Living in Boston, I have felt the emotional highs and lows of the political world this week. Even though Massachusetts is a blue state, there have been heightened emotions on both sides leading up to the Inauguration, and during the women’s marches that took place across the country. Rather than engage political discourse, today’s post actually aims to shed light on how we can make sense of our emotions in our day to day- from the frustrating email in your inbox from your boss, to the fears and uncertainties you hold about the future. I hope to provide a few nuggets of the most current evidence-based information about the science of emotions from findings in psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, and potentially help you, readers, learn ways to promote emotional health.
Emotions serve an important function. Emotions are processed by primitive subcortical areas in the brain that have evolved in animals to be adaptive and promote survival. The experience of fear tells us that there is something dangerous happening, and as a result, we should react by escaping, like when we get too close to the edge of a cliff. When we grieve over a significant loss of a loved one, our sadness makes us take pause, temporarily withdraw from the world, and process of the meaning of the loss. When someone makes you angry, your emotions cause you to attack the other person and defend your vital resources.
Emotions are also a major form of communication between people, and you can convey your feelings without even saying a word. Having more awareness of how you’re feeling and what your emotions are telling you makes you a more effective communicator. This has enormous benefits for gaining a greater sense of social connectedness and belongingness, enhancing your sense of empathy for others, and reaping the benefits of others’ resources and social support networks.
Avoid avoiding. People generally believe that negative emotions are bad—it is bad to feel overwhelmed, sad, or upset. And in fact this is the number one complaint for referrals. When people experience negative emotions, their typical tendency is to avoid them, suppress them, or self-medicate with substances until they go away.
Avoidance can come in many forms—it can be anything you do or DON’T DO to keep you from experiencing negative emotions. There can be overt forms of avoidance, such as avoiding thinking about a rejection to a new job prospect, or avoiding giving a presentation at a client meeting. However, many avoidance strategies are more subtle and are actually things you DO to avoid feeling badly—like drinking to feel less depressed or anxious, diverting the conversation to other topics that are easier to talk about, or overpreparing for a client meeting. Avoidance gets rid of the negative experience, makes you immediately feel so much better, and gives you a sense of control (albeit short-lived).
So why is avoidance so bad? In the long-term, research suggests that taking these emotional shortcuts inhibits your emotion regulation capacities. They keep the frontal regions of your brain from being able to do their job of calming down the activation from subcortical emotion centers. As a result, you miss out on the opportunity to learn that negative emotions in themselves are not bad, that even negative emotions are trying to prompt adaptive behavior, that they are fleeting, and that you can actually efficaciously manage them and channel them toward more positive behavior.
Negative emotions are not always a direct result of a bad situation. I don’t claim that horrible situations themselves don’t naturally engender negative emotions (such as genocide, trauma, life-threatening injuries, or even working in an abusive work environment). However, even in those situations, one’s thoughts and interpretations are actually an intermediary step that contribute to one’s emotions.
Take this example: two people survive a serious motor vehicle accident. Both sustain injuries and undergo rehab to recover and resume their normal life functioning. Throughout the process, one develops generalized views about the world being a dangerous place, and a pervasive fear of their susceptibility to harm. The other believes this was a terrible but isolated experience that made her stronger for overcoming adversity. How would their disparate views influence their respective behaviors?
One’s beliefs and interpretations of the situation itself can have a major impact on their resulting emotions and the intensity of those emotions. This can be summarized by the following distinction:
Events --------> Emotions
Events --------> Beliefs and Interpretations --------> Emotions
One way to translate this science into your everyday life then is to take stock of any moments when you experience strong negative emotions or distress. Rather than avoid those emotions, approach them. Self-assess how you’re feeling, ask yourself why, and then question whether your beliefs and interpretations are valid or helpful to hold onto. These might be the real culprits of your distress, rather than the events themselves.
In the case of stressful life events, such as loss events (jobs, relationships), role transitions, or moves, the potential for negative interpretations can become greater because your cognitive resources are more depleted. Overwhelming emotions during these times can also be wrongly taken to be reflective of something bad (If I think about it more, it’ll make it worse). Studies have actually shown that suppressing thoughts can paradoxically make them come back stronger! Have you ever tried to stop thinking about something only to turn into a futile effort? Practicing self-awareness of how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling what you’re feeling can only make both your emotional mind and your rational mind communicate better with one another, and make them stronger and sharper.
This week, I read an inspiring article in the New York Times about Obama’s Letters a Day program, in which he asked his staff to bring him 10 letters each day from citizens around the country. The idea behind this program was to establish a personal connection with real people, and get a better sense of their needs. Many of the excerpts from the letters were not pleasant—some reflected anger, frustration, and disappointment. In the same way, the people I have met in my work have come from all different walks of life. They have been college students, single moms, new moms, divorced parents, software engineers, teachers, and many who have no jobs. Obama’s program and the work I have done with my patients are all examples of the benefits of approaching negative emotions. What we have learned together is that negative emotions are in our nature, and what make us so human. Our different beliefs, interpretations, and perspectives are also what make each of truly unique. Understanding how we feel and why is an entire life’s work, and will help us all ultimately achieve greater inclusivity.
By Angela Fang, Ph.D. - Expert Psychologist