Despite the best intentions and well-made plans, sometimes our emotions can get the better of us. The more we suppress our emotions, the greater likelihood that someday, someway (usually at the most inconvenient time), they will have you. Once we are experiencing our emotions, what choices do we have? How can we “have our emotions” so that they don’t have us?
In a previous post, I wrote about four strategies to help you control your emotions, so they don’t get the better of you. But if these strategies haven’t worked for you, we have limited options for suppressing them. The two most common are not very good options.
The first is stuffing them deep inside: “No really, I’m not upset. I’m fine that George is taking credit for the project I worked all weekend to complete.” The second is self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to ease the sting and outwardly shift our response and the way people perceive us.
Neither of these solutions addresses the underlying cause of the emotion. Research shows that although suppressing emotions can be situationally adaptive (providing a short-term win), it comes with long-term costs. When we suppress feelings during emotional events, we are increasing our physiological arousal (our heart rate, blood pressure, etc.).
Emotional intensity is correlated with memory loss. It is cognitively costly to suppress emotions. We remember fewer details and we drain our finite cognitive resources. Suppressing emotions is resource-intensive for our bodies, for our memories, and for our well-being.
So what is the solution? All too often, once the moment of crisis has passed, we move on. But what we must learn to do is create safe, neutral spaces to process our emotions. Here’s how:
- Be present with your emotions. What was the feeling? What was it that triggered you? Create space for emotional reflections, to be aware and present with emotions, but not to the point of rumination or wallowing in them.
- Employ affective labeling. This is a fancy way of saying put emotions into words. Over time, labeling our emotions helps us to regulate them. It activates parts of our brain that reduce arousal. The more we label and understand emotions, the more prepared we are in the future to face them.
- Reappraisal. This is cognitive change (link to earlier blog); shifting the way we are thinking about the situation, the emotion, the experience. What else could this mean? What else could be true? How can you think about this situation differently? How can you reconsider this emotion in a more positive light?
Creating time, space, and energy to process emotions necessitates discipline. How can you make this a habit? What will give you leverage to build this new muscle?