Emotions are our constant companions, ever present and impacting us. We spend a lot of time trying to manage them, push them down, and fence them off. However, emotions are hard-wired in our brains and bodies. This hard-wired system is designed to keep us safe, motivate us, and connect us with others. If we are open to shifting our perspective and accepting that all emotions are useful and important, not just the pleasant ones, we just might be able to accept them, manage them, and hone our ability to use them as a guidance system. If we experience all of our emotions we gain more of what we want and need in life.
Shifting Perspectives: Emotions can be difficult, but they are not “bad”
Emotions are often labeled as “positive” or “negative.” Most people learn very early in life that emotions like anxiety, sadness, and anger are “bad”, are signs of weakness and/or are to be avoided. We are told that the ‘good’ emotions are the ones we must strive to feel and show to others. However, the perspective that only ‘positive’ emotions are ‘good’ leads to shame and embarrassment, which then lead us to ignore or suppress more difficult emotions. However, this usually makes the feelings and situations worse. What if I told you all emotions are of equal value? Really think about it; consider that your sadness is just as important and valuable as your happiness. How would this perspective change your experiences? We think that in a perfect world, people would feel positive emotions such as happiness, excitement, joy, love, or curiosity all of the time. However, it is the vast experience of emotion, and the contrast between pleasurable and difficult emotions that paint the landscape of our lives. Emotions motivate and guide us through situations, interactions, and decisions. We must have a full range of emotional experience to engage in life. All emotions are equally valuable because they tell us very important information about ourselves, others, and our experiences. We know that many emotions are difficult and painful to deal with, but it is important to allow ourselves to feel all emotions in order to be able to learn from and cope with them. By accepting all of our feelings as equal in value and importance, we can better learn to express and cope with them.
Alert! Alert! Emotions are a signal
All emotions serve a purpose, and if we understand them as signals, telling us what to be aware of and what to do next, we are much more effective in getting what we want and what we need. What we call emotions are actually a cascade of thoughts, brain reactions, and bodily reactions. First, our brain reacts to a situation, we may or may not have an interpretive thought, and this reaction or thought then result in signals sent to our body. For instance, when we are faced with difficult situations, our brain’s stress-response system sends a signal to our body that something might be wrong, so that we can decide what to do next. If our brain thinks we might be in danger, it sends stress hormones through our body to protect us. These hormones translate directly into bodily reactions. For instance, our heart beats faster to get more blood and oxygen to our body, in case we need to run or fight for our lives. Our breathing also becomes faster as our lungs work to get more oxygen into our body. Our pupils dilate to help us scan our environment better. We label these bodily sensations as emotions, such as nervous or irritated, and we are motivated to act. We might fight, freeze, or run away. When we are feeling sad, our brain signals to our body that we need to rest and recover. This is why we often feel tired and drained when we experience sadness or grief. Paying attention to what we feel in our body can help us understand what our emotions are guiding us to do to meet the demands of a situation. When we are disconnected from our emotions, we are disconnected from solutions.
The Mind-Body Connection
Emotions are the lens we view the world through; hence the saying, seeing something through ‘rose colored glasses’. The physical aspects of emotions influence our thoughts and behaviors a great deal. This may seem obvious, but often times it’s not so obvious in our daily experiences. When we understand that emotions are interconnected with our bodily sensations, thoughts, motivations and behaviors, we can, in turn, learn how to manage these different experiences of emotions. For instance, when we are angry, we tend to think angry thoughts. Thinking angry thoughts then feeds and fuels our emotion further, and leads us to want to act on our anger. The stronger the emotion, the more intense the motivation, sometimes leading to decisions or actions that don’t work for us, or that we regret. Now here’s were the work comes in! We learn to identify the emotion, increase awareness of bodily sensations, and use this insight to guide us toward what we need. Coping skills can be used to manage the physical feelings and behavior urges that come with intense emotions. We can then effectively explore the thoughts that might be colored by those emotions, and consider what actions best meet our needs or wants. We can’t control how our body reacts or what thoughts initially pop into our heads, but we can control how we look through the lens.
The Mind-Body Connection
One way of gaining insight and control over emotions is to increase awareness and control of bodily reactions. Although some people are skeptical about breathing and grounding exercises, science shows us that using these strategies can send a signal to the part of the brain that turns down the “stress-response system” (sympathetic nervous system), and turns up the “calm down system” (para-sympathetic nervous system). Active strategies that use your whole body help to regulate stronger bodily responses to emotions, especially frustration and anger. These techniques aim to help you focus on something else, while calming and shifting your bodily responses and sensations.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique: Slowly breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breathe for 7 seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat this sequence until you feel your body calm down.
Five senses grounding: Acknowledge 5 things you see around you. Acknowledge 4 things you can touch around you. Acknowledge 3 things you hear. Acknowledge 2 things you can smell. Acknowledge 1 thing you can taste.
Move your body! Sometimes, our emotions feel so strong that the calming techniques above are not enough to release that emotional energy. Instead, moving your body around can help release that built up energy. Play one of your favorite fast-paced songs and dance around! Go for a run or bike ride! Kick or throw a ball around! These strategies are meant to help you focus on the activity, while moving your entire body, to release the built up energy that emotions give us.
Put it all together
When we see emotions as equally valuable, we can harness the power of a full range of emotional experiences. These experiences provide us with incredibly important signs and signals, guiding our expression, behaviors, and choices. This leads us to be more effective in getting more of what we want and need. However, to ensure we don’t feel overwhelmed by these experiences, we also must attune to our bodily responses and learn to turn the dial up or down. Stay tuned for more on recognizing and managing thought patterns.
*Click on this link to view a “Feelings Wheel” which can help you identify and express your emotions using different terms that describe different levels of the common emotions humans feel.