Do your emotions control you? How to handle your feelings.

Our emotions can get the best of us, unless we learn how to regulate them, including reduce vulnerability, understand the reaction, and self-regulate.

Have you ever been surprised by an emotional reaction you didn’t expect? Did it interfere with what you wanted to accomplish? Don’t let your emotions control you. You cannot stop them, but you can choose from several strategies to reduce their impact, once you understand what’s happening.

This post addresses everyday emotional situations but is not intended to help with severe or crisis conditions and is not a substitute
for medical or psychological treatment. Please, if you have an immediate or serious psychological condition, seek help from a trained professional.

Do your emotions control you?

One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels. ― Gustave Flaubert

Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.— Charles R. Swindoll

You cannot master your feelings, but you can learn to regulate them.

A graphic showing the four states of mind: fear, emotional, rational, and wise.

You can think of all the activity going on in your brain as being in one of four cognitive states1:

  1. A State of Fear resulting in the 4F behaviors of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn reactions. True fear creates a non-thinking reaction that takes over our brain. The physiological reaction is elevated heart rate & blood pressure, adrenaline release, and rapid breathing. You may experience tunnel vision, temperature changes, and trembling. Your thinking will be disrupted.
  2. The Emotional State not quite as severe as fear, but still strongly felt. You may appear calm, not in a 4F behavior, but still be feeling intense emotions such as love, hate, revulsion, embarrassment, joy, futility, or negativity. The emotional state can be overtaken by the raw fear state. A run-away emotional state takes over the rational state.
  3. The Rational State is achieved when thought and thinking are involved without much emotional disquiet.
  4. The State of Being Wise is achieved when we’re able to think rationally, informed, but not taken over by, our emotions and fears. Mindfulness, that ability to observe the many simultaneous thoughts and feelings, provides the skill to observe, and let’s our higher brain determine the best response.

The state of being wise is the desired state as it allows us to feel strongly while not sacrificing our rationality.

As with any advice, your situation is unique and you must experiment and adapt the methods here to meet your needs.

Timeline of Emotional Regulation

Your emotional response goes through multiple stages. Whether your emotions run-away with you or you have a wise-mind response, depends on your preparation. As much as possible, you will want to prepare for the response ahead of the situation, as strong emotions are more likely to spiral out of control the later you intervene.

  1. Well-before an emotional situation do all the following
    1. Build Your Emotional Resiliency.
    2. Practice Physical and Mental Recovery Skills.
    3. Strengthen your mindfulness and cognitive distancing.
    4. Reduce the frequency or avoid specific emotional situations altogether.
    5. Identify your most common and difficult situations you cannot avoid, and for each one, develop and practice wise responses.
  2. Situation Begins: an emotional situation begins, triggered by a real, remembered or imagined situation. Your body may begin to respond without your awareness.
    1. Mindfulness enhances awareness earlier and helps reduce the physical response.
    2. Reduction of vulnerabilities and/or a positively charged emotional state will slow or avoid the reaction.
  3. Attention: your attention is focused towards the situation. Your emotions may get out of hand faster than you can respond with your wise mind.
    1. You can retool existing emotional reactions to respond more productively through practice, including more quickly getting your attention.
    2. Physical recovery techniques will help you de-escalate from adrenaline or other physical responses.
  4. Appraisal: you evaluate and interpret the emotional situation.
    1. Pre-planning scenario allows you to classify your emotional situation.
    2. Once classified, a pre-planned solution is more quickly implemented.
  5. Response: you respond with either the emotional mind or the wise mind, depending on your preparation.
    1. The emotional mind does not regulate your response systems (mental, behavioral, physiological, emotional). Leave the situation and practice physical recovery.
    2. Mindfulness creates awareness and emotional distance as an observer rather than participant, allowing your wise mind to observe emotions and think rationally.

In the rest of the article we focus on each of the strategies in stage 1, above.

Build Your Emotional Resiliency.

