Making emotions work for you
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Can you keep your emotions in check long enough to take me on? (Captain Marvel)
It’s a very common cinematic plotline, especially when it comes to superheroes – the protagonist is told that their emotions are what causes destruction eg:
- Elsa from Frozen
- Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers
- Dark Phoenix/Jean Grey
…and the resolution of the power that emotions, once we embrace, accept and manage them has been presented to varying degrees of success:
- Elsa learned that the passion which imbues both fear and joy can turn on a shard of ice
- Carol Danvers become one of the most powerful Avengers in the Marvel Universe
- Dark Phoenix decided that it meant self-sacrifice and martyrdom
…as I said, varying degrees of success.
A brief outline of emotional growth
The first “brain” is still considered to be emotional – or at least instinctive – for many the so-called “reptilian brain” dominated by the brain stem and cerebellum (the areas formed first within the foetus’ brain) drives behaviours related to survival and self-preservation. While this largely refers to heart rate, breathing, and temperature, it also drives our instinctive sexual needs as well as responds to pain and pleasure – and as it learns it automatically seems to drive us to avoid the former and embrace the latter.
In a previous article I discussed the sexual drives (as unrelated to a cognitive understanding of love or intimacy) by explaining the research of Dr Fisher who identified 3 components to attraction:
- Sex Drive (libido/lust) associated primarily with our hormones which motivates us to seek a sexual union
- The Attraction System – which is associated with high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and low serotonin (very similar to the “adrenaline rush” we may experience on a “thrill ride” or if the body is stressed!) In some cases we may even be able to smell a suitable mating partner…or at least their smell can heighten our feelings towards them
- The Attachment system – associated with oxytocin and vasopressin which helps form bonds between caregiver and offspring in turn supporting their survival.
While the development of the cognitive aspects of our brain and the reasoning of the “executive functions” within the pre-frontal cortex, we then place meaning and interpretation onto these “feelings”, but in essence the three systems can work independently – eg. you can want to have sex with someone you don’t find remotely attractive; or you may love deeply someone that you do not feel lust for…although in this case, you may be satisfying that drive elsewhere.
“Emotions make you weak” (Dark Phoenix)
Historically, while kindness, for example – an emotion, nay virtue, once described as “caritas” by Seneca, is easy to do, highly pleasurable to both giver and recipient and can be bestowed on a great many people, why do we not see it as often as pain or resentment?
Why are video games, for example, as a friend once asked me – always about decimating others, rather than “paying it forward” or helping? This emotion which underpins connection, which Seneca also described as the “…fulfilment of humanity” in a competitive, capitalist world turned into “pitie” (after Rousseau) it later weakened to a form of yielding and submission, and even a “display” or form of dissembling to win favour. Even Richard Dawkins left us questioning – if survival of the species is the key, is there really such a thing as a true altruism, a wholly “unselfish kind act”!?
Emotions can be messages, but first we must accept them and then understand them
“Just calm down” – nothing teaches a young child “it’s not ok to have emotions” as seemingly innocuous phrases such as this. While it’s more of mouthful to say “I know you’re really excited, and so am I, but right now we need to either shout elsewhere/find a different way to express ourselves because Daddy is trying to study…” at least the latter acknowledges that emotions are natural and don’t need to be supressed. And this example is illustrative of well-meaning parents, not those whose own needs come so far before the needs of others that those around them learn to walk on egg-shells, fearing to do anything that might “make mummy angry”…and that’s not even accounting for the inconsistency of the behaviours that too often manipulate or at least inadvertently control the responses of others.
Often, when we haven’t learned to even engage with our emotions, let alone accept them, we fear doing so because we don’t necessarily have the coping mechanisms should the feelings be allowed to come to the fore…and then we get the movie trope of “Ha! See, look how much damage your uncontrolled emotions cause.” ; or the rather unkind image of the “emotional wreck” – unable to help anyone, least of all themselves.
I prefer to see emotions as an indicator light – whatever we are feeling, they are sending us a message. If it’s not about survival (ie from our reptilian brain), then the next to develop in that area is the limbic system (working memory and emotion), then the neo-cortex of which the pre-frontal cortex is part. We feel before our brain (the executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex) makes sense of it…and sometimes to avoid misunderstanding and misinterpretation driven by habit or past experience, we may need to pre-empt judgment from the cognitive mind by taking a moment to ask “…no, what am I REALLY feeling.”
The more emotions we can define, the more effective our subsequent actions
After we learn to accept that all emotions can be helpful, the more clearly we can understand them, the more effective we are in what we do about them…this is where tools such as the “emotion wheel” or the “emotional ‘periodic’ table” can help. These offer a wide range of emotions which can be expressed, and, especially with the emotional wheel it can be very helpful to find the emotion you believe you are experiencing, then look side to side to see if it’s actually one of those instead, AND then look outwards to see if there is a more nuanced description of your feelings?
If you know you are working with a feeling of powerlessness rather than fear, then your subsequent actions can be more specific in alleviating it.
The more we can harness our emotions, the more effective we are in general
Despite having a high level of academic intelligence and/or technical skill, Dr Damasio at the University of Iowa) found that patients who sustained damage to their prefrontal-amygdala showed no deterioration in IQ nor cognitive prowess, but their decision-making was flawed…which in turn resulted in terrible professional and personal choices. His conclusion was that because the damage restricted access to their emotional learning, the potential outcomes of decisions had lost meaning…why care if you just don’t feel it!?
Intelligence alone is not enough for a healthy life.
