Have you ever been so upset, hurt or angry that you lashed out at others although you didn’t want to? Do you recall an incident where you went over the top with exhilaration and have fallen down hard? Were you aware of all that but couldn’t stop it, as if your emotions had a mind of their own? Have worries, anxieties and fears sneaked into your life and are preparing for a take-over? Have you perhaps even come to fear certain emotions? No?
Not everybody experiences emotions the same way or reacts emotionally in similar situations; we all have our sweet and sour spots. One person might for instance perceive it as a direct blow against her pride when her boss criticises an obvious mistake she made, another when nobody notices her new pair of glasses. Someone might fear being late for the first job interview after a year of unemployment, someone else might feel the same about Sunday lunch at that fabulous new restaurant.
What some people may perceive as stressful might be routine or even fun for others. To me, for instance, there’s no big difference between an appointment at the hairdresser’s or at the dentist’s; I loathe both (although my dentist and my hairdresser are very nice persons). I hardly ever feel I’m missing out on something, but I still hurt when people don’t mention a certain event in my company in a misguided attempt to spare my feelings. I appreciate fair criticism (after taking a quick breather), but I can come close to blowing my top when someone nags about me or others behind our backs, or worse: “suffers in silence”.
The big problem with emotional stress is that strong and/or sudden emotions can literally shut down our “thinking brain”. The range goes from a slight emotional bias to getting lost or “freezing” in the situation, being unable to even think of looking for alternatives.
- What are emotions?
- Can we trust our emotions?
On this page:
- Using Emotions to Facilitate Thought
- Understanding Emotions
- First Aid Kit: What now?
Using Emotions to Facilitate Thought
Emotion is instant information which set the path for our behaviour. Based on our and all our ancestors’ experience, emotions lead us away from danger and towards what is necessary for our survival and the survival of our species. An emotion triggers a set of thoughts and actions to choose from. Disgust for instance tells us to throw away rotten food or at least not to eat it, compassion asks us to support someone who needs help.
Emotions filter our thoughts, make us focus on what is important at the moment, and discard what we don’t need. Instead of having to check every new situation from all perspectives, they offer us information our collective experience has proven right in similar situations.
And exactly here lies one of the problems: Having learned to trust our emotions we follow them almost blindly. Attention is certainly required when crossing a busy road or walking along the edge of a cliff, but we may feel similar stress when confronted with our tax declaration or before a simple vocabulary test. By eliminating what “we don’t need”, emotions provide us only with part of the picture.
A second problem magnifies the first: The chemicals released shut down cognitive processing of the available information, that is our thinking. Unless we re-evaluate the situation early on from an objective point of view, the emotion can draw us into a whirlpool, becomes stronger and more convincing until we reach a point where the proverbial molehill has turned into a mountain, urging us to either overreact or run and hide.
Emotions are very basic and so fast and efficient because they concentrate on a limited range of patterns. Fear? Attack or run. Disgust? Stay away. Joy? Have more of it. These patterns exist in all life areas, in relationships, at work, when dealing with our mistakes or finding out why we think and act the way we do.
A certain pattern in one area is very likely mirrored in another, we all have our own “favourites”. Such repetitive patterns are easier to detect; understanding them plus the limitation of these mechanisms in ourselves and in others helps us to dig and look for the underlying causes.
Analysing others and self-exploration in excess however may drag us into a maze of confusion when we try to solve all at once. And anyway, how can we switch to thinking mode when engulfed in emotions?
First Aid Kit: What now?
There’s no point in blocking emotions, they are a necessary source of information. But we can prevent emotions from taking over reason by learning to detect first signs like irritation, annoyance, tension. At this stage it is fairly easy to ask “What now?” and to consciously choose the direction and the next step.
But what if strong emotion overwhelms us without a warning (see The only good photo of his son), so sudden that we don’t even “think of thinking”?
Even then first aid is available: We can retrain our conditioning, that is change the pattern of how we react. This probably won’t happen overnight, but, as it depends on frequency, we might get good results within a few days.
Step one: Awareness. Every day we experience an abundance of slight or stronger emotions. Simply acknowledge them, without any evaluation. Know that you are safe at any time.
Step two: Stepping aside. Divert your attention from how you feel, from yourself. I find it easiest to do so by remembering and “feeling” one of the following words or phrases, whichever comes first to my mind: “kindness”, “peace be with you”, “what can I give”. This shift of attention creates the necessary distance to my emotions and helps my mind to look for alternatives. In difficult situations it might take a minute or two to reduce the impact of your emotions (and they may linger for much longer), but if you are looking for small “miracles” – here you can find them.
For the next three days, practice step one and two. If you like, think of yourself as a snail or beetle whose eyes or antennae register obstacles before they bump into them.
In the beginning you may notice your emotions only “after the fact”, then perhaps notice but forget about step two, and next time remember step two but find it difficult to apply. That’s completely normal. Use any opportunity, don’t wait for the “big ones” – the more often you practice the faster you’ll get into this new habit.
Enjoy – and feel free to post your experiences 🙂
Related articles: How do you feel about…emotions? Part One