Controlling emotional reactions

Emotions, particularly intense ones, present us with the challenge of how to express them in ways that are helpful. Without awareness of our feelings, we are more likely to express them in ways that are not helpful. We can manage our emotional reactions better by bringing our awareness to what we are feeling in our body, and labeling our experience.

managing emotional reactions

“There is one thing that, when cultivated and regularly practiced, leads to deep spiritual intention, to peace, to mindfulness and clear comprehension, to vision and knowledge, to a happy life here and now, and to the culmination of wisdom and awakening. And what is that one thing? It is mindfulness centred on the body.”
- The Buddha, Satipatthana Sutta


The originator of Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls, writes that “awareness per se – by and of itself – can be curative.” (1) When dealing with challenging emotions, increasing our awareness of them can ease the pain we feel when we get swept away by them. By cultivating awareness of our emotions, we can learn to become conscious participants in our emotional reactions, rather than unconscious victims.

Awareness of our emotions can provide powerful insight into the inner processes that drive many of our behaviours, because emotions often lead to actions. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, writes in The Emotional Brain that “…once emotions occur they become powerful motivators of future behaviors. They chart the course of moment-to-moment action as well as set the sails toward long-term achievements.” (2)

This is especially true when we are not aware of our emotions. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence writes that “emotions that simmer beneath the threshold of awareness can have a powerful impact on how we perceive and react, even though we have no idea they are at work.” (3) Without awareness of our emotions, they can exert a powerful yet hidden influence on us.

Reacting unconsciously

Emotions, particularly intense ones, present us with the challenge of how to express them. As Goleman writes, “the problem is not with emotionality, but with the appropriateness of emotion and its expression.” (4) How we express our emotions may be productive and helpful or unproductive and damaging – what the Indian philosopher Osho termed intelligent versus unintelligent reactions (5). For example, if we are walking in a dark alley at night by ourselves, and suddenly hear a menacing sound behind us, fleeing the alley is probably a very appropriate expression of our fear.

In situations that are anything but life-or-death, however, we need more calculated and nuanced responses to our emotions. If we’re on our morning commute and someone cuts us off, expressing our frustration by honking, swearing, and trying to squeeze back in front of the other car isn’t a useful response. It will make a stressful situation worse, and could incite a violent case of road-rage.

Children provide a rich source of emotional triggers for their parents, and the parents’ response is often counterproductive. My son is slow to get ready in the morning, and I remember badgering him to “get moving” so that we could leave for work on time. The thought of being late made me very anxious. My badgering, however, didn’t make him get ready any faster, and it caused a lot of stress. Eventually I changed my approach to dealing with the situation, and made him responsible for getting ready on time. I also worked to notice when I was feeling anxious. By noticing when I was becoming anxious and by modifying my response to the anxiety, the morning routine worked far better.

As anyone who has been in a romantic partnership knows, how we express emotions such as disappointment, sadness or anger to our partner can make-or-break our relationship. Harville Hendrix, in Getting the Love you Want, provides an example of how our emotional reactions can create distance and work against us:

“Imagine that you are happily eating breakfast, and your partner suddenly criticizes you for burning the waffles….Unless you interfere with your automatic old-brain response, you will immediately return your partner’s critical remark with a scathing rejoinder – “Well, I may have burned the waffles, but you spilled the syrup!” Or, on the other hand, you might attempt to flee the encounter altogether by leaving the room or burying your head in the newspaper. Depending on your approach, your partner will feel either attacked or abandoned and will most likely lash out again. A perpetual-emotion machine will be set in gear, and you will have defeated the desired outcome, which is to have a pleasant, intimate breakfast together.” (6)

Responding rather than reacting

As these examples demonstrate, without awareness of our emotions, the outcome of emotional situations may not be good. If “emotions are, in essence, impulses to act,” (7) then being aware of our emotions can help us see the origin of our actions, and learn to respond in a conscious, purposeful way, rather than react automatically.

