Is It Hard for You To Feel This Way?
The year 2020 has got us all swimming in deep waters. We are still trying to figure out ways to stay healthy while maintaining a semi-normal life. Countless medical professionals continue to work at the front lines as first responders while millions are physically fighting the infectious coronavirus itself. Needless to say, the pandemic has been a huge trigger for us all. And perhaps, the occasional deep dives into our beautifully chaotic lives have started to reveal some painful emotions.
In the midst of chaos, we need to learn to speak the language of our emotions to keep our mental health in check.
What is in an emotion?
Emotion is an umbrella term for a variety of interlinked processes that occur within the brain and body. Emotions like anger, sadness, and joy prepare us to behave in certain ways. According to research scientist Hyisung Hwang and psychology professor David Matsumoto from San Francisco State University, “emotion” can be thought of as a metaphor for our subjective experience, physiological reactions, thoughts, and expressive behaviors in a particularly triggering situation.
Both external and internal events can elicit emotions in us. Financial loss or success, medical bills and postponed events are all examples of external triggers that bring up specific emotions in each individual. Worrying about the past, however also revs up our bodies’ natural stress response, stirring up a variety of emotions within. Furthermore, the emotions that arise within us determine how we act by motivating future behavior.
For instance, think back to an experience in April. What was it like being in quarantine for you and how did you act around other people? If you felt frustrated, annoyed and worried about everything, how did you behave relative to these feelings?
Embrace the negative
Harvard University psychologist and the author of the best selling book Emotional Agility, Susan David suggests that emotions act as signposts to what we care about. According to David, emotions help us adapt to change in a way that is constructive and healthy. Ignoring our thoughts, however, does not work at all. Just recall the famous “white bear” experiment by Harvard professor and thought suppression researcher Daniel Wegner. When we are told to not think about something, we end up thinking about it even more. So, instead of suppressing how we feel and think, it is more beneficial to treat our emotions as signposts that help us get closer to our wants and needs.
According to David, emotional agility is a process. No matter what emotions we feel, we are wired to feel them as human beings. And painful emotions are no exception. As a matter of fact, David writes in Emotional Agility that “We are wired to feel negative at times. It’s simply a part of the human condition.” What is important is how we act on our emotions.
Evolutionarily speaking, emotions have served an important purpose in our lives. Anger, for example, sets off certain physiological and psychological reactions to prepare us to fight in dangerous situations. Fear helps us run away from unsafe circumstances. Sadness, on the other hand, is a social signal for connection.
When dealing with intense emotions, remember that you are being called to pay attention to yourself and the environment around you. Susan David offers these suggestions in an interview with Harvard Business Review to help us better manage difficult emotions:
- Practice “gentle acceptance.” We cannot control how others behave during the pandemic however, we can control how we respond.
- Treat your emotions as signposts. For example, if you are feeling overwhelmed, this might be a sign that you need to devote more time to self-care.
- Show up to your difficult emotions to connect with your values.
Finally, David reminds us that “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” As long as we are walking on this earth, we will experience pain and discomfort. However, courageously showing up to difficult emotions will bring more meaning and value into our lives.
- 1. Hwang, H. & Matsumoto, D. (2018). In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. https://nobaproject.com/modules/functions-of-emotions
- 2. David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility. Penguin USA.
- 3. Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J.,Carter, S. R., & White, T. L. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(1), 5-13.
- 4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tqczp0By38U