Your emotions do not appear or disappear when you decide. But is it possible to have some control over emotions or should you resign yourself to dominating your actions? Have you ever wondered why someone could speak in public without appearing nervous while another person is coming down? Why are there people who in an argument succumb to anger while others remain calm?
How to control emotions
While it makes sense that you feel sad when they give you bad news, that does not mean that your only option is to stay crying in a corner (that attitude will probably keep you afflicted for longer). Recognizing that you are sad while you force yourself to do something productive will help you feel better before.
In this article, I will try to demystify several false beliefs about the management of emotions and give you the techniques that have proven useful to achieve it. Stay tuned because some 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 think that there is no possibility of controlling them.
However, some studies conclude that the way you interpret your emotions can change the way you live them — the way in which reactions to a particular feeling will condition 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, like a signal that his body is sending him to run from there. On the other hand, someone who interprets those same nerves as excitement and desire to do well probably will be more successful in his lecture.
The moral is that your body gives you the energy to do something, but how to use that energy is up to you. Some people pay money and wait a few hours to get on a roller coaster, while others will not even go up in their dreams. Both feel the same nerves, but interpret them differently: fun versus terror.
What happens when your emotions get out of control?
You can not help feeling emotions. The feelings 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 escape in the face of a threat. That is why it is so difficult to control by force of will the origin of your emotions: 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 adequately regulated, and it can happen that:
- It is triggered 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 stays anchored there.
When you are in the fight-flight phase, and the amygdala has taken over your actions, it is usually too late. That’s why you must learn to act before. You have to get used to detect those signs that indicate you are on the way to not being able to control your emotions.
This is the only way you will be able to stop the process (or delay it) before it is too late. Once emotions dominate you, 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 towards the rest of more complex feelings. These emotions are anger, fear, joy, and sadness.
There are some situations that you will never be able to get used to. If everything goes wrong, you can hardly leave behind the feeling of fear or anxiety. However, positive emotions often disappear over time. It does not matter how much money you play in the lottery or how much you are in love: positive emotions such as pleasure always end up decreasing.
In fact, in one study it was determined that the emotion that lasts longer is sadness. In particular, it lasts up to 4 times longer than joy.
What does not work to control your emotions?
These techniques have been popularized through word of mouth and by authors who have not bothered to check their actual scientific basis. The usefulness of each of them to manage your emotions is, at least, doubtful.
1. Try not to think about what worries you
In the same way that trying not to think about a white polar bear will cause you to end up thinking about it because of a rebound effect, in studies like this, it has been shown that it is tough to separate the emotions from our head.
In the case of depressed people, who are constantly assaulted by negative thoughts, it has proven to be counterproductive to try to suppress these ideas because they end up coming back even stronger.
2. Relax and take a deep breath …
It is usual to recommend us to relax and take a deep breath when we are angry or very anxious. It comes from an almost ancestral tradition, like breathing in a plastic bag in a panic attack.
But there is a drawback. Breathing deeply and trying to modulate the diaphragm does not usually work because the physiological component of emotions is generally unimportant.
Think about it. In most of the occasions when you have become outraged, for example, you were calm before becoming irascible. You probably had a good day until somebody cheated on you, am I wrong?
If a previous state of relaxation has not been able to keep you from getting angry, why do people think you can get it once you’re mad?
Have you ever recommended someone to relax when he was angry? You may have noticed that it does not work too well. It is as if instead of listening to someone who believes he has suffered an injustice. You recommended that he shut up and take a tranquilizer.
With this, I do not mean that habitually employing relaxation techniques is terrible. Meditating is quite useful (you’ll see it below ). But trying to relax once you have invaded the emotions is going to treat the symptom and not the cause.
3. Release tension by other means
There was a time when activities became fashionable to release emotions. Workshops where people met to mourn or events where aggressive managers would break plates.
Well, it turns out that the most recent psychological studies suggest that this type of catharsis does not work. It can even be harmful: succumbing to the temptation to destroy everything can increase your aggressiveness in the short term. The same goes for physical exercise: although it is suitable for your heart, it is not able to calm your emotions.
Emotions are not contained within our body and need to come out as if we were pressure cookers. What they need is to be understood to avoid being harmed.
4. Press to have positive thoughts
There is a bit of controversy regarding the effect of positive thoughts to regulate emotions. While I would not say that they are capable of moving you from a negative state to a positive one, they can reduce the intensity of negative emotion.
Emotions are processed almost entirely at the unconscious level and then move to the conscious ground, 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 sabotage yourself. If instead of thinking “I will not be able to do this” you start to believe “It’s complicated, but I can handle it” will prevent your negative emotions from getting worse.
What does work?