Experiencing emotions is like going for a car ride with them. If we are triggered emotionally but unaware of what we are experiencing, our emotions take the driver’s seat. We end up sitting in the back seat, and our emotions take us where they will. With emotional awareness, however, we sit in the front seat alongside our emotions, and become the navigator. As Timothy B. Stokes, author of What Freud Didn’t Know, writes:

“the first step toward accomplishing psychological well-being is to learn to how to be more attuned to internal experiences…In particular, learning to notice feelings and the type of events that spark them marks the beginning of practices that can serve to put us more in the driver’s seat.” (8)

To be aware of our emotions we need to learn to tune into our body, where the sensations that make up our emotions manifest. By noticing and labeling the sensations that we experience, we can learn to notice when we are triggered, know that we are about to go for a ride, and be in a better position to drive our actions purposefully.

Sensations in our body

Our bodies provide a rich source of information about our emotional state. By tuning into our bodily sensations we can discover our emotions in a direct way.

The idea that there is a relationship between our emotions and bodily sensations may come as a surprise. After all, emotions seem to be in a different category of experience than other bodily sensations. A sore elbow is a very different experience than fear, for example. As well, emotions often seem to happen in our heads, perhaps because our minds tend to get really busy when we’re emotional. Nevertheless, there is a strong relationship between our emotions and what we feel in our body.

According to Stokes, emotions are activated by our brain’s limbic system, which injects hormones into our body. These hormones cause the physical sensations – tight chest, fluttering in our stomach, racing heart, etc. – that we feel when emotional. Our brain watches for these sensations, and when it discovers them, causes us to become aware of what emotion we are experiencing. (9)

Not all scientists agree with this “feedback” model of emotions, first proposed by the early American psychologist William James (10) in the late 1800s. The scientific community still has a lot to learn about how emotions actually work, and there is continued disagreement about the exact biological and/or psychological mechanism that causes emotions. In fact, LeDoux argues, there is probably not a single brain mechanism that causes all our emotions, but rather different mechanisms for different emotions. (11)

What is clear, however, is that body sensations are integral to emotional experiences, which our personal experience confirms. Who hasn’t had a fluttering chest when feeling nervous before a job interview? As LeDoux writes, “The body is crucial to an emotional experience, either because it provides sensations that make an emotion feel a certain way right now or because it once provided the sensations that created memories of what specific emotions felt like in the past.” (12)

Because of this close relationship between emotions and body sensations, tuning into our body sensations is a powerful way to gain access to our emotions. As Stokes writes, “having a greater attunement to our physical sensations promotes a greater attunement to what we have historically consider [sic] an arena of mind – our emotions.” (13)

Blown away by emotional whirlwinds

As demonstrated by the opening quote, over 2500 years ago the Buddha recognized the benefits of being aware of our bodily sensations. The practice of “mindfulness of body” (observing bodily sensations in a non-judgmental way) has long been a core part of Buddhist teachings. But recognition of the benefits of this skill is not limited to Buddhism.

Mainstream western psychology is increasingly confirming the benefits of being aware of bodily sensations. Stokes describes bodily awareness as being the critical first step toward managing our emotional reactivity. And Tara Branch, a psychologist and author of Radical Acceptance, writes that through awareness of our bodily sensations, “we free ourselves at the ground level from the reactivity that perpetuates our suffering.” (14)

I experienced the pain of being swept away by my emotions as well as the curative power of noticing my bodily sensations a few months ago. A project I was managing was going to be late, and I needed to fix the problem immediately. Over lunch the stress and uncertainty grew into raging anxiety. As my anxiety grew, logical thought was replaced with catastrophic expectations.

And then, in the midst of this whirlwind, I noticed that my chest felt really tight. Then, I began to notice other strong sensations. My stomach was rock hard and felt knotted. As I noticed what was happening in my body, I stepped out of my emotional whirlwind, and gained perspective. I realized that my doomsday scenarios were not reality. The reality was, very simply, that I was extremely anxious – and it was much easier to deal with feeling anxious than resolve the disasters my mind was creating.

Escaping the whirlwind

From this experience, I learned first hand how debilitating being caught up in an emotional whirlwind can be, but also that it’s possible to step out of it by anchoring my awareness on bodily sensations.

