Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
Emotions are the dark horses of our psyche. In a culture that exalts thinking and its descendants – decision making capacity and creative problem solving – many of us are unaware that recent neuroscience has irrefutable evidence that emotions are the backbone to all functional thinking.
Arguably, our lack of emotional understanding has led to more suffering than any other form of ignorance. How many of us feel comfortable talking to a loved one in grief? How many of us can sense our own uncomfortable emotions accurately and respond to them in an intelligent and effective way?
This article is a quick guide to help you understand your emotions better.
Subjectively speaking, your emotions can be broken down into 3 basic elements:
Your primary emotions have 2 basic impulses: approach or avoid. When you love someone you want to approach them. Anger (without anxiety) is also an approach emotion. Examples of avoidance emotions are fear and disgust.
When you start to feel an emotion, sense into your body and feel whether it wants to go towards or away from the person or situation that is eliciting the emotion.
Recent neuroscience is discovering the intricate interplay on how thinking and emotions impact each other. We will focus on the impact of conditioned thoughts and beliefs have on emotions.
Side Bar: The research is clear – one of the best ways to learn is to associate emotions to what you are learning. Emotions are one of the most powerful stimuli for brain growth and learning.
Think of two memories. Memory #1 has a powerful emotion associated with it like sadness, love, or embarrassment. Memory #2 has little to no emotion linked with it – such as feeling ok or mildly bored. Compare the two memories in terms of vividness and level of detail. Recall as many senses involved with each memory: sights/sounds/tastes/touch and smell. Note the differences between memories #1 and #2.
For 20 seconds name as many associated memories as you can to each memory. Start with memory #2 first then take a 30 second break and then work with memory #1. Write down the total number of distinctive associated memories for both memories and note the difference.
Once we are experiencing a moderately intense emotion, our thinking becomes biased towards that emotion. For example, if you get pissed off, your thoughts will not only be driven by an angry inner voice spewing fire in your mind, it will activate a network of anger-based beliefs and memories.
Emotions impact the way we perceive the world. Once an emotion is triggered it activates perceptual filtering – based on stored beliefs and conditioned cognitive models – that emphasize the value of objects that are in alignment with your current emotion and deemphasize the value of objects that are deemed not as relevant to your present emotional state.
This perceptual filtering response will bias your interpretations of the events that are happening in your environment. If you become fearful, you might interpret a woman reaching into her pocketbook as something dangerous and have anticipatory thoughts that she might be reaching for a gun. If you get sad, your attention will tend to hang out with sadness evoking stimuli and tend to dismiss, devalue, or ignore positive feeling evoking stimuli. Your environment may look dimmer and drearier. What other people say to you will tend to be interpreted more negatively or pessimistically.
In general, the more intense the emotional experience the more intense the biases of the associated thinking responses.
Bodily sensations are at the heart of an emotional experience.
Mind-Simulation Experiment 2:
Think back to the last time you got anxious or angry. Imagine that all your bodily sensations for your emotion disappeared and all you had left were a few anxious or angry thoughts. Your muscles were relaxed. Your body’s energy level stayed even and balanced. Your breathing and heart rate were moving at a restful pace. How long do you think your anxiety or angry thoughts would last if your body had no reaction to them at all?
Bodily sensations are the foundations of our emotions. Without the coordination of the rest of your body, a few emotion-based thoughts and a brief impulse is like a lighter that can spark but can’t light since it’s out of lighter fluid.
There is a general pattern of body reactions and sensations that occur for each emotion that you experience. I call this your sensational signature.
A powerful first step to handle your emotions with greater skill and wisdom is to track and write down the sensations that they tend to invoke and get to know their sensational signatures. It’s best to think of yourself as an alien scientist who has inhabited your body and wants to know more about its sensations and reactions to emotions. You are conducting an observational experiment and writing notes down while sensing your body during an emotional experience.
I needed to learn how to work with my anxiety more effectively and when I explored my sensational signature for anxiety it included:
If my anxiety intensity level was a 7 or higher:
CAVEAT: Do not explore your sensational signatures if you have a history of trauma or think you may have had trauma. You will need to develop additional tools and skills from a trained professional before you can explore them.
Without the guidance of a trained professional, people with trauma might go too quickly into their sensations of discomfort and possibly re-traumatize themselves.
Sensations are the most powerful elements of our emotions. A significant portion of the work that I do with my clients is teaching them how to sense their bodies with greater precision and accuracy. The technical word for sensing the body is interoception (intero = internal :: ception = receiving) which is our 6th sense. I have found that improving my clients’ interoceptive skills to be the most efficient and effective way to improve their emotional regulation and knowledge.
Emotions are the foundations of our experiences. Generally, most of us have not been taught about the nature of emotions and how to work with them effectively. I have found it useful when teaching my clients about emotions to deconstruct them into their three basic elements: impulses, thoughts, and sensations.
I hope you work with this model and ask that you provide helpful feedback so that I can continue to improve upon it and make it more helpful. I look forward to teaching you more about emotions in upcoming articles.