiety and depression. These folks are wracked by thoughts, memories, and problem-solving and- in an attempt to manage the stress of this- they withdraw from other aspects of their life in an attempt to reduce the number of things they have to think about. I often refer to this as the impulse to shrink your world smaller. The impulse makes sense on a level- the fewer things I have to be involved in, the fewer things I have to think about. The challenge is though that as I stop being involved or attending to my emotional, physical, social and transcendent areas all I have left is my mental area- I am left alone with my thoughts and that may be the part which is most troublesome to me!
The same impulse to shrink your world can also occur around other areas as well. Chronic pain can draw us into a tight focus on our body and our physical functioning that causes us to eliminate the mental, emotional, social and transcendent. Grief and loss can pull us into an unrelenting focus on our feelings of sadness and emotional pain to the detriment of everything else. Codependency can keep me so focused on the actions and reactions of my social area that I lose my perspective and awareness of my individuality. Drug addiction can create a compulsion for transcendence that allows even basic functions and impulses for self-care and safety to be lost. Each area has the potential to overwhelm the others. And in each case the imbalance takes a toll on our overall wellbeing.
I would propose that the five areas represent distinct areas of need, requirements for us as human beings to survive and thrive. We need to be able to give time to the mental functions of thought, memory, problem-solving, and learning. We require the judgement of goodness vs badness, safety vs danger that is associated with the experience of emotions and the means that these responses allow us to communicate and express. The movement, action, and our sensory functions of our physical area are essential to our very survival and health. Joining with others, sharing their physical, mental, emotional, and transcendent aspects in our social area provides us nurturance, protection, and learning. We thrive only when we have the transcendent experience of worship, awe, or creativity to provide us with a means to orient ourselves and to understand the complexity of our own experience and world.
Awareness of and deliberate effort to maintain the balance is required. The demands of culture and society do not, and in my view rarely have, encouraged us to pursue a balanced view. There is always something that calls for us to prioritize one aspect over the others- in truth we may be encouraged to believe that emphasizing only one area and denying or at least downplaying one or more of the others is essential. “Mortify the flesh”, “Stay out of your head”, “Don’t be a crybaby” are all ways we have been encouraged to avoid or downplay aspects of our own experience. And to be fair there are times when we do need to work against the urge to fall into one area or another- but the difference being we do not deny the reality or the importance of that experience. Rather we seek to balance it with other areas and aspects of ourselves.