Our minds are usually busy with mental chatter. When we are triggered emotionally, our mind kicks into overdrive, spinning stories about what is happening. When struck by anxiety, for example, we might begin to imagine all the horrible things that are about to happen. Although we may have little information to confirm whether our thinking is true or not, these thoughts appear to be very truthful and real. We no longer distinguish between what our thoughts are telling us is happening and what we are actually experiencing. As John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert write in The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety:

“When you go beyond seeing words as words, you’re buying into the illusion your mind creates. The thoughts shifts from being thoughts to being something dangerously serious…. We call this a mind trap.” (15)

As I learned, gaining some distance from these mental stories is critical to getting out of emotional whirlwinds. Gaining separations untangles us from these stories, and we then experience our thoughts and emotions more from the perspective of an impartial observer. Stokes describes it this way: “It is as if you are on a platform, separate from the flow of thoughts and emotions that arise in your mind and, at least for a moment, you are in a psychological space from which you can observe rather than get caught up in your mind’s flow of mental activity.” (16)

We create and maintain this separation by anchoring our awareness on the raw sensations we feel in our body. Forsyth and Eifert teach that anchoring awareness is possible “by noticing your breathing, your beating heart, your posture, and your areas of tension or hardness. You observe any significant sensations in your body – areas that hurt or that feel hot or heavy or shaky.” (17) Paying attention to our bodily sensations prevents us from getting “hooked” by our emotions and lets us choose our response.

Tuning into our body

The ability to tune into our bodily sensations is a skill that most of us must cultivate. To develop this skill, it’s easier to start slow and practice this before we get into a highly emotional situation. To practice, we may start by recalling a past situation that was emotionally charged. Once emotions have been triggered, pause and direct your awareness to your body, in particular your chest and stomach. Try to notice the physical sensations there, and describe them to yourself if you can. Does your stomach feel knotted or churning? Chest tight and tingling? As you pay attention to these sensations, the goal is to simple notice exactly what is there, without avoidance or resistance and without trying to change them. If you find that you get caught up in thinking about the feelings or other thoughts, simply bring your awareness back to your body. (18)

You may have to work at noticing what you are feeling, and it may take some effort to develop this skill. Many of us have the habitual tendency to avoid emotions such as fear or sadness, because they are painful experiences we would rather avoid. Brene Brown, who spent years studying difficult emotions like shame, writes in The Gifts of Imperfection, “The most powerful emotions that we experience have very sharp points, like the tip of a thorn. When they prick us, they cause discomfort and even pain…. For many of us, our first response to vulnerability and pain of these sharp points is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through but rather to make it go away.” (19) We will probably have to work at developing our ability to notice what we are feeling in our body, as well as work through our resistance to experiencing our emotions.

Labeling emotions

Once we have become aware of our bodily sensations, the next step is to label them. Labeling our emotions reinforces the separation we’ve achieved by anchoring our awareness on sensations in our body. As Christopher K. Germer writes in The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, “[labeling] helps you see emotions as “just emotions” rather than getting caught up in them…the act of labeling helps us step back just enough to remain in relationship to the feeling without drowning in it.” (20).

The value of labeling our experiences as a way to manage our emotional reactivity has been recognized both by Buddhist teachings and western psychology. The Buddhist monk and scholar Bhikkhu Analayo, for example, writes in Satipaṭṭhāna, the Direct Path to Realization, that “labeling introduces a healthy degree of inner detachment, since the act of apostrophizing one’s moods and emotions diminishes one’s identification with them.” (21)

Studies by western psychologists and neuroscientists are also starting to provide evidence that labeling our emotions can help us to regulate them. Two separate studies (22, 23) in 2007, for example, suggest that labeling of emotions improves our ability to regulate our “emotional” brain (the amygdala and related brain areas).

Labeling our emotions may start simply by saying to ourselves, “this is an emotion” or “there’s an emotion.” We might also apply a descriptive label to our bodily sensations like, “tight,” “constricted,” “hot,” or maybe just “pain.” Finally, we might link the body sensations with an emotion by saying, “my stomach is knotted and I feel fear.”

For the good of the world

The problems we face in our world can be traced, in part, to the level of emotional development of our species. A peaceful world will be one in which we regulate and express our emotional impulses in mature, compassionate ways. Learning to express our emotions in non-reactive, conscious ways is therefore crucial to creating an equitable, humane world. As Harvard professor and development psychologist Robert Kegan is reputed to have said, “Successfully functioning in society with its diverse values, traditions and lifestyles, requires us to have a relationship with our reactions, rather than be captive of them.” Developing awareness of our emotions is very much inner work with important and positive implications for the outer world.

Freedom

“Wisdom knows what feelings are present without being lost in them.”
- Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart

When we can know what emotions we are experiencing, and consciously choose our response to those emotions, we are free.

