People often seek therapy to get support dealing with emotions, or more specifically, uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, anger, or sadness. It is not uncommon to want these emotions to be stopped, shut-off, or taken away. However, such a goal is ultimately impossible as emotions are an inherent part of human experience and play an important role in our overall functioning as they help us navigate the world. Although they are not always pleasant, we can learn to better recognize, understand, and manage our responses to emotions in healthy ways.
Generally, emotions can be viewed as messengers or signals that encourage us to engage in various behaviors. Such behaviors are most often automatic and adaptive. For example, fear is a basic response to danger and signals us to take action to protect ourselves or others. Similar things can be said about sadness as a natural response to an uncontrollable situation, loss, or disappointment. Sadness may signal us to withdrawal, regroup, and seek or elicit support.
Although similar functions or signals can be described for all core emotions, it is often difficult to identify how our emotions can be useful or how we can interpret and react to our emotions in ways that are helpful. It is not uncommon to experience emotions as a tidal wave of feelings and sensations. However, we can break down this wave into three components, consisting of thoughts, behaviors, and physiological responses.
Breaking our emotional waves down can be useful in helpful us understand, react, and manage our emotions more effectively. However, many of us have had limited education and experience understanding our emotions or practice managing and responding to difficult emotions. The good news is that we can always improve upon our emotional intelligence. Monitoring our emotions is a great place to start. Next time you feel a strong wave, take time to ask the following three questions:
Key questions for monitoring emotions
What am I feeling? (What is the physiological response or sensation?)
What am I thinking?
What am I doing?
For example, you might find yourself feeling anxious, sad, agitated, and stressed when you call your partner and they sound upset. You might think they are unhappy or think “they are mad at me,” or “I’m not a good partner,” or “I’m a failure,” or “I will never be in a happy relationship.” The behavior might be to try and fix any perceived problems for your partner or work hard to clean up your apartment and make a nice dinner. Alternatively, you might find yourself ruminating about your role in the relationship or getting upset and pacing around endlessly.
You can take this a step further and practice monitoring what triggered your emotional experience, your response (physiological/ feelings, thoughts, behaviors), and finally the consequences, which might include things such as stress, arguments, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, self-blame or doubt.
Emotional experiences evolve out of a process of interaction amongst thoughts, physical sensations or feelings, and behaviors, all of which impact the intensity, frequency, and duration of our emotional experience and play a role in developing symptoms or maladaptive coping behaviors. As you practice monitoring this process you can begin to make your emotional experiences more conscious and perhaps gain a better understanding of the ways your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors occur and interact. Increased awareness and understanding can allow for more freedom to observe this process, question our automatic thoughts, and alter our behaviors in ways that are more intentional and less driven by a tidal wave of emotion. In other words – we can learn to surf.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Check out our new animated video “Embracing Each Moment in Times of Transition” – https://youtu.be/GGR56AH-azo
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