Part of managing ourselves is to manage our emotions, which can be of varying levels of difficulty depending on our upbringing, fetal developmental environment, connection with caregivers in the early years, and our thinking styles and distortions, among others.
First, we need to understand what emotions are.
Imagine, you had your hand on a hot stove. What would happen next?
Your hand will feel very uncomfortable, it will have burning sensations, signalling your brain that something needs to change; for example, remove your hand from the stove!
Although this burning sensation is no doubt uncomfortable, it is very useful for our survival.
Emotions serve the same purpose. It is a signal from our body that an action needs to be taken. It carries a lot of information, and it requires you to act on it for your well-being.
We can’t control the emotions arising and information flowing in, but we can and should be able to manage how we react to them.
That is emotional regulation; your ability to respond to your emotions.
What are some things we should know about emotions?
Emotions are physical sensations (not feelings) that contain information, and cause you to act upon it. It is a reaction to a specific event.
Emotions are an innate part of being alive. We cannot run away from them, avoid them or tell them to go away. They are here to serve a purpose, and serve us.
Remember!! Emotions are temporary. They last for minutes or sometimes just for a few seconds.
What makes them spin out of control are our thoughts.
And these THOUGHTS are what we can manage, not the emotions.
When we manage those thoughts, we can manage our reactions to our emotions.
When we try to control our emotions, it is likely that we are left with frustration.
What can some of our emotions be telling us?
See the table below for some examples of what messages might be communicated to us by our emotions, and what they might be signalling us to do about them.
Unhelpful thinking styles
Earlier we revisited that our thoughts influence our reactions to emotions, and that our thoughts are responsible for our reactions going out of control.
Also, we need to note that we cannot believe everything we think because they may not represent reality. There can be distortions, maladaptivity, assumptions, and even lies we tell ourselves in our thinking.
See below for some of the unhelpful thinking styles we may be adopting in our lives.
Explosion as a default reaction
Our ancestors, who came way before the modern civilization we are familiar with, didn’t always know when food was coming. Even though we now have the option to run down to restaurants, supermarkets, or even order things on smartphones to get delivered to our door, our ancient brain still thinks that we would need to conserve energy as much as possible in order to prepare for when food may not come for days.
Our brain is the organ that consumes the most energy in our body.
So our ancient brain wants to prevent running out of precious energy by following what is known to have always worked, instead of reassessing the best course of action every time.
If, in the past, reacting with anger worked for you, got what you wanted/needed, relieved your uncomfortableness (for example, raising your voice made others be quiet and listen to you), or if you observed your caretakers react to situations with anger, it is likely that you would have learned to use anger as your default reaction. Feeding into that feedback loop, confirming to yourself that it is the way to get what you want/need. Your brain won’t even think about it or consider another way of reacting. Why would it want to consume its precious energy on doing that? It proved to work in the past over and over to release tension in your body and get what you want. Then anger (or even explosion) becomes your default reaction.
It is not your fault. Neither is it the fault of your caretakers’. It just is.
We respond with anger (or explode) because it gives us relief in the short term. Because of that relief we get after an explosion, we learn that it is the behaviour we should repeat the next time we are dissatisfied (therefore uncomfortable) to get the same result. However it is a short term band aid solution. You feel better right after, but in the long run, you might end up hurting your relationships, others around you, your reputation, and your opinion of yourself.
As another example of a default reaction, some people can be, by default, constantly vigilant or likely to catastrophize situations. To them, everything is an emergency. They see a big fire, when in reality a candle is lit. This again refers back to the unhelpful and distorted thinking style we addressed earlier.
Maybe in that way, they feel safer (and therefore release tension), because the vigilance makes them take all the precautions and avoid certain situations or taking risks. However, this type of thinking style would put them in a constant state of alertness. Their system would constantly be aroused and ready to fight or flight (so that they don’t freeze), constantly activating the sympathetic nervous system and releasing stress hormones. I can’t imagine this would be good for our long-term health.
Steps to regulate our emotions
Emotional regulation is actually being aware of your sensations and managing your thoughts, so that you can adopt a more well-adjusted reaction to the situation that triggered the emotions.
Here are some suggestions:
Step 1. Be aware of when your emotions arise.
Step 2. Accept the feelings and thoughts that arise. Also, accept that changes are difficult, as you lived with your default mode for years/decades.
Step 3. Take a minute to listen to your bodily sensations before reacting.
Step 4. What are you thinking? What is going through your head about this situation? Note them all down.
Step 5. Using the Emotion Wheel below, try to get as precise as possible in naming your emotional experience.
Step 6. Ask yourself: Are these thoughts real? Are they telling the truth?
Step 7. Think about what would be the most reasonable, least harmful action you can take as a response. Or if the event has already happened, how did you react? What would have been an alternative option for your reaction?
Step 8. Take action like a champ.
I want to conclude by dropping a link to a series of Emotion Wheels that I find very helpful in understanding, navigating, and adopting a more reasonable reaction to my emotions (and thoughts).
Here is one of the emotion wheels from Human Systems for your reference.
The emotion wheel is a super useful tool for your emotional regulation.
When you can put a finger on something, you are in a better position to manage it.
When you can put a more precise name to your emotions, you are in a much better place to understand them and react to your experiences with more information.
“What gets measured, gets managed” - Peter Drucker