What is Emotion?
Emotions are a vital part of our everyday lives. Whether you’re having a good laugh or feeling frustrated over something, you know that the highs and lows you experience can significantly affect your well-being.
Your ability to regulate those emotions, in turn, affects how you’re perceived by the people around you. If you’re laughing at something during a serious meeting, you’re likely to get bitter looks from others in the room. On the other hand, if you react with rage at a driver who cuts you off in traffic, you can stimulate unwanted attention, and possibly even risk your life.
Fortunately, you can handle most of the work involved in regulating your emotions well before the provoking situation even occurs. By preparing yourself ahead of time, you’ll find that the problematic emotion goes away before it interferes with your life:
- Select the situation. Avoid circumstances that trigger unwanted emotions. If you know that you’re most likely to get angry when you’re in a hurry (and you become angry when others force you to wait), then don’t leave things for the last minute. Get out of the house or office 10 minutes before you need to, and you won’t be bothered so much by pedestrians, cars, or slow elevators. Similarly, if there’s an acquaintance you find completely annoying, then figure out a way to keep from bumping into that person.
- Modify the situation. Perhaps the emotion you’re trying to reduce is disappointment. You’re always hoping, for example, to serve the “perfect” meal for friends and family, but invariably something goes wrong because you’ve aimed too high. Modify the situation by finding recipes that are within your range of ability so that you can pull off the meal. You may not be able to construct the ideal soufflé, but you manage a pretty good frittata.
- Shift your attentional focus. Let’s say that you constantly feel inferior to the people around you who always look great. You’re at the gym, and can’t help but notice the regulars on the weight machines who manage to lift three times as much as you can. Drawn to them like a magnet, you can’t help but watch with wonder and envy at what they’re able to accomplish. Shifting your focus away from them and onto your fellow gym rats who pack less punch will help you feel more confident about your own abilities. Even better, focus on what you’re doing, and in the process, you’ll eventually gain some of the strength you desire.
- Change your thoughts. At the core of our deepest emotions are the beliefs that drive them. You feel sad when you believe to have lost something, anger when you decide that an important goal is upset and happy anticipation when you believe something good is coming your way. By changing your thoughts you may not be able to change the situation but you can at least change the way you believe the situation is affecting you. In cognitive reappraisal, you replace the thoughts that lead to unhappiness with thoughts that lead instead to joy or at least contentment. People with social anxiety disorder may believe that they’ll make fool of themselves in front of others for their social gaffes. They can be helped to relax by interventions that help them recognize that people don’t judge them as harshly as they believe.
- Change your response. If all else fails and you can’t avoid, modify, shift your focus, or change your thoughts, and that emotion comes pouring out, the final step in emotion regulation is to get control of your response. Your heart may be beating out a steady drum roll of unpleasant sensations when you’re made to be anxious or angry. Take deep breaths and perhaps close your eyes in order to calm yourself down. Similarly, if you can’t stop laughing when everyone else seems serious or sad, gather your inner resources and force yourself at least to change your facial expression if not your mood.