What, exactly, is an emotion?
This question has long been debated. Nonetheless, this complex state can be said to involve cognitive appraisals, physiological changes, and behavioral responses. Take, for instance, fear—one of the most researched emotions. An event or situation that triggers fear results in a cognitive appraisal, a thought that evaluates the situation. This, in turn, brings about a physiological change in the body, such as an increased heart rate, increased temperature, or tense muscles. A behavioral response, such as screaming or running away, often follows.
Researchers Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley have identified 27 categories of emotions, all of which serve a purpose. Without them, we would not know when to feel alarmed (anxiety), let down (disappointment), or safe (relaxation), for example. Emotions also inform others about our inner state, which in turn evokes their own emotions and promotes various social interactions.
Emotions become an issue when they are overwhelming, inappropriate for the situation, or we experience negative ones too often. Many of our difficulties with emotions come from the way we think about the world, things around us, things that happened to us, and so forth. Intense emotions can be distressing and may interfere with our ability to carry out day-to-day activities and the way we interact with others. Therefore, it is important to know how to manage intense emotions.
Cognitive behavioral therapy encourages individuals to do the following:
1. Label Your Emotions
The first step to help manage emotional discomfort is to label the emotions we are experiencing. It is important to become familiar with the different types of emotions, including those that are more complex (such as contempt, love, and remorse), so we can correctly label our experience of them.
2. Identify Thoughts Behind Your Emotions
The thoughts that precede our emotions also provide additional insights into our difficulties. The thought “I’m not as smart as other people at this meeting” can result in great distress and limit our verbal exchanges. However, we can change the way we think by asking ourselves if what we are thinking is true, helpful, or kind. If the answer is no, we have a way to modify our thinking (e.g., “People at this meeting are probably not worried about my intelligence”). This is known as cognitive reappraisal.
3. Carefully Examine Any Other Emotions
Believe it or not, many of us do not correctly identify emotions. We may say we are sad when what we are really experiencing is frustration or shame. Therefore, it is important to go back and reexamine what we are experiencing. Our thoughts should match our feelings. It is also important to realize we may be experiencing more than one emotion. This step enhances our understanding of what we are experiencing.
4. Rate Your Emotions
For experiences that seem too hard to manage or intolerable, it is helpful to rate the degree of emotion we are experiencing. This can be done using a scale of 0-10 or by giving a percentage of how much an emotion is being felt at a given moment. Ratings not only help us determine which emotions we are struggling with the most, they give us an idea of how we perceive the difficulty. A bonus is that ratings can be a great tool for monitoring improvements in the way we are feeling.
5. Practice Acceptance
There are times when cognitive reappraisal is difficult, especially if a professional is not there to help. More recent literature has evolved suggesting it is helpful, however, to notice the full experience of emotions with openness and curiosity. This practice involves recognizing patterns of thinking (e.g., “I’m often panicked”), physiological sensations (e.g., muscle tension), and maladaptive behavior (e.g., avoiding communication of personal needs) without changing them. This allows you to create “space” for these less pleasant emotions.
6. Increase Positive Emotions
Give attention to positive events, things that interest you, and practice gratitude. We can proactively modify our feelings not only by changing the way we think or creating space, but by attending to more pleasant experiences.
To successfully implement these strategies, you will need to practice, practice, and practice again. Change takes time and patience. Do not overemphasize reduction of negative emotions; remember, emotions are there for a reason. It is best to focus on personal growth and improvement. And if you are not experiencing the desired improvements, it may be time to seek professional help.
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- Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Hockenbury, D. H., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
- Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
- Papa, A., & Epstein, E. (2008). Emotions and emotion regulation. In S. Hayes & S. Hoffman (Eds.) Processed-Based CBT: The Science and Core Competencies of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (pp. 137-152). Oakland, CA: Context Press.
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