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 topdown 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 .
Peter Lindsayhall is clinical mental health lead at Phoenix Futures
You can begin your own emotional regulation right away by following these simple steps :
1 ) Think about a situation which routinely triggers difficult emotions for you .
2 ) 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 .
3 ) Practise some deep , rhythmic breathing exercises or mindful attention skills .
4 ) 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 .
5 ) 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 .
6 ) 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 .
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