Further to which research into the effect of dementia has shown that while cognitive memories can become displaced or inaccessible, emotional memories remain strong, and can be reinforced…a lovely day spent with someone with dementia can reinforce their sense of you as a safe person, even if they’ve forgotten the event on their return to the car.
Emotions are here to stay.
Emotional intelligence: the value of emotions
Salovey & Meyer outlined 5 key components to “Emotional Intelligence”:
- Knowing one’s emotions/Self awareness in situ
- Managing one’s emotions appropriately
- Motivating oneself
- Recognising emotions in others – Empathy
- Handling relationships
…and Aristotle in Nichomachean Ethics said “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way – that is not easy.”
While we benefit by having emotions – the bonus comes by utilising them well.
“I’ve been fighting with one arm behind my back. What happens when I’m finally set free?” (Captain Marvel) Channelling our emotions.
When Carol Danvers learns to channel her emotions she becomes unbeatable…something that is never quite afforded to Jean Grey…but maybe that’s just how “life is”?
Emotions can become overwhelming, they can cause huge amounts of destruction – for may an “emotional affair” causes more devastation than a physical one. And certainly the power of emotions is such that social pain such as unfairness lights up the same neural pathways as physical pain (Lieberman).
But on a similar note, these neural “co-incidences” also mean that the same physical response eg. heart pounding can be interpreted as anticipatory joy or fear…depending on how you work the cognitive interpretation. It is knowing this ability to “fool” the interpreter, that a panic attack can sometimes be prevented if the person (assuming this is appropriate) runs really fast on the spot for example so their panic “turns” to physical exertion. Or if someone is feeling down, and they “force” a smile, this can even change their understanding of their mood.
Unfortunately because our brains are ultimately designed to survive, what does tend to happen when it comes to setting down memories is that negative ones last longer than positive ones…this makes sense because if survival is the game, then we need to be alert to and remember the threats in our environment. As such this can mean that we experience more negativity than positivity, we seek it out more, and all in all, this can lead to a general sense of malaise. This doesn’t need to remain the case if we practice priming our mind to the positive. When we think about “brain training” what often is discussed is doing things like puzzles to keep the cognitive aspects active.
Our emotional pathways can benefit just as much from practices...so try this:
- Playing – simply for the sake of having fun (I put googly eyes on my bins, and this makes me giggle like a child every time I look at them)
- Spending time with those who make you feel loved. We may ask the question – do we smile because others make us happy, or is it because we don’t want them to be sad…but either way, at least we are smiling…longitudinal studies on happiness and work in the field of Positive Psychology cite healthy relationships as a key determinant of life satisfaction and longer life.
- Resting or re-energising – doing what makes you feel good, whether it’s something that slows you down or speeds you up…engage in what you love
- Adventure and curiosity – part of being alert for threat is alertness to difference, and so going a different route home, or looking at something from a different angle…simply looking up when you’re out for a walk can also give our emotional brain a boost.
Create a safe space to release emotions initially
For many we learn not to show emotion because of the desire to "stay strong". This may relate to our cultural upbringing, our own personal preference, and our sense of responsibility. However, burying negative emotions can lead to a number of mental health issues – if you never resolve the issue, it can result in ineffective behaviour strategies to cope eg. Avoidance of the person, people, or place which causes the discomfort – which in turn can lead to isolation, and that can lead to social anxiety, anxiety and depression. Alternatively, you may engage in “self-medication” to help supress them eg. Drugs/alcohol/over-eating – and this will have huge physical consequences including detrimental effects (sometimes irreversible) on the brain and body.
You are also unable to teach your own children – or perhaps model healthy expression of emotion to your own teams in the workplace. This can affect your success as a parent, and as a professional.
Ways we can teach ourselves to manage emotions may include:
Gentle release of emotions: Simply laughing, crying, words of affirmations, gifts, spending time with loved ones are positive ways to show love – although do not put yourself into debt with any material element.
Being able to discuss a situation which is bothering you - rationally can be a healthy way to express negative emotions but there are some simple tips which can make this more successful:
1. Have the discussion when you are NOT hugely emotional (otherwise it is likely to turn into an argument where “winning” becomes the goal, not solving the problem) – sometimes you need to walk away, then return to the discussion…but if you are going to walk away – tell the other person/people you need a moment and you will be back. (Then come back!)
2. Have your agenda written out if you can – it is easy to be pulled off track and again it is important to keep focus on resolution.
3. Hold the discussion somewhere neutral if you can.
4. Have an idea of what you want as a solution but be flexible – and then listen.
5. If you can, try to avoid “blame” language eg. “You were mean…” it is healthier to focus on what is under your control eg. “When you said X, I felt…” – it may even be that the issue lies in communication rather than in the actual event that occurred.
Sometimes it can be helpful to go for a run – to exhaust your body (ie channelling the stress response into physical exercise), or to change the temperature immediately, ie. If you are hot, then splash cold water on your face – these are just quick ways of changing the physical before attending to the mental and emotional.
And if you need a space to release...create a safe one
When friends and family offer to help, ask them for respite time which enables you to fully release whatever front you have been showing, and this may allow you to really let things go, which means you have less worry about showing emotion on a more consistent basis afterwards. Give yourself permission to feel sad, angry, a space to shout and scream if you need to.
The power of emotions
I personally like to see emotions as a source of power rather than powerful in and of themselves, because to make the most of them I do believe we need to channel them. And, as much as we can complain about uncertainty, unpredictability, and sometimes even the chaos that emotions can create, our lives are all the richer for them, and all the more incredible if we learn to harness their energy.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt