The key to having freedom and joy in our lives stems directly from managing our emotions rationally and effectively. Practicing emotional intelligence keeps us intimately connected with our thoughts and their emotional correlates.
However, sometimes certain habits or life occurrences block us from thriving. Understanding these roadblocks can move us one step closer to healing.
It can be argued that we choose our emotions based on what we think. This notion can be a bit of a misnomer. If we can’t point to the thought or belief with awareness—meaning be conscious of it—can we really say we’ve chosen the emotion in question? I think it’s fair to say no. Psychology has long explored human behavior through the stimulus response theory. Basically, it states that we respond to things (or behave) according to the stimuli presented to us. The challenge with this theory is how to incorporate our personal make-up, decision making, and level of personal awareness into this model and show how they all interact with a stimulus to produce a response.
Practicing emotional intelligence requires patience, determination, and strength. All of these qualities are required when learning to “sit with” our emotions. To fully feel emotions that have long been ignored or resisted can prove quite painful. When we don’t have a loving relationship toward our emotions, we can turn them into bad guys or bogeymen we avoid. Ignoring our emotions in this fashion prevents us from fully recognizing what sorts of beliefs and views we hold. This pattern can develop further into chronic, overreactive emotional responses that may not make sense based on the stimuli present.
A concept that explains this situation is called emotional hijacking. Emotional hijacking occurs when a stimulus activates the “emotional brain” and causes a person to react before that information reaches the neo-cortex. If the information doesn’t reach or get processed by the neo-cortex, reasoning around/with the stimulus in question doesn’t take place. This is important to recognize, as it describes why so many of us feel blindsided and overcome by our emotions. It also explains why so many of us perceive, long after the fact, that an emotion was “irrational.”
While we “choose” our emotions in the sense that what we think leads to what we feel, it’s important to recognize that emotional hijacking is a real phenomenon.
Trauma fits nicely into the concept of emotional hijacking. People who have experienced trauma can find themselves emotionally hijacked on a regular basis. The moment of the traumatic event, the person may have feared for his or her life or safety. Furthermore, he or she may have been unable to get out of the situation and unable to discharge the intense emotional charge of fear and helplessness generated in the moment. This charge gets stuck in the body. Left unprocessed, it can lead to depression, anxiety, and of course emotional hijacking.
Another core aspect of trauma is the formation of mental walls blocking connection with the original hurt. Consciously or unconsciously, a traumatized person learns to avoid anything that may trigger further emotional distress. You can see here that awareness of one’s thoughts isn’t sufficient for healing. One must also learn to re-experience those pent-up emotions in a safe and healthy manner.
While we “choose” our emotions in the sense that what we think leads to what we feel, it’s important to recognize that emotional hijacking is a real phenomenon. When we actively avoid connecting with old hurts and traumas, we set ourselves up for more pain in the future. This two-step process of connecting with our emotions on a bodily level and with the thoughts to which they are connected increases our chances for healing. Learning to acknowledge and eventually accept these emotions helps us live fuller lives.
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