Anglia Counselling therapist, Mike Lloyd, shares the third of a series of posts to help inform and guide us through this difficult period.
In these uncertain times of Covid-19, social unrest, fear, and uncertainty with no end in sight we are all feeling something. But what are we feeling?
Can you name the feelings and emotions that are being triggered right now? Can you ever name your feelings? Do you feel your resilience is being attacked every day? Are you lonely?
Understanding our mind’s processes, and how we respond to thoughts and feelings is important. Ensuring we have the resources and tools in place to manage our emotions and maintaining a good measure of resilience will reap great rewards.
With an understanding of our psychological processes comes some relief. With continued effort, we can ultimately achieve our own “ideal.”
Managing Emotions – Lifes Ups and Downs
A straightforward definition of an ‘Emotion” in the Cambridge Dictionary follows:
‘a strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general’
Emotions are brought about through complex nervous system reactions to biological changes in the body. Thoughts, feelings, and behaviours all cause changes in the human system.
What does “managing our emotions” mean?
We cannot stop our emotions, whether we want to or not. They are a component part of our human experience, and if we didn’t have them we would soon die out as a species.
It’s also important to remember that we are not our emotions. We are human beings who experience these strong feelings. We are fuelled by our emotions, floored by our emotions, and driven to some extreme behaviour by them.
Impulsive actions are driven by emotions: a jealous lover angry with his/her partner for some perceived or real inappropriate behaviour, or violent acts committed under extreme emotional responses.
A thought or emotion in itself is not necessarily a problem, but there can be problems when the emotion and the consequent behaviour may be inappropriate, born from an inability to effectively manage emotions, and understand the thoughts that lead to them.
It is clear from these examples that “managing our emotions” is crucial.
In order to effectively “manage our emotions,” we need to be able to name them and understand them.
The importance of naming and understanding emotions
It has been suggested that there are an estimated 34,000 emotions that a human can experience. Yes, you read that right, 34,000. That being said there are a much smaller number of core emotions, for example, fear, anger, or joy.
When most of us are asked how we are feeling, we respond something like this: “I’m good” or “I’m not great,” perhaps something different, but usually an answer that encapsulates many different emotions. A subset of us aren’t capable of naming emotions, statements like “I feel sad” or “I feel fulfilled” are nearly impossible to put together.
Naming and understanding how our emotions impact our lives is imperative if we are to fully benefit from life’s richness.
Research has shown that although we think we can understand others’ emotions from facial expressions, it seems that it is not always a good indicator of emotional state. That is we find it harder than we think to judge others’ emotions from how they appear, despite believing we do it quite well. This shows how good we are at hiding our emotions from the outside world, and even from ourselves.
The brain is incredibly good at fooling us. We base many of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour on estimates our brain makes based on the information it has taken in over the course of our lives. Meaning the data the brain has received from past experiences impact its interpretations of everything that we do in life today, much like a computer being programmed.
It’s easy to see how our brains can struggle to interpret how emotions are impacting our lives. How complex thoughts, emotions, and behaviours can become confused and make it hard to name and understand them, and it’s a huge part of managing our emotions.
Now, what do we have available to help us in this crucial endeavour?
What tools, techniques and tactics can be deployed to understand emotions?
There are many tools, techniques and tactics that we can call upon to help us name and understand our emotions, how emotions are driven and what they drive us to do, or behave.
I will focus on tools and techniques typically used during a therapy session, others may be used too; however, these form a common foundation in this area.
As discussed earlier, naming, or labelling emotions can be very difficult for some people. This can be summarised as lacking an emotional vocabulary, the goal now being to effectively name our emotions and improve our, what is often called, emotional literacy.
It is analogous with learning a new language, as we build on fundamental vocabulary, we soon drill down and develop a more specific, or granular vocabulary. So instead of saying “I’m not great,” we can now say “I’m feeling sad and lonely during the pandemic, I’m not feeling fulfilled working at home, work gives me so much meaning and purpose.” A much more specific and nuanced description that has unpacked “I’m not great” into something we can explore and understand,
Learning as we would a language, developing emotional literacy takes time.
Start by exploring how you are feeling, try and name the feeling, for example, angry, sad, happy, guilty, and then drill down into each emotion and draw out other feelings that may be associated with it. With sadness, for example, you could be feeling despondent, lonely, fearful and much more.
Practice doing this and you will see your emotional vocabulary and literacy improve, making it easy to deploy the tools required to understand our emotions.
Understanding how our emotions affect and control our lives requires us to focus on three things that play a role:
- Thoughts – what we are thinking, if indeed we are consciously thinking, about a situation
- Feeling – how the thought makes us feel, what emotions does it evoke
- Behaviour – how do these thoughts and feelings make us behave or act
A concerted effort to stop and analyse when emotions arise, and they do all the time and without your control, will bring a better understanding of your mind’s process:
Think about what caused the emotion, what were the thoughts immediately preceding it? You may realise this was a response to another emotion, try and name that and think about the thoughts that may have caused that one to rise. Over time see how thoughts impact emotions, what the consequences of the thought are. Is it positive or negative? Why does that thought cause me to feel a particular way?
In most cases, thoughts and feelings will lead to action or behaviour. Think if this is how you would typically respond when the connected thoughts and feelings arise. Is the response positive or negative? Is there a better way to act or behave in these circumstances?
Naming and understanding our emotions takes a lot of the power out of them. We begin to understand why we behave the way we behave, and we realise we have a choice. A choice to change how we react to the complexities of life
This isn’t easy, it’s very much like learning to read too, and it takes time. This kind of work is best explored with a therapist for the most effective results; however, exploring these things alone will bring understanding and relief over time.
Building resilience for life’s ups and downs
Life is mostly lived on “life’s terms.” We have very little control of the events happening around use. Currently, the Coronavirus is taping into our reliance, our ability to cope can become diminished, we may drink more, watch more TV, clean the house more, or less and distract, this is ultimately never enough and with too many difficult life experiences our resilience can become completely depleted.
Building emotional resilience requires the ability to name and understand our emotions first and foremost. Studies have shown that having a greater understanding of a specific emotion, for example, fear, can reduce the physiological manifestation of that emotional response, thereby increasing resilience.
Optimism has also been shown to improve emotional resilience. Look on the bright side of things and keep going essentially.
Facing our fears is really the only effective way to deal with them. When we avoid things that cause us fear we become more fearful. Facing a fear, realising it wasn’t as bad as expected and taking lessons from the experience will also help the development of emotional resilience.
In these times of lockdown and isolation, all of us are finding it difficult to socialise. We are social creatures, we need connection. Even in difficult times like these social support is available for those that need it. Even if it means going for a walk with a friend within whatever rules are in place at the time, using technology like Zoom or Skype, or talking to a neighbour over the socially distanced hedge. It will all help develop emotional resilience.
The other important thing we can do to develop emotional resilience is to create a sense of meaning and purpose in our life. Next week we will be talking more about the importance of connection in addition to the huge benefits of real meaning and purpose.
Part Four – Connection, Meaning and Purpose
- Why connection, meaning and purpose are important for emotional well-being
- What do we mean by connection?
- What do we mean by meaning and purpose?
- Developing connection
- Developing meaning and purpose
- Series conclusion