Emotions are more than just feelings. But how exactly are they more than just feelings? We assign words to emotions and we have a subjective experience. We grow up developing an idea of emotions. We learn words such as happy, sad, disgust, etc. and then learn from the experiences associated. We understand our emotions iteratively and we have an innate capacity to comprehend them.
What are emotions?
J.S. Nairne defines emotions as “a complex psychological event that involves a mixture of reactions: (1) a physiological response (usually arousal), (2) an expressive reaction (distinctive facial expression, body posture, or vocalization) and (3) some kind of subjective experience (internal thoughts and feelings).”
Contrary to popular beliefs, emotions and thoughts are not disparate entities. Research shows that thoughts and emotions are embedded in each other. And both affect each other in complex ways.
Before we get to thinking about emotions, we need to first understand the 6 major aspects of emotions. These aspects are the raw materials which affect our experiences and these raw materials are what we need to work with to think about our emotions.
Let us expand this into what psychology calls the ‘affect’. Affect has a number of features under its broad wings:
1. Sensory input: We have about 10 sensory systems which provides valuable information to the brain and this information later informs our thoughts and feelings. We usually tend to think about emotional responses to what we see, hear and touch. However, we have strong emotional responses to other sensory information. For example, our vestibular sense (balance & motion, inside the ear canals) can lead to negative emotions about an experience. An imbalance in this system leads to motion sickness and a beautiful road trip can turn into a miserable experience because of it. Here is another example – discomfort due to tight clothes and shoes can change how sensitive your mind is with respect to negative thoughts. It could unnecessarily amplify distressing thoughts or emotional reactions.
2. Bodily and mental arousal: Heart rate, pupil dilation, muscle tension, fatigue, stiffness, lethargy, blood pressure, facial expressions, body posture, horniness, mental energy, and your body’s readiness to do something, all are part of emotional arousal. Arousal is the level of your body and mind’s readiness to engage in an activity. In an aroused state, you are biologically more active and attentive. Arousal is closely related to motivation. In fact, emotions are, in a sense, a part of motivation. Sadness can demotivate you and a lack of motivation can make you feel sad. Happiness can make you more receptive to doing something and doing something can make you happy. The point is, arousal, motivation, and emotions are closely tied together through a wide range of physiological and psychological mechanisms.
3. The actual emotions: One of the first things we learn as a species is expressions and how they make us feel. When a parent shouts at a child or praises a child, the foundation of emotions is cemented. We associate this basic behaviour and expressions with words. This is extremely easy because emotions are embedded in our biology. Disgust and physical withdrawal, for example, is a very common reaction to something you don’t like. Noxious smells induce disgust and that is a universal phenomenon.
4. The general mood: If emotions are the fruits of a tree, mood is the ecosystem. Emotions can be very specific but moods can be broad and general. Some emotions are more likely to occur in a specific mood. For example, if your basic mood is passive and being in an unreceptive state, authoritative advice and criticism can irritate you more than necessary. A mood lays the foundation and a context for various emotional and cognitive tendencies. These include how intense an emotion feels, how often it occurs, what information you pay attention to, etc. A state of heightened physical arousal (can amplify worrying. This brings us to point 5 and 6.
5. The variability, intensity, frequency, potency and valence in all the factors above: Take an emotion. You can describe 5 properties about that emotion and consequently, ask 5 types of questions which can give you great insight into your emotional side.
a. Variability: What is the range of emotions you experience? Are there nuanced differences which you find meaningful?
b. Intensity: How powerful is your emotional experience or memory of emotional events?
c. Frequency: How often do you experience a particular emotion or a set of emotions?
d. Potency: How strong an influence does a particular emotion have on your behaviour and thoughts?
e. Valence: Is the experience good or bad? Does it have individual goodness and badness in it?
Having answers to these questions is a great way to become emotionally self-aware.
6. Meta-cognitive input: Think of all the worries and fears you’ve had. The insecurities you’ve had and how you dealt with those. Think of the experiences which made you feel proud and accomplished. When you think about thoughts and emotions which have already occurred, you are engaging in meta-cognition – “thinking about thinking”. This becomes a second-layer of raw material for thinking. Metacognition is highly dynamic; what you think about existing thoughts and feelings is completely in your control.
7. Social contexts: Emotions are often associated with people, and evolutionary psychology has given us some insight into how emotions facilitate interpersonal relationships. In fact, a large aspect of emotions is our social nature. Think about it for a minute, why would emotions evolve to have dedicated facial expressions and vocalizations (cry, laugh, change in vocal pitch, speed of talking, etc.)? These revolve around communication with others (including animals)!
