Changing how you feel is difficult. Do you ask yourself “Why Do I feel this way?” or “How can I change how I feel, how can I change my feelings?”
One of the most powerful concepts that people struggle with is how to control their emotions. I’m no emotional rollercoaster, but, like everyone, I also experience my anger, my lows. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to start out crying, and, through some mental technique or routine, come out ecstatic? I’m going to talk about the techniques I use, and some of the shortfalls. One thing I will cover is namely the dichotomy between the objective mind and the animal mind (the emotional part), and how this is one of the main reasons it is difficult to ‘convince’ yourself to do something.
Now, there are a few techniques that seems to help, which I describe in the rest of this article. A sort of two-pronged attack I have developed is to focus, in a structured way, on both the physical and the mental. Many of these techniques you will have heard of, and while many practice them at some point, many give them up. In fact, these techniques can be extremely effective, but they must be first understood and second practiced in the correct way!
To conquer the physical feelings, I do things such as breathe slowly, sometimes rub the insides of my eyelids or massage my scalp. I also stretch different large muscle groups in my legs as well as my back, shoulders, chest, and arms. This seems to alleviate some of the feeling, and centers me a little bit by changing my mental focus into calmness and serenity. These tend to help, but don’t attack the main problem. Instead, it aids in conquering the emotional, parasympathetic, fight-or-flight response in the short term.
Attacking the mental aspect of feeling is a completely different matter. Let’s quickly and objectively overview how emotions are created and manifested, so we can better understand how to change them.
Usually, one feels an emotion due to some (external) stimulus, such as a bad grade or harsh words from a boss. When we say stimulus, we mean how the event looked, how it sounded, how it felt (touch), how it tasted, or how it smelt. Now, at the moment of stimulus, the body takes in all this information and builds an internal ‘model’ that describes this situation. By model, we mean that the body builds some sort of internal representation to remember all this information using neurons, etc. At the point of stimulus, the body also associates your initial feeling with that model, such as ‘angry’ or ’sad’. Thus, whenever you think about that same stimulus, your body looks up the stored model in memory and sees how you felt before, which tends to push you to feel that same way again*. Similarly, this outside stimulus creates a chemical and neurological reaction within the body which only propagates that feeling. From this, we can objectively see that feelings and emotions are simply interpreted responses to external stimuli, a so-called chemical cascade.
The next step involved is trying to change that provoked thought pattern by speaking and reasoning to oneself internally. For example, if some one spilled milk on me, I could try to reason with myself, saying its not a big deal and that I could just wash my clothes afterward to allay my oncoming anger.
However, if anyone has ever tried this technique, many would note its extreme shortcomings. What shortcomings? Well, let’s again take the example of getting spilled on by some milk. As soon as the milk is spilled, my initial reaction is negative, almost angry, and internally it is almost like I am anticipating more anger, like I can feel it building up inside me. At the same time, however, my objective mind is keeping cool; my objective mind has seen the spill, and I am telling myself ‘its no big deal’, and begins working reassuring myself its no big deal. “Really, I don’t feel bad at all,” I tell myself with my objective mind.
Maybe this helps a little bit, maybe, but really it FEELS inadequate. Most of the time, I can still feel the oncoming emotion build up. The external stimuli has triggered the chemical cascade inside me, and its too late to stop the oncoming emotion, no matter how much I reason it through. Its a really weird feeling, knowing that you shouldn’t and don’t want to feel one way, but having your emotions control.
Now, at this point, many people quit. They have reasoned through it, and they have ‘done all they can do’. In fact, there is another step! Many simply give into the emotion, and let it slowly make its way. What must be done, however, is hard! What you have to do is focus on the end goal. Focus on the feeling that you want to feel, and actively take steps toward it! Maybe it seems stupid, but you have to cure emotion with a different external stimuli! Taking action is the key to solving the problem! And while reasoning through some things tends to allay some emotion, the stimulation needs to cause a chemical and neurological reaction to help counter the first.
