Our emotions have a deep impact on who we are and what we experience in our lives. We all experience a range of emotions in varying degrees. In some cultures, it is common to suppress the emotions, where in others we are taught to vent them. Some people are taken over by the power of their emotions, and others are emotionally flat or stifled.
While we all experience emotions to different intensities, these emotions that we experience are universal; all people of every culture and upbringing experience the same emotions. There are six primary emotions: happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, disgust, and fear. All the other emotions are just a mixture of these six primary emotions.
Emotions are incredibly powerful influences in our lives. They can be a driving force for inspiration, but they can also have a destructive effect on our lives. We often feel like emotions control our choices. They can affect our social lives, resulting in self-alienation or causing unnecessary drama in our relationships. Emotions can also trigger problems with our mental health and even our physical health.
Through conscious effort, we can obtain control of our emotional life. We can find a balance in emotional expression; not dulling ourselves, but also not allowing ourselves to be swept away in an emotional storm.
Why Do Emotions Arise?
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary defines an emotion as an intense mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes.
Emotions get triggered by an internal or external stimulus. An example of this is when we hear a strange or sudden sound, and we become frightened. Emotions arise spontaneously to help us react and protect ourselves. They trigger the fight or flight response in our nervous system causing physiological changes such as muscular contractions and the release of stress hormones in the blood. We need emotions; they are instinctual and essential for survival. Emotions ensure we can make quick decisions in times of danger.
Why Do Emotions Linger?
Emotions arise in the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is the middle part of the brain which links the primitive reptilian brain with our neocortex, the outer layer of the brain where most of our thoughts occur.
The initial emotional reaction lasts approximately 90 seconds. After this period, the emotion naturally becomes exhausted unless we choose to stay with it by thinking about what happened or why it happened. Whenever we start to think about an emotion, it will develop it into a feeling. Let’s say, for example, upon first hearing an insult from another you feel the reaction of anger. This anger would naturally subside in approximately 90 seconds. If you stay with the anger and start processing the experience by asking questions or analyzing the situation, it now becomes a feeling. A feeling occurs in the cortex or gray matter of the brain, that outer layer which surrounds the limbic system. A feeling is the thinking about what happened when you stay with the original reaction and build it up into a story.
The Difference Between Emotions and Feelings
Emotions are a spontaneous reaction; we can choose to remain with an emotion or detach from it. This ability to choose is a matter of awareness. Unfortunately, we usually decide to build up the initial reaction and amplify the emotion. A feeling is what stays with us after the initial emotional reaction has occurred. When we go into a feeling we maintain the charge of the emotion but it also becomes more complex; we bring in our beliefs, values, morals, ethics, past memories, cultural conditioning, and anticipation of the future. A feeling, as psychology describes, is a “conscious subjective experience of emotion.”
“Feelings are a conscious experience while emotions originate from deep within the brain at an unconscious level.” Dr. Joseph LeDoux
While an emotion can last for only 90 seconds, a feeling lasts longer and may even be maintained for weeks. Eventually, the feeling may become a mood. The longer an emotion stays with us, the more it will blur our consciousness.
How Feelings Become Moods and Personality Traits
When an emotional state is maintained for a relatively long time, it becomes a mood. A mood is less distinct than an emotion, and its quality is less intense. A mood is more of a general tone; it is not as likely to be triggered by a particular stimulus or incident.
When we stay with a mood for a very long time, it builds up to become a personality. Some examples are the depressed individual, the melancholic, or the angry person. When a mood infiltrates our personalities, we no longer think about our choices, we immediately default to our dominant “moodset” because we have become identified with it.
Emotion > Feeling > Mood > Personality Trait
The further down the emotional scale we get, the more willpower it takes to resolve the particular emotional state.
How to Take Control of Emotions
1. Acknowledge that you can change your emotional reaction. You are in charge; you do not have to give into the depression, the anger, or the fear. Not getting caught up in emotion is your responsibility. If you give that responsibility to someone else, then you cannot change anything. Often we blame others for how we feel, but this is putting another in control. The only thing you can change is your reaction to what comes from outside. If you blame your emotions because of what is happening outside of you, you refuse to have the power to change yourself.
2. Label the emotion. When an emotion arises stop for a second and identify what you are feeling (anger, fear, jealousy). By labeling it, you diminish the reactivity in the brain which allows you to take a step out of that emotion. Put any particular reason for that emotion out of your mind; this prevents building the emotion into a feeling. When you label the emotion, you create a separation between you and the particular emotion you are feeling.
Most of the time we do not have the lucidity to stop and realize what is arising. To help this process, slow your breathing. Make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. This is a very calming way to breathe; it may just create that space you need to step out of your emotion.
3. Focus on the opposite emotion. If you feel fear then cultivate courage, if anger arises try to go to a place of love, if it is sadness then focus on joy. This can be difficult if we remain focused on what triggered the particular emotion. To make it easier to switch to a more positive emotion, don’t focus on feeling love for the person or situation that triggered your anger, rather, focus your energy to feel love for something else. You can think of a beloved pet, a beautiful piece of art, or how you enjoy time in nature, whatever cultivates the feeling of love for you.
This is one of the more challenging steps in taking control of your emotions, but it is worth it to stick with the practice of transforming spontaneous negative emotions to more positive ones. Over time new connections in the neural pathways of the brain will form and feeling more positive emotions will become easier and arise more naturally.
4. Deal with the causes of the emotion. Analyze the problem and exercise control. Come back to the emotion or the problem from a different perspective. If you start solving the problem from an attitude of anger or fear you cut off all your chances to find a good solution. If you don’t do other steps before this one, you will find yourself roaming in an emotional labyrinth.
You can always get assistance from outside. It takes years to control the emotions, but this is a good beginning. Changing emotions takes time. Have patience; emotional patterns will not change overnight.
What About Using a Substance to Change Moods?
While there are drugs, herbs, and other substances which can significantly improve one’s emotional state, these are not recommended. The receptors in the brain become used to a particular substance and will eventually need more of that substance to produce the desired effect. The receptors become more and more dependent on the substance as tolerance builds over time. If you are using a substance to control your mood, you will eventually forget how to change your emotions without it. The longer you stay on a substance, the more difficult it will be to adjust, should you choose to stop taking it at some point. There is no quick fix for changing long-term patterns. Stick with the suggestions above or seek other techniques such as the ones outlined in “Dealing With Emotions Through Yoga”.