It’s no surprise that managing your emotions is an important part of happiness. Even though it’s not easy, the good news is that regulating emotions can be learned. The first step in regulating is becoming aware of what triggers your emotions and what emotions you are experiencing.
Knowing the Cause
Part of understanding what you are feeling is knowing the reason for the emotion. Let’s say you are feeling fear. If you believe the fear means something horrible is about to happen, you will build it up.
If you can identify what is about to happen that is scary, then you can take action, such as buying water and boarding up the windows for an anticipated hurricane.
If you realize the fear is because someone you love is going into surgery tomorrow, then you will know your fear is based on fact, and you know it is time-limited. The information as to what the fear is about helps you act on the emotion, not just sit with the fear and have the fear build on itself, and taking appropriate action seems to help regulate the emotion.
Let’s say you realize you’re afraid but haven’t thought about the reason. You go through what is happening in your life and realize that you haven’t heard whether your job application was accepted or not. This helps you put the emotion in perspective. You might smile and shake your head, realizing that while you want the job and need the job, you will apply for others if you don’t get that one.
Or perhaps it is more serious than that for you, but it’s not life threatening. Being aware of the reason for your emotion helps you regulate it.
Labeling the Emotion Accurately
In addition to understanding the cause, labeling the emotion accurately is a critical part of regulating your emotions. Excitement and happiness can be confused, as can excitement and anxiety. Some people have learned to label most any physical arousal with the same term, such as anger or anxiety. Sadness is often seen as depression.
When you don’t know what you are feeling, it is difficult to take any steps to regulate the emotion.
When the brain labels the emotion, just the act of naming it seems to activate the brain’s brake pedal (Lieberman 2007). The brake activates the brain’s executive center (prefrontal area) which tells the amgdala to calm down. The amygdala is that survival-focused part of the brain that acts without much thought. It’s that part of the brain that engages the fight/flight system and ratchets down rational thought.
Developing a Pause
There’s a famous quotation by Victor Frankl that you’ve probably read elsewhere. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
Thinking before you act is another way of saying it. That may seem impossible when you’ve had years of the amygdala being in control and acting as if what people think and say are attacks when they aren’t. “I just didn’t think,” is a statement I often hear. Neurologically that may be true, because their amygdala is taking over.
There is a way of developing that pause, creating the pause and refining it. You do it through mindfulness. The more hours of meditation people have, the less active their amygdalas are. That means you are calmer and can think more clearly.
Practicing Mindfulness the Easy Way and The Easier Way
Chade-Meng Tan offers two ways to practice mindfulness. The Easy Way is to bring gentle and consistent attention to your breath for two minutes. Become aware that you are breathing then pay attention to the process of breathing. When your attention wanders away, gently bring it back.
The Easier Way is to sit without an agenda for two minutes. You aren’t doing, you are just being. Wait, is that really easier? Well, you can switch back and forth if you want.
Start with two minutes a day. Two minutes to practice mindfulness which can change your brain. You can do two minutes. That’s a good start.
Brefczynski-Lewis, et.al. “Neural Correlates of Attentional Expertise in Long-Term Meditation Practitioners,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencs of the Unite States of America, 104, 27(2007): 11483-11488.
Lieberman, M, et. al. “Putting Feelings into Words: Affect Labeling disrupts Amygdala Activity in Response to Affective Stimuli,” Psychological Science, 18, 5 (2007): 421-428.
Tan, Chade-Meng. Search Inside Yourself. New York: HarperOne, 2012.
Note to Readers: Healing Hearts of Families is a Houston conference for those with borderline personality disorder and their families and friends. Please join us on November 10 for informative presentations by experts in the field.
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From Psych Central's World of Psychology:
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Last reviewed: 19 Aug 2012