In the land of love and dreams we met, Where roses bloomed and sunsets set, Your eyes a sparkling shade of blue, I fell for you, what could I do? We danced in the moonlight, hand in hand, And gazed…
What is it? Why is it important? Is there an off switch?
You notice your heart racing and your palms tingling. Your thoughts are jumbled — you’re worrying about blushing or stammering in front of them, or just completely forgetting everything you want to say because you’re so nervous. You find yourself fantasizing about getting struck by lightning or something, just so you don’t have to give the talk. You say to yourself, “Oh my god, I’m so nervous. Get a grip!” You ask yourself, why do I get overwhelmed by intense emotion? Why do I get stuck trying to figure out if it’s okay to feel mad about something, or if it’s stupid to feel scared, or asking “Why can’t I just be happy?”
The way we are taught about emotions in Western culture — pretending that emotions like “fear” and “anger” are totally separate processes — doesn’t reflect what really happens in the body and brain. A deeper understanding of how emotions actually work can help you experience the full range of intense human emotion without adding an extra layer of fear, confusion, or judgement on top of your experience.
Every moment of the day, your brain is using memories of past experiences, organized into categories based on your culture and your language, to try to predict what will happen in the future and prepare your body to deal with it.
This mind-body preparation can create intense physical sensations — changes in heart rate and respiration, blood flow to different muscles, shifts in neurochemicals, sudden dips or spikes in digestive processes, enhancement or blunting of sound, vision, and even smell, and more.
Then, your brain attempts to give explanations or meanings to these sensations. The biggest way it does this is to select a label for the sensations, based on your past cultural-based learnings, and the current context, and call the whole experience an “emotion.”
“Emotion” as an all-powerful, controlling experience is actually a construction in the mind. The mental cycle described above happens all day, every day, whether we’re actively thinking about it or not. The trick is, there is not much physical difference between different emotions. Nothing separates “excitement” from “fear” except your interpretation — emotions are constructed in the mind based on language and culture. If we scanned your brain, “sadness” and “joy” would actually look quite similar.
Most importantly, emotions in the body are quick. Most physiological emotional processes peak at about thirty seconds from the trigger, and then recede. Seven minutes is just about the absolute maximum of how long an emotion lasts if you stop to observe it. What keeps emotions “stuck” are our own choices about how we deal with them. When we try to get away from emotions by ruminating, letting them drive our behavior, or pushing them away, it’s like hitting the “refresh” button, keeping the cycle going.
Rather than being on this hamster wheel, if you simply notice you’re having a physical reaction and watch as it unfolds without over-thinking or trying to stop it, then sensation will recede very quickly.
Unfortunately, the human mind isn’t really built to have good perspective on how transient and context-dependent emotions really are. Rather, we are “fused” with the emotion we are having — causing it to feel absolutely true, overwhelming, and sometimes dangerous. That makes sense when threats are about starving to death or being killed (like the threats our ancestors ran into historically). But in modern times where the threat is a work presentation, this fusion can be problematic.
By learning more about how emotions arise in the body and are interpreted by the brain based on the context of the situation, we can observe the emotional process in action. Being able to cultivate this perspective allows us to exert more agency over how we relate to our emotional experience, our emotions and even how long we can expect them to last.
As we work to build and train this muscle, we can start to find moments of emotional “effectiveness” in our day-to-day lives. We can make choices about how to frame things, how to use language, and what we tell ourselves. For example, for that big presentation, you notice that your heart is hammering in your chest. You can tell yourself “Oh my god I’m freaking out, I’m gonna panic onstage.” Buying into that thought, that fusion with the emotion “fear,” refreshes the freak out process. Your body prepares as if that thought were true, gets ready as if your fear really indicates danger — dumping more adrenaline into your system, pumping your heart faster, making your hands shake. Then you, in turn, notice you’re freaking out even more, and on and on it goes.
This is a common reaction. However, by training and building our emotional awareness muscles, we give ourselves the opportunity to make a different choice. We can tell ourselves “Cool, my body is just preparing me to activate. There’s nothing wrong with having a little extra oxygen in my blood. I’m excited to give this talk!”
Check out this TedTalk by Psychologist Kelly McGonigal for more information:
The next time you experience a strong emotion, try taking a deep breath and breaking it down into its components:
What sensations am I feeling in my body?
What thoughts are jumping into my mind?
What is this pushing me to do, or what is this physical response trying to prepare my body for?
And then, armed with that information, you might choose an emotion label for this brief experience.
Then SET A TIMER. Focus only on non-judgmentally observing the sensations, not trying to make them stop.
Be curious about how the sensations shift. Check your timer. You can see for yourself how long your emotions last if you aren’t refreshing them.
For guided practice, try Emotion Surfing below:
Remember, emotions are a natural part of life and living. The more familiar we can be with how they arise, ebb and flow, the better we will be able to experience them and practice emotional effectiveness.
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