Our emotions control behavior more than anything else, but it is through our thoughts that we can regulate the self and make wise decisions.
Humans share a basic set of emotions. As an infant we already begin to express anger, joy, and fear without using verbal communication. Emotions are integral for our social lives, mental health, and physical health, and are the cause of rich and intense experiences such as being in love or happiness, as well as uncomfortable experiences such as anxiety or jealousy. The Norwegian researches Straume and Vittersø recently published an article in the Journal of Positive Psychology about how emotions regulate behavior. Feelings of well-being such as satisfaction and joy have had the primary purpose of regulating anatomical mechanisms like hunger, thirst, and temperature, in addition to building social relations. The more attractive positive feelings such as being immersed in an activity, enthusiasm, curiosity, and interest serve very few anatomical purposes but are strongly connected to learning and development. This follows the same argumentation as previous research which has shown that simple positive feelings build human resources and make us more flexible in our way of thinking, while others motivate to perseverance and effort.
Negative emotions release often three different behavioral alternatives. The flight response is connected to anger, and the feeling motivates a desire to fight by being defensive or attacking (fight response). Fear motivates a flight response because the largest chance to survive is to return to security (flight response). Sometimes, fear is so intense that it results in an inability to react, where one goes into shock (freeze response). Physically, the negative feelings of a stress reaction are supposed to get the body prepared. Breathing quickens, our heart beats faster, and temperature increases. All of the functions we do not have use for in this moment –such as digestion and our immune system – get “turned off” in the short period of time the negative feelings are active. This occurs because we need all of our energy to be directed to the large muscle groups so that we are ready to respond in fight or flight.
Emotions have an important function in telling us what we need, how we are doing. They lead us to make choices. Not not all emotions can be regulated, even negative feelings shouldn’t be regulated away from. The goal should be that we can relate to what is difficult and uncomfortable in a new way. We have some exercises that work well:
1. Self-regulating through thoughts
We have two different mental positions: the associative, where we see ourselves from the inside-out, and dissociative where we see ourselves from the outside-in. When we see ourselves from the inside-out we retrieve experiences in our body, remember details, and feel the physical reactions from the memory. By seeing ourselves from the outside-in we create a larger distance. We observe ourselves as if we on film and therefore do not need to engage ourselves in the same way emotionally. You can practice associating positive experiences by retrieving details from an experience and feeling how they feel in your body. We can think of negative experiences as learning, but we can dissociate them if we need to create distance to something that was difficult.
2. Self-regulating through feeling
Draw a straight line on a piece of paper and mark a cross in the middle. The line represents your lifespan. On the upper side and to the left of the cross make a small and large balloon that describe positive experiences you have had. You can also draw negative balloons that hang underneath the line. The cross represents this moment, which means that none of the experiences you have drawn are happening in this moment. You can choose which experiences you wish to carry with you. Choose one of the positive balloons and visualize as many details as you can. The memory will quickly recreate that good feeling.
3. Self-regulating through behavior Breath and emotion are inextricably linked to each other. If something is dangerous or in the process of happening, we take a deep breath and hold it in. If everything is solved and is going to be fine, we breathe relieved out. The saying “breathe with your stomach” has a direct calming function on the body, thoughts, and our feelings. Our body language is also an excellent tool. To illustrate this you can try the following: Stand with your legs slightly apart, raise your head, straighten your spine, shoot your chest forward, stretch your hands out and up , smile with your face - and try at the same time to think of something negative. It’s pretty hard to do, isn’t it?