Nietzsche already said that thoughts come when they want them, and not when we want them.
Similarly, your emotions do not appear or disappear when you decide. But is it possible to have some control over your emotions or should you resign yourself to having your actions dominate?
Have you ever wondered why someone is able to speak in public without appearing nervous while someone else breaks down? Why are people who in an argument succumb to anger while others remain calm?
While it makes sense to feel sad when you get bad news, that doesn’t mean your only option is to stay in a corner crying (that attitude will likely keep you grieving for longer). Acknowledging that you are sad while forcing yourself to do something productive will help you feel better sooner.
In this article I am going to try to demystify several false beliefs about managing emotions and give you the techniques that have been proven really useful to achieve it. Stay tuned because some of them will probably surprise you.
Do you decide how to control emotions?
There are many theories about it. Some psychologists believe that we have total control over our emotions and others believe that there is no possibility of controlling them.
However, there is research that concludes that the way you interpret your emotions can change the way you live them . The way you react to a particular emotion will determine how it acts on you.
- The speaker who suffers from the idea of speaking in public does so because he interprets his nerves as something negative, as a signal that his body is sending him to run away from there.
- On the other hand, someone who interprets those same nerves as excitement and a desire to do well is likely to be more successful in their conference.
The moral is that your body provides you with the energy to do something, but how to use that energy is up to you . There are people who pay money and stand in line for hours to get on a roller coaster, while others would not get on even in their dreams. They both feel the same nerves, but interpret them differently: fun versus terror.
What happens when your emotions get out of control
You can’t help feeling emotions. Emotions are there because they have an evolutionary function , a biological sense of survival. If our ancestors had not felt fear in front of a herd of tigers, probably the human being would not have arrived until today.
The amygdala is the part of your brain responsible for triggering emotions, as if it were an automatic response in the form of aggression or flight from a threat. That is why it is so difficult to control the origin of your emotions through willpower: it would mean canceling this response for which you are genetically programmed.
This type of emotional response is therefore necessary. However, in some people it is not properly regulated and it may happen that:
- Triggers in situations where there is no real threat (causing anxiety )
- Be unable to deactivate over time (as in depression ). For some reason, the brain goes into survival mode and remains anchored there.
When you are in the fight-flight phase and the amygdala has taken over your actions, it is usually too late. That is why you must learn to act before. You have to get used to detecting those signs that tell you that you are on the way to not being able to control your emotions.
This is the only way you will be able to stop (or delay) the process before it is too late. Once emotions take over, you are little more than a cornered beast.
The truth about negative emotions
The most recent theory is that there are 4 types of basic emotions that have evolved into the rest of more complex feelings. These emotions are anger , fear , joy, and sadness .
There are some situations that you can never get used to. If everything goes wrong, you can hardly leave behind the feeling of fear or anxiety. However, positive emotions tend to fade over time. It doesn’t matter how much money you win in the lottery or how in love you are: positive emotions like pleasure always end up diminishing.
In fact, one study found that the longest lasting emotion is sadness . Specifically, it lasts up to 4 times longer than joy .
Based on this panorama, it seems really necessary to be able to manage the intensity of your emotions so as not to suffer so much. Below you will find a list of techniques that have not proven effective and those that have.
What doesn’t work to control your emotions
These techniques have become popular through word of mouth and by authors who have not bothered to verify their real scientific basis. The usefulness of each of them to manage your emotions is, to say the least, doubtful.
1. Try not to think about what worries you
In the same way that trying not to think of a white polar bear will cause you to end up thinking about it due to a rebound effect, studies like this have shown that it is very difficult to get our emotions out of our heads .
In the case of depressed people, who are constantly assaulted by negative thoughts, it has been proven that it is totally counterproductive to try to suppress those ideas because they end up coming back with even more force.
2. Relax and breathe deeply …
It is common that they recommend us to relax and take a deep breath when we are angry or very anxious. It comes from an almost ancient tradition, like breathing into a plastic bag in a panic attack.
But there is a downside. Taking a deep breath and trying to modulate the diaphragm usually doesn’t work because the physiological component of emotions is often unimportant .
Think about it. Most of the times when you’ve been very angry, for example, you were calm before you became irascible. You were probably having a good day until someone screwed it up on you, am I right?
If a previous state of relaxation has not been able to prevent you from getting angry, why do people think that it can get you once you are already angry?
Have you ever recommended someone to relax when they were angry? You may have noticed that it does not usually work very well. It is as if instead of listening to someone who thinks they have suffered an injustice, you recommended that they shut up and take a tranquilizer .
By this I do not mean that using relaxation techniques regularly is bad. In fact meditating is quite useful (you will see it below ). But trying to relax once your emotions have invaded you is to treat the symptom and not the cause.
3. Release tension in other ways
There was a time when activities to release emotions became fashionable. Workshops where people gathered to cry or events where aggressive managers broke plates.
Well, it turns out that more recent psychological studies suggest that this kind of catharsis doesn’t work . It can even be negative: succumbing to the temptation to destroy everything can increase your aggressiveness in the short term. The same goes for doing physical exercise: although it is good for your heart, it is not able to calm your emotions .
Emotions are not contained within our bodies and they need to come out like pressure cookers. What they need is to be understood to avoid being hurt.
4. Pressure yourself to think positive thoughts
There is some controversy regarding the effect of optimistic thoughts in regulating emotions. Although I would not say that they are capable of making you go from a negative state to a positive one, they can reduce the intensity of a negative emotion.
Emotions are processed almost entirely at the unconscious level and then move onto the conscious terrain, where you perceive them. For this reason, when you are aware of them it is often too late .
However, looking for the positive part of each situation can prevent you from continuing to self-sabotage yourself. If instead of thinking “I’m not going to be able to do this” you start to believe “It’s complicated, but I can handle it” you will prevent your negative emotions from getting worse.
