The ability to manage our emotions is a skill that supports us is in knowing who we are and what we want. It allows us to impart emotional well-being to our children, have better relationships, better manage stress, mental health conditions such as depression, eating disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.…, substance abuse disorders as well as preventing these conditions from occurring in most people without a genetic predisposition. Additionally, emotional regulation skills can help one to be physically healthier and with making desired lifestyle changes such as losing weight and quitting smoking.
What does manage your emotions mean? It means allowing yourself to feel your feelings. We are meant to be feeling filters -allowing feelings to pass through us. And that’s exactly what will happen when we allow ourselves to acknowledge the emotion arising within us. According to neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD. it takes only 90 seconds for a wave of emotion to pass through us, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative.
If this sounds like a foreign concept. You may have never learned about emotions. We learn how emotions work, are taught how to listen to our feelings, use them, and manage them in our families of origin. If this knowledge wasn't passed onto you, it's not rocket science and it’s never too late to learn.
Even though there are so many ways to distract from our feelings. Those feelings aren’t going anywhere until they are acknowledged. We may feel like we dodged a bullet by taking a puff, a sip, a snack or a peak however, once the effects of the distraction have subsided, we are now left with emotions that have grown in magnitude.
You may be wondering why? It’s because the feelings haven’t been processed. Unprocessed feelings exist just outside of our awareness ready to be triggered. Then they come out more powerfully than before. So, the longer and more successfully you avoid your feelings, the more powerful, painful and potentially harmful they can become.
By suppressing your feelings, you sabotage yourself in three important ways. First, it takes more energy to avoid your feelings than it does to process them. Think about the energy expended in trying to hold a beach ball under the water. Secondly, you increase the power of what you’re trying to avoid and finally you miss out on all the essential direction, connection, motivation, energy and stimulation that your feelings would be providing for your life.
In order to feel our feelings, we must be ready to feel the negative emotions as well as happy ones. No one is perpetually happy. In fact, psychology author Loretta Breuing, PhD. says: “the brain releases happy chemicals only in limited bursts, for specific aims”. “If you expect all the happy chemicals all the time, you’re going to be disappointed.” So, none of us can just stay happy by insisting on it.
However, we can choose to have a more peaceful mind by committing to two simple actions that create those states. Allow your negative emotion to exist and dissolve it. In order to allow your negative emotion to exist this requires an awareness of the feeling- being mindful of the present moment, observing one’s emotions without negative self-talk or reacting to them in any way.
We dissolve our negative emotion in two steps. First by practicing behaviors that allow the emotion to pass through us. And secondly, we problem solve ways to prevent the negative emotional trigger in the future or learn to adapt to the new reality.
The first step is to bring down the intensity of the emotion. Intensity of emotion can be measured on a scale of 1 – 10 (with 10 being the highest). If the emotion you are feeling is a 6 or higher it’s imperative that you shift your focus away from the thoughts/images/sensations/memories/story associated with the negative emotion to deep, belly breathing, noticing what’s going on around you and what’s happening inside you without judgement. Identify your self-talk about the situation and repeat encouraging, soothing statements to yourself. And if you can change your position in space change it and/or get out in nature. Studies have shown that being in nature calms the nervous system.
Once the intensity of emotion has subsided, we are ready to learn from the experience. Learning requires taking responsibility for our actions with compassion and curiosity, accepting that life is a trial and correction process. If the trigger for the negative emotion is within our control, we can plan to do things differently in the future. And if not -think Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference”.
Dissolving negative emotion is a scary and hard proposition in the beginning, but it will get easier with time and practice. As you continue to be with every feeling you fear while practicing your negative emotion coping skills and refraining from ruminating on the associated thoughts/images/sensations/memories/negative stories, you'll unclog your feelings filter and will find more peaceful moments.