I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself. ― Jane Austen

Vulnerabilities make you less emotionally resilient. Vulnerabilities and strategies for reducing them appear in the table below2:

Vulnerability Area

Reduction Strategy

Emotionally run-down Accumulate positive emotions. Have positive thoughts, affirmations, and experiences that help balance any harsh experiences. Avoid anger-causing situations and learn to recognize anger as an unproductive emotion.
Lacking confidence Build mastery. Engage in activities that help you feel competent and effective. This combats helplessness and hopelessness and cultivates self-efficacy.
Fatigued Physical well being. Keep your body and mind healthy, through regular doctor’s visits, diet, and exercise.
Low immunity and vulnerable to diseases. Make regular visits to the appropriate health care professionals, get all immunizations, and avoid getting run-down. Practice good physical and dental hygiene.
Anger or Stress Don’t go into a new situation with heightened emotions. Avoid or delay, if possible. Practice other interventions, including relaxation or meditation.
Loneliness Surround yourself with friends and be friendly and helpful to others as much as possible.
Tired or Fatigued Plan ahead to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Exercise regularly to have the emotional effects of physical activity.
Malnourished or hungry Eat healthily. Good nutrition helps physical and mental well-being and immunity.
Under the effects of drugs or alcohol Avoid mind-altering substances to be your best. If you can, avoid or delay potential emotionally-charged situations until you’re physically better. Seek help from a reputable organization or counselor.
General worry One cause of worry is what Psychologist Pete Walker (2013) calls “catastrophizing” or seeing the worst in every situation. Al Anon has an acronym for this: FEAR. False Evidence Appearing Real.

There are many causes of worry, and regardless, it may be helpful to meditate and brush your worries away as unproductive, delve into the worry to ask what positive steps you can take to resolve, and to think of multiple explanations before reacting. You can develop this as a mental habit associated with the wise mind.

 

Practice Physical and Mental Recovery Skills.

When angry count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred. — Thomas Jefferson

Once in the grip of run-away emotions, you need to break free. The following strategies can help:

  1. Physically remove yourself from a situation; use the “taking a bio-break” (going to the bathroom) as the excuse.
  2. Take ten deep, slow breaths.
  3. Practice relaxing with a trigger image; use the trigger image to relax during a situation.
  4. Disarm a situation using humor. Focus on the absurdity of the situation or simply find your “funny place.”

Strengthen your mindfulness

Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality. – Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Mindfulness is the increased awareness of self in the moment-to-moment, without judgment. Mindfulness is achieved through meditation practice. Such practice also sharpens the ability to lightly brush thoughts out of mind by noting a feeling but not reacting to it.

The following benefits are reported in the research on mindfulness.3

  • Reduced rumination (worry)
  • Decreased negative emotions
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved working memory
  • Enhanced focus
  • Lower emotional reactivity
  • More cognitive flexibility
  • Able to self-observe
  • Higher relationship satisfaction

I personally started mindfulness for dealing with back pain, and also gained may of the benefits above. Langer (2014) is a good starter reference.

Reduce the frequency or avoid specific emotional situations altogether

Conflict often leads to run-away emotional situations. An abusive spouse or boss must be avoided. But avoiding all conflict or all situations does not lead to long-term growth.

As in the case of an abusive boss, a run-away emotional situation may cost you more than you gain, and should be avoided while you continue to strengthen your other skills. If you can’t avoid a situation, find ways to reduce the frequency.

Continue working on the situations that you can and keep strengthening your emotional abilities.

Develop a Response for your most Common, Difficult, and Unavoidable Situations

A structured approach helps you prioritize:

  1. Make a list of the situations where your emotions got the better of you. If you’re journaling, review the last few months
  2. For each situation rank the severity from 1-3, or green, yellow, red;
  3. For each of the three most severe situations, identify the trigger or context in which it occurs
  4. Use the techniques listed in this post to determine what you can do before, during, and after each situation; avoid the worst, if you must, but identify some situations where you will engage to test your techniques; be a “scientist” and discover what works for you
  5. Ask someone you trust both in terms of confidentiality and wisdom to assess your solutions
  6. Roleplay your solutions with your trusted person and explore different unfoldings until you’re comfortable.
  7. Assess each trial for strengths, opportunities, and insights.

