Managing Emotions: Making Choices to Cope

Emotions are a survival response and causes the human body to trigger the “fight or flight” response. This is a hardwired and fast reaction, in which the body gets literally ready to attack or to flee.

In this automatic, instinctual routine; hormones pump rapidly through the body, the pupils dilate, the heart rate quickens, breathing becomes rapid and shallow, digestion slows down, sweat gland activity is increased and blood and oxygen drain from the brain into the larger muscles preparing them for rapid movement.

Notice the last part of the previous sentence: “and blood and oxygen drain from the brain…” This part is very important for understanding “why I do it” (get angry and yell). Stress, anger, fear–all can overwhelm the brain depriving it of oxygen, which totally shuts down our ability to think. When this emotional flooding occurs, we literally cannot think straight.

Is there nothing we can do? Are emotions outside our control? In one sense yes. But in a more important sense, no! It is correct to say that emotions are an automatic, physiological response. In that sense, they are outside of our immediate control, like our eyes blinking. But we can become aware of our blinking and similarly we can become mindful of what triggers our emotional reactions. If we can take control over our automatic reactions like blinking, breathing and memory, it is also possible to take control of our emotional reactions.

There is a two-part process that produces feelings:
Arousal + Interpretation = Emotion

For example, if someone steps on our toe, we will feel pain but our heart will also start beating faster. This reaction is automatic and we have little control over our body’s initial physical response. However, the emotions we experience are not automatic and will be influenced by our interpretation of the event.

If we perceive that it was an accident and the person feels badly, we may feel compassion for the person, even though we are in physical pain. If we perceive that the individual stepped on our toe on purpose, we may feel angry and that it shouldn’t have happened. It is our interpretation of events that are the key to our experience of emotion, not the events themselves.

Whereas sad individuals tend to interpret events as caused by situational factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the traffic was bad), angry individuals tend to attribute the same events to human factors (e.g., I missed the flight because the cab driver was terrible). This is because anger is typically caused by the actions of people and sadness by factors that are circumstantial. As a result, people make different interpretations when angry than when sad.

We can all benefit from a skilled psychotherapist who can examine our interpretations and the emotional patterns that emerge to offer new tools to help us change. Working with a therapist to identify the subtle signals sent by our emotions via the body, is the first crucial step towards change.

A DIY approach to managing emotions is counter-productive and ineffective. It only prolongs the pain and magnifies its destructive consequences. We all need help from time to time and it’s a sign of strength and intelligence to know when to seek support. Someone who has skills and the right tools is an asset, not a liability.

If we have a leaky faucet and the only tool we have is a hammer, just banging on our pipes is only going to make the problem worse. The pipes burst, our basement floods and the foundation cracks. Or we could just call the plumber and he gives us a new tool called a wrench, so next time we have a leak we can fix it ourselves. If we have a bad tooth, we go to the dentist; if our car breaks down, we go to the mechanic. We get professional support for all kinds of problems and emotional management is no different.

Managing emotions involves making choices to reduce the frequency and intensity of our outburst, which diminishes their impact. There are four components to emotional management:
1) Self Expression:  Promote constructive communication
2) Take Responsibility: To take ownership over our choices
3) Acceptance: Increase frustration tolerance
4) Delay Gratification Manage impulse control

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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