Dissecting emotions to control them better

Imagine for a second that you’re a scientist on a journey to answer the question: “How can I control my emotions?” The first thing you’ll need to do is understand what EXACTLY an emotion is and HOW it works. 

Luckily for us, some very bright people have already done this. To save you (and me) from having to do a PhD in neurosciences I’ve simplified it below.

The key thing here 

The brain is exposed to an infinite amount of data every second of the day so it needs to be efficient. It, therefore, makes a selection based on our own past experiences as well as genetic legacy (which we can call the “caveman brain”). The brain doesn’t only interpret the outside world, it also runs its own stimulations and predicts outcomes using our past experiences and the structure of the caveman’s brain. 

Bearing in mind that the brain’s job is to keep us alive and that it doesn’t have the time to go through all our memories, it uses “concepts” which are, you could say, compressed versions of thousands of past experiences. Our brain uses concepts all the time, especially when we speak so that we can immediately understand words like “table,” “house” etc without having to think about every single table or house we’ve ever come across. 

>> Our thoughts may feel like they are based on the “real” world but they’re often based on our internal predictions. Scientists estimate that reality may, in fact, play a role as small as 10% of the reality that we experience. 

Once the brain has made simulations and predictions about what is likely to happen, it prepares us to act on it. At this point, a complex network of neurons, hormones etc gets activated and triggers things our body, things like feeling warm, sweating, a tight throat, dry mouth, tears etc. 

>> The physical emotions are completely real. 

This system allows you to jump away the split second you think you’ve seen a snake, or a shadow, without being conscious of it. It is a very, very important tool for our survival. But in our day to day life, it has its limitations. 

What this means for us

It basically means that when we talk about trying to “control our emotions” what we’re doing is shooting the messenger. You can definitely shoot the messenger, and many people do, but the message DOES NOT DISAPPEAR. What we need to focus on, instead, is changing the message. In other words, we need to have another look at our brain’s selection choices, interpretations and predictions. 

How can I do this exactly? 

Brooke Castillo has developed a very useful model to help us, over time, bypass this system the brain has in place for us. 

The trick is that every time you feel a negative (or positive for that matter) emotion, you need to break down the situation like this: 

I hate being angry at horses (or at anyone for that matter) and this technique has really helped me rein in anger by not triggering it in the first place. It has also helped me become much more efficient in the actions that I take based on these emotions.

What just happened?

I did not change the reality. Quite the contrary, I forced myself to be as OBJECTIVE as possible. This objectivity helped me make a more useful assessment of the situation (instead of letting old experiences or, worse, the caveman brain take over.) As a result, I did not have to shoot the messenger (emotions). Instead, I could use this information to take (or not take) a course of action that is most useful to what I am trying to achieve.

An extra tip: 

The more precise you are when describing your feelings to yourself, the better equipped you will be to make the appropriate changes. Scientists have found that people with a wider emotional vocabulary (i.e. precise words that can help identify emotions) tend to have a better agency over their feelings, and therefore their emotions. 

You can download this table to help you build that emotional vocabulary.

Emotional vocabulary PDF
Download PDF • 622KB

I have a confession to make. This is not all there is to it. There is another EXTREMELY important aspect of the anatomy of an emotion that I have skipped. 

I will tell you all about it next time. 

For more information visit STUFF TALKS.


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