‘I used to get out of my car, slam the door and enter the house already in a full swing of fury. From then on whatever I said or acted, it did not feel like me anymore. It’s like I’m swallowed by that emotion, and have no control over it. But since I have practiced three minutes sitting in the car before I enter through the door, doing nothing, not even listening to the music or meditating, just being there, giving myself some space, it seems I began to arrive home like a new person’. Adapted from one short course participant account
Echoing to this account I will only insert that Latin word emotere (emotion) meaning movement which is well described by the individual above. Emotions can almost literraly move you, often against your own will, conscious decision. Taken by emotion, some describe, only later to regret the actions: ‘I wish I was able to control it at that precise moment’. That wave, or emotional hijack, as popularly psychologist Daniel Goleman labelled, takes the entire space of the mind, and enslaves it, leaving no room for a rational episode to hamper the conveyor belt in-action. The person, before having any rational ideas about the best possible behaviour options, is simply swept away by the upsurge of an emotion, namely anger, and can hardly do anything about it. At least, that is what they say. Those, who struggle to let their anger go. And this is not a pleasant experience, people say: ‘I wish someone would take the anger away from me, I’d rather not feel it at all’.
Having listened to it and surely experienced anger myself, I still hold the view, beautifully illustrated by Inside Out animation: all emotions are there for us. Yes, sadness and anger, too. They are very much to indicate about what is happening to us or around us, and the good sign that we need to change something. In fact, if not emotions like fear or anger, we would not be here right now, as all our ancestors would have been consumed by hungry tigers. However, you need some space and time to spot them. To carve some precious time, in order to help yourself to spot the moment when the wave, hardly to be seen on the horizon, is about to awash the shore with that loud ear-splitting surf.
On the other hand, by merely acknowledging, that the emotions exist and we are going to accept its temporary existence within us, it does not mean, that we have to identify ourselves with our emotions. Yes, currently I feel angry, for a reason, but I’m not the anger. I encounter quite a few people, who simply think that the anger is their feature of the character, rather than indication that something is wrong with the inner or outer sceneries. Maybe the hurt - which is a common underlying cause - is strongly behind it, and anger is there to hold the personality from possible disintegration. Maybe, the anger is there to shield the person from the detrimental acknowledgement of the weakness and vulnerability.
So, what happens to us when the fear or anger takes over, hijacks us, sweeps us like a flooded river leaving little if no chance to choose another, more helpful, behaviour?
One of the key players - amygdala, an almond shaped part of the brain, which is the main emotional nest and communicator to our body announces: the life is on fire. Apparently, according to Goleman, once activated it constantly scans the environment to see what is happening around: is there an immediate danger. Sometimes, our anger or fear (as amygdala hosts them both), can take us so suddenly, as it seems the thinking part is somewhat bypassed. Instead of the neuron pathway leading through the neocortex - a thinking part of the brain, which has developed the last in line, on top of emotional one - it would lead straight into the action. As if a body suddenly declares - there is no time to think, we need to act on immediately, otherwise it will be too late. And so, we get into the fight, fully employing the fists, or simply run away, if the anger transforms into fear. But the body is ready for action. Unless, the danger to move is so high, in that case our body freezes, alert and observant, at what is happening around. Commonly it is called flight, fight or freeze. Or faint.
Summarising Goleman’s portrayals from physiological emotion life, I can only sigh – all of them, all the biological responses are there for a reason. But some are more visible or sensible, to prepare the body for some sort of behaviour.
Anger: blood flows to hands, as historically (and in some parts of the world) it is easier to grasp a weapon. Hence the heart rate increases, a rush of hormones upsurges: adrenaline which generates the energy to act on.
Fear: the blood floods to the large skeletal muscles, legs etc., hence the face is pale. Also, the body freezes for a moment, to check whether hiding is the better option. Increase of hormones causes general alert, edginess, ready for action, attention focuses on the possible threat.
Happiness – inhibits negative feelings and shuts the troublesome thoughts, while spreading the energy, readiness and enthusiasm. However, unless there are moments of ecstatic experience, no major physiological swings.
Love - another pleasant and tender feelings, sexual satisfaction. It’s a relaxation response - or so called parasympathetic pattern – bringing people to equilibrium, and it is opposite to fight and flight.
Surprise – opening eyes, permitting larger visual area, more light to retina. Additional info about unexpected event, making it easier to figure out exactly what is going on.
Disgust – upper lip curled, a wrinkled nose– instinctive tries to close the nostrils against bad smell or spit out the toxic food.
Sadness – a plunge in energy, slowing down the body’s metabolism, opportunity to mourn over some sort of a loss. Later energy returns. The loss of energy also maintains people closer to homes, where they feel safer.
Responsive traffic lights
I particularly like the very workable idea, that Goleman proposed namely working with children, and I have been using it ever since in courses with adults, and it seems grown-up people get very much the idea of what is the best possible course of action when the anger seems to completely paralyse and act on our behalf. Traffic lights. Picture it. Whenever you feel the anger is coming, or you are already in the midst of it, stop. It’s a red light, so you just hold off any possible action. Remove yourself if possible from the situation, either physically, or if it is not possible - mentally. Count. Breath. Check how is your little toes doing. Anything, but stopping yourself from saying something or performing anything that you might regret later.
Now - is the amber time. The time to bring yourself some more reasonable thoughts: how is this all going to benefit to me? Or the other person, if that is possible to think. But first and foremost, if any of the possible actions I’m going to take - is it going to benefit the situation? If I’m about to shout at another person - is it going to help to resolve it. If it is - carry on! If it isn’t - what is the better course of action, more helpful and maybe reasonable. Would saying something assertively can be a bit more beneficial? I will perhaps be able to say how I feel, rather than just blame another person. Or maybe, I may ask for a time-out - to come back to the situation, when we are both less-heated and more clear-minded. Or… I believe there could be couple more beneficial actions. The amber colour could also mean you may need to do a quick breather, or a simple couple minutes scan - what’s happening to my body, my thoughts and my feelings.
But once you are able to choose the one that will the most likely be the beneficial one for the situation, press the green button to act.
Accepting before changing
Acceptance and commitment therapy, and so the mindfulness theorists say that emotions do not need to be changed. If you accept their existence, if you stay with them, they will pass, sooner or later. Yes, that might not be the most pleasant moments, however, they could provide with a lot of good material to explore, mainly about yourself. Being aware – is the key whether you are choosing to accept emotions and stay with them until they fade, or if you are spotting your negative thinking patterns and you are about to change their intensity and doubt about their rationality.
Awareness - the first step
Labelling emotions, as accurately as one possibly can, is a good way to start understanding yourself better. There are plenty of resources there, for instance, Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions, Plutchik ‘Wheel of emotions’. You can identify, explore, pigeonhole them. Rating the emotions from 0 to 100 might help to spot the change of the intensity. Reflecting them in colours or metaphors can be helpful too: it is another way to put the feelings and moods on the gallery wall: you are observing it, rather than dwelling in it. For instance, once I asked the group to think of their week, and think about it in terms of animals. The picture was humorous, though passed an important message: a pride of lions, a crocodile, a shark, couple cats and a leopard. The colours could be either named or even painted/drawn, particularly if working with children. ‘What has your week been like in a colour. Colour–code is yours’. Experiment, explore your best way to pull it into surface: the emotions become clearer and less threatening.
Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional intelligence. Bloombsbury Publishing House.