How many emotional responses have you noticed so far today? Gratitude and love saying good bye to your family as you leave for work, or frustration as you are stuck in wet weather traffic? Maybe anticipation for an enjoyable meal with friends this evening or anxiety that you have so much work today you fear you won’t make it?
Sometimes our emotions make complete sense in light of what is going on in our day, at other times though they can feel puzzling, or downright overwhelming. Blind rage that someone is taking a trolley through the express aisle at the supermarket for example!
At the heart of any emotion is a physical sensation – the skip in your heart when you see the person you adore, or the stomach butterflies preparing for a presentation. Our brain may then attach a value to those feelings – positive or negative, and a strength rating –how strong or weak is this feeling? This cognitive processing will lead to a conscious representation of an emotion and eventually we may attach words to them – you can describe your despair, or your joy, and you can explain how you came to feel that way. We may also attach meaning to emotions – love and compassion are “good” ones, feeling rejected is “bad”.
This process sounds tidy doesn’t it, and logical. But how about when emotions are not tidy or logical? What about the times they are confusing and perhaps even frightening?
What helps us to make sense of our emotions?
1. Name them
Many psychological studies have shown that putting feelings into words is helpful for us and others in the moment, and is beneficial for our wellbeing longer term. Scientists have coined the phrase “emotional granularity” to describe this ability to put feelings into words – with a high degree of complexity. This means the more precise we can be the better – let’s use all those adjectives! You might try describing yourself as feeling beret rather than sad, guilty and regretful rather than upset. Naming is a skill to practice – the more we do it the easier it will become. You might want to read The Book of Human Emotions to get some ideas.
2. Self compassion
Compassion for ourselves is like having your best friend sititng on your shoulder – viewing what we do with love and kindness rather than criticism. When a friend tells us they feel ashamed or regretful we don’t yell at them for being stupid. Rather we help them to understand why they feel that way and what will help them feel better. Self compassion is exactly that friend in action and it interrupts the process where we may assigning negative meaning to emotions – “I’m already feeling ashamed – then I tell myself I’m an idiot for doing that thing, which makes me feel even worse”. Self-compassion mindfulness and meditation can help us learn this skill of self-compassion. Try these guided exercises to get started:
3. Notice and savour positive emotions
Experiencing positive emotions help us recover from stress and negative emotions. Recent neuroscience research has shown that feeling emotions such as joy, connection, pride, and satisfaction generates physiological calm and neurological regulation. Positive emotions also help to broaden and build our capacity for big picture thinking. Holding the big picture is so important when it comes to emotion – we are more likely to be balanced in our thinking – which will help us to be balanced in how we respond. A study this week from New York Professors Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown (Emotions Are Cognitive, Not Innate) found new evidence that emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but, in fact, are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information. The more accurately we gather and process information the better position we are in to make sense of our emotions, and the emotions of others.
Paying attention when you experience micro-moments of positive emotion in your day, savour (extend) them, and plan activities that generate more. You might for example notice feeling grateful when you see your favourite colleague in a meeting, invite them for a coffee after, and plan to do it again next week.
For more ideas on making sense of emotions watch this excellent talk from psychologist Guy Winch on Emotional first aid