Intense emotions can arise at the most inopportune times, with the capacity to overwhelm you when least expect it. Your mind shuts down and instantaneously you’re a deer in the headlights. Frozen and consumed by the emotion. Have you ever experienced the intensity of emotions such as anger, anxiety or fear? It seems there is little we can do to reason with the emotion as it floods the mind and body with its raging intensity.
Don’t despair. Emotions are a part of our human experience. The word emotion as author Daniel Siegel suggests, evokes motion that motivate us to act in response to the meaning we assign to whatever is happening to us at the time.
Our emotions can propel us to great heights or thrust us deep into despair. A useful strategy for managing emotions is to be mindful of them as they occur. For many people, they remain asleep when it comes to their emotions and the role they serve in their life.
We rarely take the time to examine our emotions. Without turning this into a war between the sexes, women prefer to talk about their emotions while men subscribe to the adage out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps men inadvertently choose sports as a way to release pent-up emotions without conscious motivation. Much like physical health, our mental and emotional wellbeing is equally important to maintain a healthy and vibrant life.
Daniel Goleman’s much acclaimed book, Emotional Intelligence gave rise to the term EQ (Emotional Intelligence). He states that your ability to manage your emotions is a strong precursor to long term wellbeing and success. Warren Buffett attributes ones EQ to the ability to manage their finances.
Numerous social and psychological studies have been conducted over the years in an attempt to measure children’s EQ. In a number of these studies, supervising psychologists followed up with the children years later throughout their teenage and adult lives. They noted those who displayed higher EQ as children were more likely to have a positive and optimistic outlook as adults.
The following points are strategies to help you master your emotions. Like most things, they require patience, persistence and focus. You needn’t slay your demons overnight, although becoming aware and awake to your emotional constitution is vital for your personal evolution.
- Name and Tame the emotion: Referring earlier to Daniel Siegel’s book Mindsight, he suggests that we name and tame the emotions we are experiencing rather than become overwhelmed by them. Siegel proposes that labelling your emotions without the prefix “I am” allows you to recognise the feeling you are experiencing without being consumed by it. Using “I feel” is a healthier way to allow the emotion to move through you. You might rephrase “I am angry” to “I feel angry” which lessens the intensity of the emotion. This method removes the burden to identify oneself as the purveyor of the emotion.
- Talk to your brain: When we’re flooded with emotions the amygdala goes “offline” in an attempt to discern the possibility of a real threat to you. This all happens in a millisecond as the HPA axis moves into a fight or flight response. This is why it is difficult to tame an emotion when you’re in the throes of it. The mind perceives the threat of danger by calling your attention to it. Talking to your brain creates a reference point for the mind, instead of habitually reacting to external conditions. You create a cushion or space around the emotion so there is time to respond rather than react.
- Move into your body: When you’re overcome with runaway emotions, you are blind to your actions, due to the emotional hijacking which occurs. The body is sent into a fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) as the brain communicates the impending threat to the nervous system. By moving into your body and focussing on your breath, you engage the parasympathetic nervous system, thus restoring calm and homeostasis to mind and body.
- Know your emotional constitution: Knowing your emotional constitution is fundamental for joyfully navigating your passage through life. What situations send you into unease? Are there particularly instances like relationships, career or financial triggers that cause discomfort? Knowing this in advance allows you to attend to the destructive emotions, without being overcome by them. There is no point resorting to anger and rage and feeling remorseful later. If it is your aim to master your emotions, being acquainted with your emotional constitution is vital.
- Practice mindfulness: A useful strategy for dealing with frustration is the practice of mindfulness. The exercise invites you to bring your frustrated thoughts to the forefront of your mind. Simply sit with the thought as though you were consoling a small child who has been hurt. There is no need to do anything other than offer your presence to the thought. Close your eyes and translate the thoughts into images if that helps you. View the thoughts as though you were rehearsing a mental imagery of a scene. Remember the Viewmaster toy you played with as a child? That little red box you looked into for hours with 3D images printed on a circular paper wheel. Give your imagined scene a similar life by noticing the colours, sounds and other appealing aspects.
- Exercise to release tension: It has been shown that toxic emotions have the potential to move through the body and wreak havoc in a short amount of time. Tara Brach in her book, True Refuge,cites the work of brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor who suggests that the average lifespan of an emotion to move through the nervous system is one and a half minutes. Knowing this releases the burden that we need to carry our emotional attachments longer than need be.
Exercise and movement are vital for dissolving toxic emotions and restoring balance to mind and body. In his book Spark, author Dr John J. Ratey suggests that exercise balances neurotransmitters – along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain. Exercise produces calming chemical changes and increases levels of serotonin, which calms us down and enhances our sense of safety.
Exercise also boots dopamine, which improves mood and feelings of wellness. Finally, exercise adjusts the chemistry of the entire brain to restore normal signalling. It frees up the prefrontal cortex so we can remember the good things and break out of the pessimistic patterns of depression.
It will look like this: How to Control Your Emotions