What does work
True emotional intelligence requires you to identify and understand your own moods. It involves recognizing when and why you are angry, nervous, or sad, and acting on the causes and not just the symptoms.
However, on those occasions when you find yourself heading towards a negative emotional state , the following techniques can be effective in stopping or slowing that chain reaction.
1. Try to remember your strengths and successes
The reaffirmation of your virtues and strengths is one of the best strategies to manage your feelings. It consists of thinking about what caused that emotion but reducing its negative meaning .
Example: instead of getting angry because you are late for work, you may think that, since you are always on time, it is not so serious.
People with greater emotional control use self-affirmation when the intensity of their emotions is still low and they have time to seek another point of view of the situation . Interestingly, this strategy has been shown to work especially well in women.
The next time you feel like you are losing control over your emotions, remind yourself of the things you are proud of in your life.
2. Distract your attention to a specific issue
The people who manage their emotions best have also learned to use distraction to block out their emotional states before it’s too late. And it seems to be very effective when they anticipate that they are going to experience intense emotions and do not have enough time to use other strategies .
As you know, a very effective way to calm a young child who won’t stop crying is to divert their attention. “Have you seen the doll?” or “What do I have in my hand?” they tend to decrease their level of arousal if we hold their attention long enough.
The distraction technique consists of detaching yourself from the negative emotion by focusing your attention on neutral thoughts. In this way you will avoid that the emotion takes too much intensity.
For example, if your boss questions your professionalism, instead of thinking that they might end up firing you, you could think about your birthday celebration on Saturday. It is simple but effective, as has been shown in several scientific studies .
Although in the long term it’s probably not the best strategy , distraction works, especially if you focus your attention on something specific rather than letting your mind wander.
3. Think about your immediate future
Very intense emotions can cause you to forget that there is a future and that your actions will have consequences. Even if at that moment you are only able to live in the present and your frustration, anger or nerves seem so important to you, will you still feel that in a week?
Thinking about the immediate future is very effective in maintaining self-control , as demonstrated in the experiment popularized through the book Emotional Intelligence . In it, children who resisted the temptation to eat one candy in exchange for another did better on school tests and better jobs for years to come.
4. Meditate regularly
Meditation has been scientifically proven to be effective in preventing repetitive negative thoughts and not only while meditating, but also in the long term: it is capable of lastingly lowering the level of activation of the amygdala .
Meditation also has studies on reducing anxiety . In one of them , four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety by 39%.
Trying to relax only when emotions assail you is not very effective. However, meditating regularly and breathing correctly can reduce the intensity of negative emotions when they appear.
5. Give yourself permission to worry later
I have explained before that trying to suppress an emotion or thought causes it to come back stronger. However, putting it off for later can work!
In one study, participants with anxious thoughts were asked to put off worrying for 30 minutes. Despite being an alternative way of avoiding thinking about something, what has been shown is that after this period of pause the emotions return with a much lower intensity .
So, give yourself permission to worry after a while. You will worry less.
6. Think about the worst that can happen to you
Do you remember the movie Unforgiven (Unforgiven) by Clint Eastwood?
In it, the character of William Munny, despite being old and finished, is the best gunman in the west. And it is not because of his speed or his aim. As he himself says, it is because when the bullets start to fly, he controls his emotions and remains calm .
But how do you stay calm? Samurai and Stoics were calm even in the most dramatic situations, how did they do it?
Well, thinking about death. And a lot.
I don’t want you to get dramatic or goth, but thinking about the worst that can happen to you will help you relativize your problems and stay in control.
7. Write a journal of your emotions
The expressive writing is to write about your thoughts and feelings deeper and proven to be effective both psychologically and physically (it is able to accelerate the healing of wounds!)
Keeping a kind of emotional diary about what you have felt in some situations will help you reduce the recurrence of negative thoughts.
8. Take a break (and a soda) to regain self-control
Your self control is not infinite. In fact, several investigations indicate that as you expose yourself to situations and emotions, it is consumed.
Think of it like doing a sprint. After the race you are exhausted and need time to recover before running again. In the same way, if you manage to control your emotions, avoid re-exposing yourself to a tense situation or you will be more likely to succumb.
- Drink a drink rich in sugars (not kidding).
- Use positive affirmation to be able to manage your emotions again ( source ).
The key is to identify when your self-control levels are low and to avoid further emotional situations as you recover.
9. When all else fails, find a mirror
Sorry? Look in a mirror? Yes, surprising as it may seem, this strategy can be helpful in calming you down when you are furious .
Several studies have shown that when you see yourself reflected you are able to observe yourself from a more objective perspective and therefore separate yourself from your emotionality for a few moments .
The more aware you are of what you are doing, the more ability to control your emotions you will have. And observing yourself in a mirror will increase your levels of self-awareness and help you behave in a more sociable way.
10. Most importantly: find the reason for your emotions
In the long term, the key is not to fight your emotions, but to recognize them and know why they happen to you . For example:
“Okay, I don’t like feeling like that but right now I’m very envious (you recognize the emotion) because Andrés has been congratulated on his work and I haven’t (you recognize why) .”
The important thing is to be honest with yourself about why . Don’t do like most and try to fool yourself. We often lie to ourselves by making ourselves believe that we are angry with someone because of their behavior and not because they have given them the promotion we aspired to and that has affected our self-esteem.
Knowing the real truth of your feelings will help you address the cause.
If you really want to learn how to control your emotions, you should know that there is no single solution. Although it has also been shown that your own body language is able to influence your emotions, finding the most appropriate strategy to regulate negative feelings and understand their origin to treat the cause is the only way to prevent them from taking control of our mind.