Emotions give salience to the events of our life, but how well do we understand them?
While we can experience great joy, calm, excitement and warmth, we can also experience painful emotions that can feel overwhelming. Emotion, and our capacity to ‘regulate’, lies at the heart of problems such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, anger and even alcohol and drug dependency. Emotion regulation is a skill like any other that can be learned, practised and employed.
In our Phoenix Futures residential rehab services, this idea is central to our mental health initiatives. Learning to understand what emotions are and why we have them is an important first step in taking charge of your life. Ask yourself, ‘what is an emotion?’ This is a question mental health professionals continue to debate. Richard Lazarus’ Appraisal Theory and Jaak Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience are two works which form part of the thinking we employ in attempting to answer this question.
One notion is that emotions are triggered by ‘events’. This could be something that happens, like an argument, or a memory such as a time you were bullied or abused.
These emotions have four distinct parts:
- Affect (the deep down, automatic, felt sense)
- Physical sensations (heart racing, muscles tensing, breathing quickening)
- Action tendency (what it is telling you to ‘do’ – run away, shout, cry, go quiet)
- Appraisal (the conscious or unconscious way our mind perceives the event)
Panksepp identified three interacting layers of emotional processing. The first layer is primal affect, the most ancient part of our emotions, shared with other mammals. He then theorised that we had a learning layer. In its simplest terms, learning is based on experience – we learn from the results of our behaviour. The third is the neocortical layer. This is our higher thinking abilities – to plan, imagine and remember. These are the cognitive abilities unique to humans.
Panksepp, among many other theorists, also speaks about top-down and bottom-up processing. A top-down approach will see rationality dictate our emotional response. For example, think about a time you were anxious or scared – like visiting the dentist – but pushed yourself anyway, not listening to your anxiety telling you to run away.
Conversely, a bottom-up approach works the other way, allowing your feelings to influence how you think. How we think and the decisions we make will influence how we feel. The way we learn as a result of this may lead to behaviour that compromises our ability to form relationships or puts us at risk. Consider learning that people are dangerous, abusive or uncaring. You may learn to avoid or be afraid of people as a result, or alternatively you may quickly attach yourself to people who show even small amounts of kindness.
It is very important that we learn to understand our emotions and learn skills to reduce their intensity. Sometimes, to achieve the life we want we will need to be able to cope with unpleasant feelings – we can’t always be relaxed and happy.
At Phoenix Futures, we have developed an emotion regulation group therapy, which will form part of the core programme of care at our residential rehab services. There are six sessions to our group treatment cycle focussing on understanding and befriending our emotions, examining our beliefs about emotions, and learning to cope with and manage our emotions.
Everyone can benefit from a better understanding of our emotions. They are complicated and powerful. And whilst they often exert a pressure to escape or avoid them, we can learn to manage them differently.
You can begin your own emotional regulation right away by following these simple steps:
- Think about a situation which routinely triggers difficult emotions for you.
- Write down what each of the ‘parts’ are: The felt sense, the way you thought about the situation, what was happening in your body, and what it was telling you to do about it.
- Practise some deep, rhythmic breathing exercises or mindful attention skills.
- Ask yourself – ‘How do I want to act in this situation?’ What would the ‘ideal’ outcome be for me? Try to be specific, write it down.
- The next time you notice any of the ‘parts’ of the emotion occurring, remind yourself of your commitment to act in a way which moves you closer to the ‘ideal’ outcome for your behaviour.
- Keep practising – we are always finding new triggers for our emotions. The more you practise being curious and understanding – rather than avoiding and fearful – of your emotions, the more manageable they will become.
Peter Lindsayhall is clinical mental health lead at Phoenix Futures