Accurate emotional intelligence requires you to identify and understand your moods. It implies 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 see that you are inevitably heading towards a negative emotional state, the following techniques can be useful in stopping or slowing down that chain reaction.
1. Try to remember your virtues and successes
The reaffirmation of your strengths and strengths is one of the best strategies to manage your feelings. It consists of thinking about what has caused that emotion but reducing its negative meaning.
Example: instead of being angry because you have been late for work, you may think that, since you always arrive on time, it is not so severe.
People with higher emotional control use self-affirmation when the intensity of their emotions is still low, and they have time to look for another point of view of the situation. Interestingly, it has been shown that this strategy works exceptionally well for women.
The next time you feel you lose control over your emotions, remind yourself of those things that you take pride in your life.
2. Distract your attention to a specific issue
The people who best manage their emotions have also learned to use distraction to block their emotional states before it is too late. And it seems to be very useful when they foresee that they will experience intense emotions and do not have enough time to use other strategies.
As you know, a very effective way to calm a small child who does not stop crying is to divert his attention. “Have you seen the doll?” Or “What do I have in my hand?” They tend to lower their level of excitement if we keep their attention for long enough.
The technique of distraction consists of disconnecting yourself from negative emotion by focusing your attention on neutral thoughts. In this way, you will prevent the feeling from taking too much intensity.
For example, if your boss questions your professionalism, instead of thinking that you might end up saying goodbye, you might think about your birthday celebration on Saturday. It is simple but effective, as has been demonstrated in several scientific studies.
Although long-term is probably not the best strategy, distraction works, mainly if you focus your attention on something specific instead of letting your mind wander.
3. Think about your most 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 vital to you, will you still feel that within 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 a treat in exchange for receiving another obtained better results in school tests and better jobs in the years to come.
4. Meditate habitually
Meditation has scientifically proven its effectiveness in preventing repetitive negative thoughts and not only while you meditate, but also in the long term: it can diminish the level of activation of the amygdala lastingly.
Meditation also has studied in reducing anxiety. In one of them, four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce stress by 39%.
Trying to relax only when your emotions assault you is not very useful. However, meditating regularly and breathing correctly can reduce the intensity of negative emotions when they appear.
5. Permit yourself to worry later
Earlier I explained that trying to suppress a feeling or thought causes it to come back stronger. However, postponing it for later can work!
In one study participants were asked with anxious thoughts to postpone their concern for 30 minutes. Despite being an alternative way of avoiding thinking about something, what has been shown is that after that period of pause the emotions return with a much lower intensity.
So, permit yourself to worry after a waiting time. You will worry less.
6. Think of the worst that can happen to you
Do you remember Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven movie?
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 its speed or its aim. As he says, it is because when the bullets start to fly, he controls his emotions and remains calm.
I do not want you to become dramatic or become a Goth, but thinking about the worst that can happen to you will help you relativize your problems and maintain control.
7. Write a diary of your emotions
The expressive writing is to write about your thoughts and deepest feelings and has proven sufficient level both psychological and physical (it can accelerate the healing of wounds!)
Maintaining 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 recover self-control
Your self-control is not infinite. Several investigations indicate that as you expose yourself to situations and emotions, it is consumed.
Think of it like making a sprint. After the race, you are exhausted, and you need time to recover before running again. In the same way, if you manage to control your emotions, avoid exposing yourself to a tense situation again, or you will be more likely to succumb.
The most surprising thing is that I have shown it that maintaining control consumes glucose as if you were exercising. Therefore, to recover your self-control, you have two strategies:
- Take a drink rich in sugars (no kidding).
- Use positive reaffirmation to be able to manage your emotions again ( source ).
The key is to identify when your self-control levels are low and avoid more emotional situations as you recover.
9. When everything fails, look for a mirror
Sorry? Look in a mirror? Yes, as surprising as this strategy may seem, it can be useful to satisfy you when you are furious.
Several studies have shown that when you see yourself reflected you can observe yourself from a more objective perspective and therefore separate yourself for a few moments from your emotionality.
The more aware you are of what you are doing, the more ability to control your emotions you will have. And watching yourself in a mirror will increase your levels of self-awareness and help you behave in a more friendly way.
10. Most important: find the reason for your emotions
In the long term, the key is not to fight against your feelings but to recognize them and know why they happen to you. For example:
“Okay, I do not like to feel that way, but right now I’m very envious (you recognize the emotion) because Andrés was congratulated for his work and not me (you recognize why).”
The important thing is, to be honest with yourself about why. Do not do like most and try to cheat. We often lie by making us believe that we are angry at someone for their behavior and not because they have given us the promotion we aspired to and that has affected our self-esteem.
Knowing the real truth of your feelings will help you to treat the cause.
If you 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 body language can influence your feelings, 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.