The first 4 points are pretty obvious and a little bit of self-awareness can easily help you understand your emotional state. But that is just the start. Points 5 and 6 is what makes things interesting. Today, we are going to talk about addressing those because those give you the power to manage emotions to improve the quality of life. Research shows that emotions and thoughts about affect are linked with mental health, social dynamics, and even productivity. The first step in thinking and dealing with emotions is awareness about what the emotional experience is all about. We just looked at 6 different aspects of emotions. Understanding those can help you with awareness.
But, there is a caveat, how aware we are of our own emotions can determine our overall tendencies. For example, research has shown that focusing on just the superficial affect (goodness vs. badness valence) is better to deal with negative experiences at the work place. The more nuances people focus on, the more likely they were to retain negative affect in the workplace. So the insight here is that there is a time to focus on details. If you wish to understand your behaviour, analyze your emotions. If you attend to minute details during a workplace conflict, you might be doing more damage. So choose when you want to focus on the superficial nature of emotions or the dive into the core of it.
The next step is emotional regulation. Emotional regulation is the ability to manage, modify, and utilize emotions in useful ways. We regulate emotions in many ways, some healthy and some unhealthy. Healthy emotional regulation involves taking breaks, having conversations, blowing off steam via a hobby, exercising, etc. Unhealthy emotional regulation involves self-harm, picking fights, drinking to avoid pain, etc.
Some other useful emotional regulation techniques are taking a walk in a fresh natural environment, meditation, yoga, and music.
There are some cognitive strategies which can help with regulating emotions:
1. Manipulating your attention and choosing what to focus on
2. Immersing yourself in a stimulating environment which competes with your emotionally distressing thoughts
3. Cognitive restructuring (with a therapist’s help)
4. Creating psychological distance between your thoughts and you.
5. Verbally changing the narrative of your memories by telling yourself a different version of the story
6. Using self-instructions like increasing or decreasing emotional reactions. Humans can use these mental modifiers to change any experience because virtually anything can be abstracted.
Berking and Whitley describe a pretty useful method of dealing with aversive emotions:
1. First, you bring negative emotions into awareness, don’t suppress them
2. Instruct yourself to tolerate the emotions
3. Address the context of these emotions – does it involve low self-esteem, does it involve other people, does it involve a fear of failure, etc.
4. Tell yourself you are resilient and strong emotional reactions
Sometimes, these aversive emotions are the reason we procrastinate. This emotional regulation mechanism is perfect if you want to procrastinate. There is just one other step to add. After you are done telling yourself you are strong and resilient, you ascribe more emotional meaning to anything that you are procrastinating. You’ll be surprised how powerful this technique is.
Cognitive biases and emotional thoughts
A more advanced step is understanding and overcoming cognitive biases which influence metacognition, and thereby, your future emotions.
Cognitive biases are rigid and innate thinking tendencies. These are mental shortcuts we use to arrive at conclusions. However, these aren’t really useful today. A long time ago, in a time far far away, we needed to jump to conclusions – if the prehistoric human saw a shadow of a dog, it would be more useful to jump to the conclusion that there is a wolf ready to attack. This is because waiting to assess what the shadow is might give the wolf enough time to attack. Cognitive biases are based on these contexts. It made more sense to be prepared to deal with the wolf than to set back and think. The price of not preparing for the bad scenario was very high and the price of wasted panic was low.
The story is different today. We live in a world which is far different from our evolutionary contexts. However, our brains still retain the mechanisms for these cognitive biases. The contexts have changed – we don’t need to be scared of wolves but it is fair to be scared of a shadowy figure following you at night. These cognitive biases manifest in different ways.
Here are a few examples:
1. The confirmation bias – We cherry pick information to suit our narrative and point of view.
2. The survivorship bias – We don’t focus on the 99 people who were unsuccessful by doing an activity but we ascribe value to the activity of the 1 person who did succeed.
3. The anchoring bias – We rely on arbitrary data to create educated guesses by applying some logic but the arbitrary data can be misguiding
There is a lot to know about cognitive biases and must read the book “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, by Rolf Dohelli.
Cognitive biases are closely related to metacognition and they can become the raw material for emotions, especially while introspecting. So to think about emotional experiences, it is useful to address your own cognitive biases.
Some strategies to do so are: look for contrary data, assume what you don’t know, assume that some things can’t be known, figure out what information is worth paying attention to and separate the signal from the noise. Overcoming cognitive biases is hard but it is the key to objective decision making. It’ll prevent an emotionally clouded judgment and help you make better decisions.
Thinking about emotions has 3 steps:
1. Awareness of what emotions are, what they are made up of and how they manifest
2. Emotional regulation: Modifying and managing emotions in healthy ways
3. Addressing cognitive biases