“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.” ~ Oscar Wilde
I’ve been told that I have a fairly broad and deep emotional range. That can be a good thing because it means I feel things with sensitivity, complexity, and intensity. I notice nuances in myself and others. Feelings, occurrences, people—they matter to me. I even have emotions about my emotions. I know plenty of people who are similar in that way. Having a large emotional range is healthy, mostly—but it means we have more emotions to manage.
Emotions are a vital part of our everyday lives and crucial to our ability to adapt to the challenges of your daily life.
Emotions are the most present, pressing and sometimes painful force in our lives. We are driven day by day by our emotions.
Without a doubt, our emotions dictate our thoughts, intentions and actions with superior authority to our rational minds. But when we act on our emotions too quickly, or we act on the wrong kinds of emotions, we often make decisions that we later lament.
To understand the way that you can control your emotions, we first have to take a slight detour through what emotions are.
What are Emotions?
- “An emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.”
(Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2007)
Philosophers and psychologists have long debated the nature of emotions such as happiness. Are they states of supernatural souls, cognitive judgments about goal satisfaction, or perceptions of physiological changes? Advances in neuroscience suggest how brains generate emotions through a combination of cognitive appraisal and bodily perception.
To understanding exactly what emotions are, researchers have also tried to identify and classify the different types of emotions. In 1972, psychologist Paul Eckman suggested that there are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness. In 1999, he expanded this list to include a number of other basic emotions including embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction, and amusement.
Emotions, often called feelings, include experiences such as love, hate, anger, trust, joy, panic, fear, and grief. Emotions are related to, but different from, mood. Emotions are specific reactions to a particular event that are usually of fairly short duration. Mood is a more general feeling such as happiness, sadness, frustration, contentment, or anxiety that lasts for a longer time.
Although everyone experiences emotions, scientists do not all agree on what emotions are or how they should be measured or studied. Emotions are complex and have both physical and mental components. Generally, researchers agree that emotions have the following parts: subjective feelings, physiological (body) responses, and expressive behavior.
In order to better understand what emotions are, let’s focus on their three key elements.
The Subjective Experience
While experts believe that there are a number of basic universal emotions that are experienced by people all over the world regardless of background or culture, researchers also believe that experiencing emotion can be highly subjective.
While we might have broad labels for certain emotions such as ‘angry,’ ‘sad,’ or ‘happy,’ your own unique experience of these emotions is probably much more multi-dimensional. Consider anger. Is all anger the same?
The component of emotions that scientists call subjective feelings refers to the way each individual person experiences feelings and this component is the most difficult to describe or measure. Subjective feelings cannot be observed; instead, the person experiencing the emotion must describe it to others, and each person’s description and interpretation of a feeling may be slightly different.
Plus, we don’t always experience ‘pure’ forms of each emotion. Mixed emotions over different events or situations in our lives are common.
The Physiological Response
Physiological responses are the easiest part of emotion to measure because scientists have developed special tools to measure them. A pounding heart, sweating, blood rushing to the face, or the release of adrenaline in response to a situation that creates intense emotion can all be measured with scientific accuracy.
William James and others have argued that emotions are perceptions of changes in your body such as heart rate, breathing rate, perspiration, and hormone levels.
Understanding how the brain works shows that the amygdala, part of the limbic system, plays an important role in emotion and fear in particular. The amygdala itself is a tiny, almond-shaped structure that has been linked to motivational states such as hunger and thirst as well as memory and emotion. Researchers have used brain imaging to show that when people are shown threatening images, the amygdala becomes activated. Damage to the amygdala has also been shown to impair the fear response.
The Behavioral Response
The final component is perhaps one that you are most familiar with – the actual expression of emotion. We spend a significant amount of time interpreting the emotional expressions of the people around us. Our ability to accurately understand these expressions is tied to what psychologists call emotional intelligence and these expressions play a major part in our overall body language.
Researchers believe that many expressions are universal, such as a smile indicating happiness or pleasure or a frown indicating sadness or displeasure. Cultural rules also play an important role in how we express and interpret emotions. In Japan, for example, people tend to mask displays of fear or disgust when the authority figure is present.
How to Control Your Emotions
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years to help me manage my emotions rather than allowing them to lead the way.
The first step is awareness
If you are not aware of the times when you are overly emotional or overreacting, how can you try to manage it? It is impossible. Start to monitor your emotions and give names to them. Sometimes we find it difficult to identify what we are feeling. Giving it a name helps us gain clarity, which is essential in moving forward.
