Table of Contents
I’m not perfect.
In fact, far from it.
So much so, I’ve been getting therapy for about 6 months now and it’s genuinely changed the way I think about the world and how I live my life. Especially when it comes to controlling my emotions, managing my stress, and improving my overall levels of happiness.
So, I want to share with you the key lessons I’ve learnt so you can avoid making the same mistakes I did.
🧬 The Science of Emotions
Now, I want to caveat everything I’m about to say by making it clear that the scope and aims of therapy can vary depending on what we’re trying to achieve and the type of therapeutic intervention used.
So, the scope of this article is largely centred on emotional regulation, cognitive restructuring, and behavioural change which is the typical therapeutic intervention used by cognitive behavioural therapists to treat things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, and things like that.
With that in mind, we need to first begin by understanding our emotions.
So, emotions are designed to prevent our brain from thinking about tasks that are too important to leave to intellect alone. Our most powerful emotions helps us to avoid danger, find a partner and have children, and keep the family alive to ensure the survival of our genes.
But, the problem is that these automatic emotional responses were developed during a time where quickly making a correct decision involved life or death. And while people rarely face life or death scenarios today, our emotions still perceive things this way because they’ve become deeply rooted in our limbic system – an area of our brain that’s older in evolutionary terms compared to the more rational thinking part of our brain, the neocortex.
This development explains why emotions can supersede our rationality – they’re more or less second in command in our brains. First we have feelings. Then we have thoughts.
This isn’t to say there’s anything wrong with feeling emotions. The problem arises when the emotions are out of tune with the situation and when we don’t express our emotions productively or safely – like when we have anxiety, depressions, or PTSD.
❤️ Emotional Intelligence
So, how do we ensure our emotions are in tune with the situation in front of us and are regulated appropriately? Well, there’s really 3 things we need to do:
- First, we must know our emotions
- Then, we must manage those emotions
- And, finally, we need to activate positive emotions through self-motivation.
1 Knowing our Emotions
First, we must know our emotions.
The idea is that if we’re clueless about what we’re feeling, then our emotions are going to control us. So, the better we understand our feelings, the easier it is to make choices that are good for us.
Being aware of how we’re feelings also helps us to take a mental step back from what we’re feelings and observe it, instead of acting on it right away. We might not be able to instantly change how we’re feeling, but knowing we’re in a bad mood, unhappy, or anxious is the first step towards feeling better.
It’s important to note that ‘being aware’ of our emotions isn’t the same as squashing them down. Every emotion has its place and its value. The key is to make sure the feelings fit the situation and to keep them in check if they start messing with our goals.
One of my most important realisations during therapy was that the way I respond to and manage my emotions is often habitual. This is known as the ‘emotional habit loop’.
Basically, our brains rely on a basic behavioural cycle in order to learn. And the cycle consists of three parts:
- Cue: A cue or trigger that prompts us to respond
- Routine: A behaviour performed in response to the cue
- Reward: A result that gives us feedback (like a reward or a consequence) in response to our behaviour. If the result is positive we learn to repeat the behaviour and if it’s negative we learn to avoid it.
So, let’s take anxiety as an example.
- The cue could be that we’ve got an important performance review at work. And we’re afraid of getting a bad evaluation.
- The routine or behaviour is that we can’t do anything to change or avoid the review, so we worry.
- The result is we feel anxious.
From this we learn that performance reviews cause anxiety.
The prefrontal cortex – which allows us to generalise and make predictions about future situations based on stimuli we’ve already encountered – might even generalise this lesson so that we learn that our job as a whole causes anxiety, or even that work in general causes anxiety.
But, notice the faulty logic here: The performance review didn’t cause the anxiety. Worrying about the performance review caused the anxiety. But because of the way our brains work, we easily mistake the real cause. So, being more aware of our emotions and the habit loops we’ve already formed help us to 1) know our emotions and 2) more clearly understand where they come from.
My recommendation here is to keep a journal that focuses on both positive and negative experiences, and detailing the thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and circumstances leading up to those experiences. Gradually, this will help you notice patterns over time and the concrete factors that contributed to a certain mood.
Remember that feelings aren’t just in your head; they’re in your body, your living conditions, your past and your present, and the influences you surround yourself with. The more practiced you are at breaking down the factors interacting to create your emotions, the more easily you can see the changes that are within your power to make.
2 Managing our Emotions
Once we’re more aware of our emotions as we’re having them, it’s far easier to manage and regulate them, working past emotions when they’re not appropriate, soothing ourselves when we’re experiencing negative emotions, and bouncing back quickly from setbacks.
In particular, there are 3 general rules we want to keep in mind for managing any negative emotion once it’s been identified:
- Don’t dwell on the emotion.
- Focus on the truth.
- Replace unhelpful behaviours with rewarding ones.
Step one – don’t dwell on the emotion.
In short, ruminating on an emotion doesn’t help us to manage it – it just extends the emotional reaction and can even increase the emotional distress.
