Picture this: You’re in the middle of a deep conversation with your friend, family member or partner, and it feels completely normal. But something comes up— something that completely catches you off guard — and you begin to feel your pulse racing. You’re getting warm, fast. You’re becoming overwhelmed and your thoughts don’t seem logical anymore. You get up and pace, or maybe you just stay seated, but oops- “did I just say that?!”. Gosh, everything just happened so fast. And at this point, how you act is completely out of your control… or is it?
This article is about teaching your brain to process, rationalize, and react to situations in a healthier, more rational manner. But before learning about the power of unpacking emotions, it’s vital to understand what role emotions play in the first place.
Historically, we’ve always needed emotions to react to stimuli. Really, emotions keep us alive. Let’s say you’re walking through a forest, and you spot a dangerous animal. Fear — a primal emotion — is a vital response to this detection of danger. Fear triggers blood flow to your brain and lights up your nervous system. Fear is what tells you to walk the other way.
On top of being vital, emotions are also extremely complex. People are extremely complex, too. And when complex people experience complex emotions, things can get messy.
If I asked you what the most recognizable emotions are, you’d probably say one, two or all of the following: anger, sadness, happiness. But there are millions of other emotions. And by placing ourselves in one of these confined boxes (anger, sadness, happiness) right off the bat, we fail to recognize and overshadow other subtler and more intricate emotions, making it difficult to fully process reality. For example, if you experience something negative, you might instantly think: “Okay, I’m angry”. But if you thoroughly explored that emotion of so-called ‘anger’, you might discover that you’re not actually angry, but rather, anxious, worried, or maybe even sad. Sadness, for instance, is typically found under the emotional category of anger. And under sadness, there’s also loss, melancholy, despair, discouragement, and so much more. By not delving deeper into emotions and unravelling all their complexities, we ignore the potentially more convoluted root of the issue, and we deprive ourselves of the truth.
Emotions generally have three parts:
- A subjective component (how you experience the emotion)
- A physiological component (how your bodies react to the emotion)
- An expressive component (how you behave in response to the emotion)
In my opinion, number 2 is the trickiest one to detect and regulate. Lucky for you though, I’ve spent lots of time and effort finding ways to react as gently as possible. And I’m going to share some tips with you here.
Reaction vs. response
Understanding the difference between reaction and response is extremely important in regulation emotion. To put it simply, reactions are instant. They’re driven largely by pre-existing beliefs and biases and originate mostly from the unconscious mind.
Example: You’re getting ready to go out, and your friend tells you that they don’t like your shirt. Maybe your reaction (which is instant) would be to raise your voice and exclaim that you don’t care because their shirt is ugly anyway, so how would they know what style is?!
Reactions don’t consider potential long-term effects. By reacting so abrasively, you’ve just filled the room with tension. Your friend is upset with you now, they think that they look bad, and they don’t want to go out with you anymore. You regret (which often happens with reactions) saying these things to your friend. Plus, you actually do like their shirt.
A response, on the other hand, originates both from the conscious and unconscious mind. Responses take time, mental strength, and energy to form. Crafting a proper response means anticipating the short- and long-term effects of what you say and do, for yourself and for others.
A response to your friend telling you they don’t like your shirt might look like this: Maybe you take a minute to think about why they don’t like your shirt; there could be a stain on it or maybe it’s just not their style. If there’s something wrong with the shirt, it’s a good thing that they’re telling you about it now rather than having it pointed out by some cute guy at the bar, right? However, if nothing’s wrong with the shirt, and if you think you look great, maybe you say something along the lines of: “You know what, I think I look good and that’s all that matters!”. No one gets hurt, there are no regrets about what was said or done, and you and your friend are still going to have a great time out.
When possible, respond, don’t react.
Emotions vs. feelings
Another step is deciphering emotions from feelings.
Emotions happen first, and feelings come after as the chemicals begin to do their job (that’s right, chemicals aren’t just released in our brains; they act as a sort of feedback loop between our brains and bodies).
While emotions are associated with bodily reactions activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain, feelings are the conscious experiences of emotional reactions. Emotions last for an average of six seconds, and feelings last for longer than emotions.
Next time you notice your state of mind change as a result of a particular experience, try to separate emotion and feeling, which will help to expand your reflective awareness. Some questions that could help with this are: “What are my emotions?” And then, “Ok. Now, how do I feel about my emotions?”. Let’s say you’re experiencing grief, which is an emotion. The feeling associated with the emotion of grief could be shock, numbness, denial, or disbelief. The more you know about how you’re feeling, the easier it will be to control the spiral of thoughts in your mind.
The fear of the known
Why do so many of us find ease in feeling as little as possible? Do we avoid opening the flood gates of emotional awareness because we fear that the downpour will never stop? Or maybe we avoid experiencing emotions in their entirety because they may reveal something inside of us that we’d rather not know. This is a phenomenon I like to call: the fear of the known. It’s the fear of knowing what’s actually happening within ourselves because oblivion or denial is simpler.
Life is made up of various complexities; a major one being emotion. And if we don’t let ourselves experience all these complex emotions, then we’re not letting ourselves experience life. Gaining a better understanding of the intricacies of your emotions and feelings will help you recognize and regulate them.
What I’m saying here is… let it out. Cry. Scream. Talk to your friends. Keep quiet and reflect on your experience. Do whatever you have to do to let your walls down, just don’t live in a state of emotional oblivion or denial because trust me, the ease is only temporary.
Like I said, emotions are complex. And so are we. But if we really want to reap the full benefits of emotions and what they bring, we must be aware of them and accept them.
In case I haven’t made it clear enough, self-reflection will help you in more ways than one. And it will help others in your life, too. When we’re able to check-in with ourselves and unravel the jungle of thoughts that often overwhelms our mind, we’re opening ourselves up to a whole new world of interaction and meaning. We’re opening ourselves to life.