Don’t react right away
Reacting immediately to emotional triggers can be an immense mistake. It is guaranteed that you’ll say or do something you’ll later regret. Before refuting the trigger with your emotional argument, take a deep breath and stabilize the overwhelming impulse. Continue to breathe deeply for five minutes, feeling as your muscles untensed and your heart rate returns to normal. As you become calmer, affirm to yourself that this is only temporary.
Before reacting, take a moment to pause and consider what just happened instead of just instantly reacting to new information or a new situation. By taking a few seconds to pause and consider, you can calm yourself briefly and you will be likely to produce a better response.
Validate your emotions
When you find yourself riding the wave of emotion, it’s important not to dismiss those feelings. Emotions can be a lot like unruly children in need of attention. Once we validate them, we allow them to be seen and have a voice.
Feeling our emotions is an important part of life; it’s what we do with them that can create problems.
When we validate our emotions, we become more aware and accepting of them, and we begin to understand where they come from. It’s only in this place of awareness that we can see what power they may hold over us.
Discover the ‘why’ of your emotions – Be aware of your triggers
Once you have identified how you are feeling, you want to discover why you are feeling it. What is causing this feeling inside you?
Your mind will always look for an answer. Most of the time, simply the way you are thinking about the situation is causing you to feel the way you do. Another huge reason why we feel negative emotions is because our values are not present in that moment or being respected. Remember: discover the ‘why.’
If you know you struggle with specific emotions, such as anger, jealousy, or fear, try to become aware of the circumstances that trigger them.
Then ask yourself, “What is the solution?”
Once you have discovered why, what can you do to take back control? Sometimes you might need to change the way you are thinking about the situation. You see, your thoughts lead directly to your feelings, so if you are feeling bad, you most likely have a negative thought that is making you feel that way. If you start thinking of other possible ways of looking at the situation, you will begin to feel better immediately. What you focus on expands!
Sometimes by simply understanding why you feel a certain way at a certain time, your emotions will start to diminish because understanding always leads to calming.
Replace your thoughts
Negative emotions bind us to recur negative thoughts, creating cycles of downright negative patterns. Whenever you are confronted with an emotion which is making you feel or think something bad, force it out of your mind and replace it with a different thought. Imagine the ideal resolution to your problem playing out, think about someone who makes you happy or remember an event that makes you smile.
Write it down
One of the biggest tools in helping me deal with my emotions has been to write them down. I have been journaling daily for about three years now, always asking questions about my emotions and trying to dig beneath the surface-level thoughts.
If I feel at the mercy of my emotions, I’ll ask a simple question in my journal, such as, why do I feel so overwhelmed today? From there I can work back through the sequence of events and thoughts that have led me there.
I will then ask a positive action question to engage with another emotion, such as, what is one positive thing I can do for myself right now?
If you don’t have time to write, try to at least ask the questions.
Know that you can handle anything
It’s been said that if people made a circle, put their problems in the middle, and had to pick a problem to take back out, most people would pick their own problem to retrieve. Whatever challenges you are facing that may cause stress or negative emotions, you can handle them.
Take time away
When you’re strongly connecting with a negative reactive emotion, it’s important to take time away from the person or situation you are reacting to. Never act on strong emotion. Wait until you are feeling calm and have given yourself time to rationalize and think. Only then should you act.
Even if the emotion is a positive one, it can still lead you down a destructive path. How many times have you done something you later regret in the name of love?
Focus on what you can control
Once you have been presented with a stressful or emotional situation, try to identify what you can and can’t control. If something is done, you can’t change it. You can only determine what to do now.
You can control your response, and to a certain degree, you can likely control what happens next. By focusing on what you can control, you are empowering yourself. By dwelling on things you can’t control, you disempower yourself and make yourself more frustrated and more stressed. Also look Daily Acceptance Prayer and Accept yourself as you are.
Do something different
The important thing is just to do or think something different. Don’t be passively carried along by the current of the emotion. The quickest way to do this may be to simply imagine not feeling the way you are feeling. Here my 35 activities to live life happily.
Your emotions are essential. They connect you to other people and provide you with information about yourself. Emotional control has to do with regulation; it doesn’t mean avoidance or white knuckles or stoicism. It doesn’t mean squashing your feelings or needlessly expanding them. If you have control over your emotions, you’re not afraid to feel, and you understand that your feelings won’t last forever. Use your emotions as a path toward greater understanding and as a way to inform the decisions you make about how to behave in the world.