Instead, when we identify an emotion, we’re looking at it in a non-judgmental way, then using step two and three to help us deal with it.
Step two – focus on the truth.
You see, most negative emotional responses are built on thoughts or assumptions that confirm the response – so we can manage almost any negative emotional response by challenging the thoughts and assumptions that made us feel it in the first place.
For example, we could ask ourself questions like, ‘is this thought based on solid evidence?’, ‘is this thought logical?’, or ‘is this thought helping me to achieve my goal?’. By questioning our thoughts, we begin to expose their weaknesses and inaccuracies.
To challenge these thoughts even further, one brilliant exercise is to try and find evidence that either supports or refutes them. For instance, if the thought in our head is ‘I’m a failure’, we might list instances where we’ve succeeded or made progress, however small. This evidence gathering is essentially a fact-checking exercise of our automatic thoughts – so the more evidence we get, the harder it will be for us to keep believing that a certain thought, like we’re a failure, is genuinely true.
Step three – replace unhelpful behaviours with rewarding ones.
So when managing our emotions we’re not just dealing with our thoughts. We’re also dealing with behaviours and actions.
For example, let’s say we feel depressed or anxious, the temptation may be to scroll on social media or eat some chocolate. We enjoy a sugary snack, our body gets a short-term dopamine hit, and our mind (possibly) enjoys a brief respite from whatever caused the feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or anxiousness. Because of this, these unhelpful habits become an unhealthy crutch to deal with our negative emotions even though they’re not that fulfilling.
Our minds may think this stuff is fulfilling in the moment, but if we look close enough we’ll notice that eating the chocolate bar or scrolling on Instagram really doesn’t help us feel better at all.
The problem is that the brain takes a lot of factors into account when assessing reward value, and some of these factors aren’t directly relevant to the actual quality of the reward.
For example, our brain’s Instagram reward calculation might take into account Instagram’s informational and entertainment values, as we’d expect. But it’s also taking into account our emotional associations with our friends and family who post on Instagram, our attachment to other things we care about like hobbies and sports teams, the potential for someone to like or engage with our stuff, and all other instances where we hopped on Instagram to deal with our negative emotions.
It’s not a particularly healthy response to feelings of anxiety or depression.
So, the trick is to find healthier alternatives when we experience negative emotions. This could involve doing some exercise, playing an instrument, or, my personal recommendation, journaling about our thoughts and feelings so we’re not just replacing one avoidant behaviour with another.
3 Activating our Emotions
Being able to identify and manage our emotions makes it easier to control how we feel. But we also need to be able to activate positive emotions through self-motivation if we want to be more productive and effective.
In particular, we need to:
- Control our impulses.
- Be more hopeful.
- And find our flow state.
Firstly, control our impulses
This is probably the most fundamental psychological skill to learn. Because emotions are impulses, being in control of our emotions is resisting the urge to fulfil impulses that are harmful or counterproductive.
The ability to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal is necessary to achieve almost anything. Very little of what we do on a moment-to-moment basis is gratifying – most us have obligations we have to meet, big picture goals we’re working towards, or personal improvements we’re looking to make. All of these require us to delay immediate gratification in favour of doing something that will be beneficial down the line.
There was a famous experiment on this called the Marshmallow Test, where children were left in a room with a marshmallow. They were told that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow before the researcher came back, they could have 2 marshmallows. Or they could choose to eat the single marshmallow right away.
The study followed the children into adolescence and found that the children who delayed gratification were found to be more confident, socially competent, cool under pressure, trustworthy, dependable and more successful academically.
Second, be more hopeful.
Hope, in this context, is the belief that we have the will and the means to accomplish a goal, regardless of what it is.
More hopeful people generally deal with less emotional distress throughout their lives, don’t give in to overwhelming anxiety and suffer less from depression.
Plus, it’s also been shown that hope may be a better indicator of academic success than IQ. One study found that a student’s hopefulness was a better predictor of how good their grades would be in the first semester of college than SAT scores were
One study found that a student’s hopefulness was a better predictor of how good their grades would be in the first semester of college than sat scores were
Finally, find your flow.
The more motivated, disciplined and practiced we are at doing something the more likely we are to lose our sense of self and essentially go into full autopilot – this is what we mean by flow.
Flow represents the pinnacle of emotional control in the service of doing something – people who get into a flow state aren’t just controlling and directing their emotions, but their emotions become positive sources of energy that align with the goal they’re trying to achieve.
It’s quite literally the opposite of anxiety too. Anxiety is the tendency to step out of the current moment and look down on it from above with worry. Flow state is the ability to be totally in a moment and an action without any removed opinions, good or bad.
💭 Final Thoughts
And really, this is what we’re trying to achieve: taking action without an emotion – any emotion – taking control.
But, I don’t want to trivialise or simplify any of the stuff in this article. The truth is that healing is a slow and, messy, process.
So, if any of the stuff mentioned in this article impacts you in any way, I highly recommend giving therapy a go.
It isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.