Managing Your Emotions Before Your Emotions Manage You
Published on 5th February, 2017 by Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil
The role of emotions
You log on to your computer to purchase tickets to a concert by your favourite band. You found out the tickets were sold out just minutes before.
You are in your manager’s office, discussing a project. When you thought that the meeting was over, you got up from the chair. Your manager stops you and informs you that you will be promoted at the end of the month.
You check your mobile phone. You received a message informing you that someone close to you has been admitted into the hospital.
The scenarios above are examples of situations which may evoke strong emotions. Though we may not encounter such powerful situations often, we experience multiple events on a daily basis which may evoke mild to extremely strong emotional responses. Some emotions may be fleeting, such as the temporary annoyance when someone bumps into you on the street, while others may drag on for a longer period, such as the sadness of breaking up from a serious relationship.
Emotions serve important purposes in our lives. Providing us with the motivation to act to an event is one of the most important role of emotions. According to Lazarus (1991), emotions are usually our best allies, providing us with the motivation to respond energetically and effectively to the opportunities and obstacles ahead of us. Consider the first scenario above. Compared to a person who is not so affected that he did not get the tickets, a strong sense of disappointment in another person would drive him to seek a solution to increase his chances of getting his hands on the concert tickets (A situation that some local readers can relate to in the past months).
Emotions also help us to maintain social bonds. In social interactions, emotional expressions provide us with important cues on how others are feeling. As discovered by Paul Ekman in the 1970s, humans possess the same basic emotions no matter the cultural background. These cues enable us to be aware of the needs of others, instead of merely thinking for our own good.
Emotions also play an adaptive role in ensuring our survival. For example, fear ensures that we are alert to the possible dangers that we may face, while love enables us to invest our time and effort to those that we care for.
How emotions can turn into your worst enemy
Despite the importance of emotions highlighted above, it also often underlies the development of a significant number of mental health issues, such as in depression, anxiety disorders and personality disorders. For example, everyone experiences some degree of anxiety as a normal part of their lives. Anxiety becomes a mental health issue when the feeling is constant, such as in Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), or is overwhelmingly triggered by events that do not normally induce feelings of anxiety, such as in Social Anxiety Disorder.
The adverse effects of emotions are not limited to individuals with mental health issues. While the brain has traditionally been regarded as an organ of thought, advances in brain science research has revealed that the brain is an emotional organ that thinks. When encountering an emotional event, the amygdala, a tiny almond shaped structure deep in the brain, is the first section of the brain to respond and sends signals to other parts of the brain involved in higher cognition, such as planning and decision-making. Thus, failure to manage emotions effectively may lead one to engage in behaviours that are ineffective or one which he may regret later. When this happens, the person is essentially being controlled by his emotions.
As a psychologist who works with many clients who are trying to overcome various adversities in their lives, being controlled by emotions is a common challenge that most clients face. Individuals with addiction issues may abuse substances, such as alcohol, or turn to addictive behaviours, such as pornography and sex, to cope with stress or to numb the emotional pain that they are experiencing. Individuals with anger issues may also claim that their anger compels them to respond inappropriately, sometimes out of their awareness, resulting in incidences such as domestic violence and road rage. In couples, jealousy may lead to behaviours such as looking through a partner’s handphone or constantly questioning the partner’s whereabouts, which only foster increased distrust and secrecy over time.
How can i manage emotions effectively?
1) Adopt a mindful approach to your daily experiences.
To execute daily activities, such as walking and turning on the tap, we engage in “automatic processing”, allowing us to carry out tasks with minimal resources. Recall the last time you turned on the tap. Did you look at the tap and ask, “Do I turn it clockwise or anti-clockwise?”, or look at your hands and ask “Should I use my right or left hand?”. You just do it without involving much conscious awareness. Automatic processing also increases our risk of living our lives mindlessly. When one lives mindlessly, he is likely to rely more on intuition and snap judgements over reasoning, and is prone to making emotional responses
Mindfulness techniques are increasingly adopted by psychologists, including in Singapore, for psychotherapy purposes of late. According to Hoffman et al. (2010), people who are mindful are “in a mental state characterized by nonjudgemental awareness of the present moment experience and the environment, while encouraging openness, curiousity and acceptance” (Hoffman et al., 2010). When we experience emotions such as anger, sadness and fear, a mindful stance welcomes whatever thoughts and emotions that may arise without the need to evaluate them as “good” or “bad”. As a result, we do not deny the presence of these thoughts or emotions, but we take away the power that they may have on us.
2) Explore the underlying reason behind the emotional response.
Awareness of what triggers strong emotions in you may help you apply reason to prevent yourself from responding emotionally to future events. Suppose you were constantly bullied by your peers when you were in school as a child. As an adult, you respond angrily when your partner or colleagues disagree with your opinion. This anger could be due to your earlier experience- you are actually trying to protect yourself from being taken advantage by the people currently in your life. Being aware of this underlying reason will help you realize that differences in opinion are normal, and that your partner and colleagues are not taking advantage of you. You can then begin to react effectively, such as engaging in a healthy debate to reach a consensus should there be differences in opinion.
However, discovering the underlying reason for strong emotional responses may require more than a simple self-reflection. It may require a skilled psychologist or therapist to help uncover how past experiences continue to impact you in your life. If you have difficulty understanding the underlying reasons for your actions, speak to a psychologist or a mental health professional.
3) Ask “Is what I am doing helping me get what I want?"
As mentioned above, emotions drive us to act. There is nothing wrong in acting to reduce the discomfort that you are feeling- if your behavior achieves your goals and meet your needs.
Consider a recent event which triggered emotions in you. Does your behavior in response to the event help you achieve your desired goal and reduce the uncomfortable emotions? If your answer is “No”, it is a possible indication that your response is an ineffective one and that your behavior is being controlled by your emotions. For example, a mother may constantly nag at her son whenever she gets frustrated by her son’s laziness to tidy his room. Her attempt to get him to tidy his room, through nagging, only results in her son slamming the door. This will only increase the level of anger in the mother and the room still remains a mess!
I would pose this question to clients who remain stuck in a cycle of negative emotions and ineffective response: “Do you think what you are doing helps you get the desired outcome?” Interestingly, some clients may retort, “What am I supposed to then? I can’t do nothing!” My simple two-steps solution to this situation would be:
Step 1: Realize that what you have been doing is likely to continue to fail.
Step 2: React with reason, instead of emotionally, and try something else that has a better chance of succeeding.
4)Anticipate your emotions and be in control of your situation
Avoid situations that increase your risk of being controlled by emotions. Indeed, individual differences exist in how reactive we are to emotional events. I have met clients who told me that when their emotions get triggered, it would only take a few milliseconds before they do something that they would only realise and regret later, such as hitting their partner when angry. Despite these differences, we are all capable of recognizing and avoiding situations where our emotions may take over. If you are going on a road trip and you know that you are most likely to get angry if you get lost while driving, study your route in advance and install a GPS if necessary. Similarly, you may be hurting from a recent break up and you may realize that checking on your ex on his/her social media account only affects your emotions negatively, affecting your ability to function at work. You can schedule a morning run before work instead for a release of endorphins to help lift your mood.
Thus, learning to manage our emotions is an important skill for us to develop over the course of our lives. The pointers above may be more applicable for different individuals and situations. However, it is hoped that adopting them will improve your mental wellness and reduce the frequency of emotionally-driven behaviours that you may regret later.
Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Cognition and motivation in emotion. American psychologist, 46(4), 352.
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169.
Strongman, K. T. (2003). The psychology of emotion (Fifth Edition). Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.