Emotions are a psychological reactive state that occurs in response to an event or situation.
They are complicated. They can be very messy. But we do need them!
From an evolutionary perspective, emotions serve an important role. They influence the way we feel and the subsequent behaviours we perform as a result of those feelings.
They motivate us to act, help us to assess risk and avoid danger, help us to understand each other and assist in decision making and problem solving.
But from a more modern standpoint, they might contribute to challenging and unhelpful thoughts like:
"I'm too scared to put myself out there" "I don't want to go to the event, everyone will be judging me"
"I can't motivate myself to do anything, I'm useless"
"Nobody likes me"
"She thinks she's so much better than the rest of us"
Sometimes our emotions can get the better of us; becoming difficult to manage and affecting our ability to enjoy life, relax, be in the moment and stop ourselves ruminating.
But, as you may have noticed, attempting to quieten, suppress or distract yourself from negative emotions is often synonymous with dysfunctional coping behaviours. When we look at the research, emotional avoidance and dysregulation are associated with difficulty engaging in goal-directed behaviours, psychological disorders, poor impulse control and self-sabotaging, causing further distress that can intensify our negative self-beliefs.
The good news is, there's a lot you can do to get a better handle on your emotions; not to avoid them or eliminate them, but shifting from letting them control how you feel, how you see the world and what you do as a result of those feelings.
When we consider neurology and emotional regulation, one key area is the amygdala. Located at the base of the brain, one of the amygdala's roles is to detect threats and process emotions related to fear in order to activate behavioural responses ie. fight or flight. Emotional regulation techniques are linked to decreased amygdala activation and activity.
In fact, when we look at the relevant research, self-regulation of emotions demonstrates an increased ability to endure difficulties and willingness to expose ourselves to challenging situations, whilst also decreasing our feelings of overwhelm. Affect labelling, particularly alongside mindfulness, have been shown to lower physical responses such as increased heart rate, heightened voice pitch (which typically indicates arousal of the senses) and lower sympathetic nervous system response. In other words, reduction of the stress response.
Affect labelling is the process of putting feelings into words. It can not only help us to identify our emotions, but can also reduce the duration and intensity of negative emotions.
The first step is simply to label our emotions. What exactly are we feeling, deep down?
Using the Feelings Wheel , we can contemplate a wider range of emotions instead of relying on the standard list: anger, sadness, happiness, fear and excitement. We can reduce uncertainty, become more emotionally literate and then make progress towards acknowledging and unpacking the reasons why we're feeling a particular way.
Once you've labelled an emotion, you can make distinctions between the course of action to take or how to respond. For example, you may have previously responded with aggression and defensiveness to moments that you thought made you angry. By exploring what might be driving your feelings, you may see that a reaction of defensiveness occurred due to feeling embarrassed or inadequate. Then, by recognising the beliefs you have about yourself and why certain scenarios may trigger these beliefs, you can consider different coping strategies and put them into practice.
This might involve preparing yourself beforehand for situations or conversations that you predict will be difficult.
Or calming yourself down before going into a scenario that tends to induce anxiety.
Or choosing a different time or manner in which to approach a chat with a partner or friend which has previously resulted in arguing and leaving you feel unheard.
Another handy skill for practicing emotional regulation is mindfulness. Yes, that word that make some of us cringe, but it can be an exceptionally effective practice to help you to become aware of your thoughts and be comfortable sitting with them. This is particularly useful for emotions like anxiety, frustration, anger and loneliness, where calming our nervous system down can diffuse the power our thoughts hold over us and make it far easier to rationalise, reflect and make decisions.
One mindfulness exercise that can be helpful for acknowledging your thoughts whilst calming your nervous system is The Babbling Brook.
In a comfortable, quiet spot, sit down, close your eyes and take a few deep, slow breaths. Then, visualise yourself next to a stream that is bubbling along in front of you. Each time a thought comes into your mind, visualise placing it on a leaf and watch it float downstream. If the thought reappears, that's fine, put a second version on a leaf too. The goal is to stay by the stream watching your thoughts. If you've discovered that you've stopped doing the exercise and your mind has gone elsewhere, which is common, try to catch what led your mind astray. Then you can put that thought on another leaf and watch it float away.
Remember, emotions are there as part of our toolkit to help us understand the world. Our brains almost constantly strive to make meaning and sense of what's going on around us. But if you find that emotions lead to excessive self-judgement or distress, you may find that you need to work on emotional regulation strategies like those mentioned above.