Recognizing Our Emotions

The idea of taking control of our emotions is intriguing, to say the least. Controlling something so potentially volatile can seem impossible, but it is a necessary – and acquirable – skill.

For a lot of people, emotional reactions sneak up on them, and seem to come out of nowhere. The emotion, or passion, overwhelms the brain’s ability to think about anything else while it deals with the emotional response. Neuroscientists have actually observed increased activity in the amygdala, the area of the brain that generates emotions.

You know what that feels like, when you can’t seem to pull your attention away from the feelings, and they seem to grow larger and more imposing the more you think about them. So what to do?

What psychotherapists have known for some time is that by simply recognizing and naming the emotion, it reduces the effect of that emotion, and allows us to manage the behaviors that show up in reaction to the emotion. In other words, once we get the emotion out, into the light of day, so to speak, its power is lessened. When we can name it, put it down on paper or into discussion, the passion is put to the side and we can analyze the emotion as an object – like studying the construction of a table.

When this happens, the activity in the amygdala drops off, and there is greater activity in our right frontal lobe – the part of the brain involved in problem solving (among other things). And neuroscientists can watch this happen during fMRI’s.

The good news is that there are tools we can use to help us take the intensity out of our emotions, and give ourselves time for a little self-analysis. Mindfulness meditation, where we monitor the emotion, moment by moment, allows us to recognize the emotion without the passion getting involved. Journaling is another valuable tool, where we literally write our way through to understanding the emotional experience, by giving it a name.

And by doing this, taking control of your emotions, you are also boosting your immune system by not getting so stressed about what you are feeling.