It’s important to note the different stimuli in this situation. There are two, in fact. The first stimulus is the external one that causes the emotion to occur, while the second is YOU telling YOURSELF. That’s right, when you speak to yourself, you are actually activating some of the same parts of your brain that are activated when you actually hear something, or when you speak. Thus, the brain probably distinguishes the difference between external and internal stimuli. It filters what you tell yourself internally, so it essentially takes control away from what you can stimulate your body to do. Thus, convince yourself all you want, your brain could be wired to dampen or even ‘ignore’ that self-reassurance or any commands you tell yourself. This makes sense for a few reasons - one, it may be dangerous to allow us to control our own bodies (as our consciousness is rather linear, and ill-equipped to handle such complex activities such as fighting infections, etc.), - two, it may be that while your objective mind holds the focus of your consciousness (as opposed to focusing on pain, or on depression), that this somehow releases control of the animal mind to proceed with building up the emotion. It may be that the mind just hears itself talk all the time, that it becomes less familiar and more numb to internal commands or speech.
Let’s Talk About Chemicals For A Second.
Reasoning something out and attacking from a perspective is in fact effective, and let me tell you why. It could be that external stimuli have a greater capacity (as opposed to internal reassurance) to cause a chemical cascade of emotion.
What we have to understand is that in the chemical world, reactions take time. Internally, once your emotions have been provoked, they build up some momentum; reversing chemical reactions, whether it be in a test tube or in the body, is very hard! The body takes time to revert to previous or normal levels! Who knows the full extent of the parasympathetic, fight-or-flight response in the body.
What happens is that your objective mind is sometimes much quicker than the emotional cascade. You can reason through the situation, yet your emotions are just getting revved up. The remedy is thinking through the reason for this emotion, taking action (as earlier stated), but it takes time for this to process. Have you ever felt really mad, then you thought it through, went to bed, and felt completely better or different the next morning?
Thus, I would say the main point is that our bodies can quickly create strong emotions, but that our body is slow to process our reasoning. Maybe this is because hormones and enzymes can quickly be released, but that neurons are slow to grow and connect.
I wouldn’t say the purpose of an emotion is to cause you to reason through something, but thinking is usually a by-product of emotion.** Words allow us reason through things so that we don’t provoke the same emotional responses, or so that we can reason through the ones we have (which seperates us from animals!, who may have their own way to cope with emotions, such as licking themselves). In some cases, we need to reason and try to understand, such as when a loved one dies. In other situations, such as spilling milk, we can quickly refer to previous times we have reasoned through this similar situation. Over time, our emotional response can be dampened! The process though is like any other, it takes practice and reasoning. Isn’t that great?
Some other complex and interesting problems may be:
Are some emotions/feeling more primitive than others? I.e. is anger and hunger more basic than ambivalence?
How is the role of the emotion changing today in the modern world? What role is it playing, and how is this different from before? Using this information, can we speculate as to how human thinking could evolve?
Because many drugs can create ‘false’ emotions (not based on external stimuli), does this confuse our brains? We don’t reason through the emotions felt by a drug, because we expect the feelings. Because we don’t reason, we don’t stimulate our mental thinking to change at all; how is this manifested in the brain? In Neurons, and over time in our overall emotional responses to different situations?
*(When one tries to ‘remember’, essentially what they are doing is trying to ‘hallucinate’ how things were when they were stimulated. By ‘hallucinating’, we mean that the mind tries to make you feel like you are in that same situation (i.e. you can see in your mind’s eye what was happening, you can almost hear the harsh words, you can smell the stink of the breath, etc.) Thus, the ‘remember’ process is associated with recalling all the stimuli of a given situation. Included in this list of stimuli is how you felt - emotionally - at the time. Thus, by ‘remembering’, you are telling your body to put you back into a stack of that emotion. We tend to think that it is the words that do this, but really words are just a ‘road map’ into accessing different parts of our brain. More on this in another article)