Reappraise Common Situations Leading to Strong Emotional Reactions

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control. —  Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness

Five common emotional triggers in people are captured in the acronym SCARF (Social Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relationships, and Fairness). If you feel a threat to any one of these, you may find yourself dealing with an emotional reaction. You may also feel that another person intentionally threatened one of your SCARF elements, yet more likely is an instance of FEAR — False Evidence Appearing Real. Always be sure of your facts before acting on any of the following.

  1. Social Status. It’s natural to have a sense of place and belonging within a social group. Any threat to your status, such as embarrassment, public failures, or rivalry, may trigger a mild to strong emotional reaction. A strong belief in self, positive friendships, and a habit of serving others will help avoid threats to your status.
  2. Certainty. A decrease in certainty threatens many people. Develop your sense of control and ability to adapt to any situation. These activities will help create self-confidence which helps cope with uncertainty. Instead of worrying, you may also plan to take action based on any likely, possible outcomes..
  3. Autonomy. Any threat to our current level of autonomy may provoke a serious reaction. Find work that suits your need for autonomy. Many jobs have little or no autonomy built into them. Make as many choices for yourself, such as in goal management, and you’ll build your “autonomy” bank account. The more you plan ahead, the more autonomy you’ll have.
  4. Relationships. Making friends, being with loved ones, and being able to count on people is a survival skill. Strengthen relationships through communication and service. Taking care of others will help them want to take care of you and build a stronger relationship that is resilient in the face of  situations. Recognize jealousy or fears as False-Evidence-Appearing-Real.
  5. Fairness. Many social animals value fairness, and people are no exception. Take a longer view on fair. Look objectively, as many situations may seem unfair, but may be very different when all facts are known. Assert your voice if you have good reason to believe someone’s being unfair, but do it in a calm, rational manner.

Next Steps

  1. Assess and then act to reduce your vulnerabilities.
  2. Keep a log of any situation in which you feel sufficiently uncomfortable, what triggers it, and your desired strategy or response. You want enough detail to decide which strategy to try.
  3. Adapt a strategy from above, try it out, and record the result.
  4. Assess the result for what works and what needs to change.
  5. Keep trying until you are getting the results you need.
  6. Engage a friend or mentor to help you. If the situation is serious enough, engage a mental health professional.

If your emotions are serious enough distractions or barriers, treat the above as a plan within Goal Management.

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Footnotes

Information for this post came from the following:

  1. Strazar (2009) describes the three minds of emotional, rational, and wise. When raw takes over and causes mayhem, it seems like there’s no mind at all, but I count it as a fourth “mind”.
  2. The HALT list (hungry, angry, lonely, & tired) of Alcoholics Anonymous described in Willpower’s Not Enough (Washton 1990) sparked my interest in adressing vulnerabilities. I modified the PLEASE list of Dialectic-Behavioral-Therapy (Strazar 2009) for non-clinical use and combined it with HALT.
  3. Daphne M. Davis, & Jeffrey A. Hayes. (2012, August). What are the benefits of mindfulness? Monitor on Psychology, 43(7), 64.

Readings

These works are referenced in the footnotes, and also make good follow-up reading.

  • Emotional self-regulation. (2017, September 22). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Emotional_self-regulation&oldid=801944953
  • Langer, E. J. (2014). Mindfulness, 25th anniversary edition (25th Anniversary ed. edition). Boston, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books.
  • Strazar, E. (2009). DBT: Finding A Balance In Opposing Forces. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from https://www.elizabethstrazar.com/site/Suggested_Reading_&_Articles_files/DBT.pdf.
  • Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A GUIDE AND MAP FOR RECOVERING FROM CHILDHOOD TRAUMA (1st ed edition). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
  • Washton, A. M. (1990). Willpower’s Not Enough: Recovering from Addictions of Every Kind (Reprint edition). New York: William Morrow Paperbacks.

Credits

Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash.

 

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