As we have seen, intense emotions like to take us for a ride. This ride will lead us to some sort of action. Without awareness of our emotions, we may end up going somewhere we don’t want to go.

As ancient Buddhist practices and modern western psychology demonstrate, through awareness and labeling of our bodily sensations, we can gain emotional clarity and achieve freedom from our automatic reactions.

There is a traditional Buddhist story told about the night of the Buddha’s enlightenment, when he confronted and defeated the Indian god of delusion, Mara.

On that night, the Buddha-to-be sat beneath a bodhi tree, determined to stay in meditation until he had achieved enlightenment. As he sat there, Mara appeared, trying to seduce him by sending many appealing visions. The Buddha remained still, feeling the allure of the tempting visions, but “sat unmoving, neither grasping after nor pushing away the longing arising in his body and mind.” (24) Then Mara attempted to scare young Siddhartha by sending terrifying armies to attack him with spears. Again, he met his fear with awareness, and “the Buddha sat unmoved, saying simply, ‘I see you, Mara.’” (25) By doing so, he defeated Mara and became enlightened.

The Buddha’s accomplishment, the ability to be aware of and experience emotions, while staying free to chose a response to them, is available to all of us. Through awareness of our bodily sensations, we can achieve freedom from the emotional whirlwinds that try to carry us away.

Photos: egg, katerha; tornado, Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes; body, Julien Haler

References and further reading

(1) Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, Fritz Perls

(2) The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux

(3) Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman

(4) Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman

(5) Freedom, Osho

(6) Getting the love you want, Harville Hendrix

(7) Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman

(8) What Freud Didn’t Know, Timothy B. Stokes

(9) What Freud Didn’t Know, Timothy B. Stokes

(10) see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James for information about William James

(11) The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux

(12) The Emotional Brain, Joseph LeDoux

(13) What Freud Didn’t Know, Timothy B. Stokes

(14) Radical Acceptance, Tara Branch

(15) The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert

(16) What Freud Didn’t Know, Timothy B. Stokes

(17) The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert

(18) Tara Branch in Radical Acceptance offers a guided body scanning process. Also, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher K. Germer offers similar exercises.

(19) The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown

(20) The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher K. Germer

(21) Satipaṭṭhāna, the Direct Path to Realization, Bhikkhu Anālayo

(22) Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labeling, J. DAVID CRESWELL, PHD, BALDWIN M. WAY, PHD, NAOMI I. EISENBERGER, PHD, AND MATTHEW D. LIEBERMAN, PHD, 2007

(23) Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli, Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Molly J. Crockett, Sabrina M. Tom, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, and Baldwin M. Way, 2007

(24) Radical Acceptance, Tara Branch

(25) Radical Acceptance, Tara Branch

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3 comments to Controlling emotional reactions

  • Wow what a thorough and wonderful post. Again I came here looking for it yesterday (commenting here under a different persona as I’ve dropped one of my blogs). Although I am subscribed there is sometimes so long between your posts I think I might have missed something.

    This is exactly what I needed. It isn’t really anything I didn’t already know but a great reminder and a deepening of my existing understanding.

    You talk a lot about the mind creating stories around emotions, where would you say the ego fits into this? I have pretty good awareness of my emotions but I seem to have to battle my ego which can put up very compelling justifications for the stories in my head.

    Thanks

    Sage
    (Deb)

    • Matthew Larmour

      Sage I personally believe right now that our mental stories are the way our ego creates and reinforces our sense of identity. There is an interesting interview with Byron Katie here in which talks about this very idea. Without our story she says we would be dead – not physically dead, but our identity is dead.

      I hear you about your stories feeling very real. I think it is much harder for our minds to exist in a state of uncertainty than to grab onto some interpretation as reality. It’s an interesting exercise for me to attempt to poke holes in my stories. I ask myself questions like, how might this not be entirely true? On what evidence do I base this interpretation of reality on? I also try to test out my stories to see if they are true – if I am telling myself a story about how my boss is concerned about my work, I go and ask him. I have found the reality is often not at all like the stories I tell myself. It’s an uncomfortable feeling realizing our stories are not reality, because we start to see that we don’t really know what’s going on. We think we’re on a solid base where we have things figured out, but we don’t. One of my personal goals is to learn how to relax into this unknowing.

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