By Wasim Kakroo
EVERY emotional reaction we have as humans is a one-of-a-kind event. What makes you feel bad today might not make you feel bad tomorrow. Maybe you’re sitting at home with your family for what feels like an eternity and you’re about to lose it. Tomorrow, you wake up in the same house, but you are peaceful, and you gladly eat your breakfast and plan your day.
Depending on the situation and the emotions involved, the tactics we can employ to manage emotions are virtually endless. However, just as your emotional responses change over time, the tactics that work now may not work tomorrow. And what works for you may or may not work for your partner or child.
Early in our lives, many of us were exposed to damaging behaviors (not healthy ways) to “manage” stress and anxiety. We heard our parents and peers yell, scream, and blame others, among other things. These emotions are frequently used to alleviate bad feelings and provide brief enjoyment. However, we fail to recognize that they are mostly detrimental behaviors that destroy our relationships, reduce our well-being, and prevent us from attaining our life goals.
It’s much more difficult to control our emotions with effective tactics when we’re unduly anxious and worried, as many of us have been recently with threats like COVID-19. We ruminate, worry, and frequently get ourselves up into a tizzy.
So, what exactly is healthy emotion regulation?
Simply put, healthy emotion regulation is effectively monitoring, moderating, and altering emotional reactions in order to achieve personal and professional objectives.
What do we do when we’re disappointed, delighted, or anxious, to feel more or less of that sensation, to hold on to that feeling, or to change to an other feeling?
This does not, however, imply that difficult feelings should be ignored. It’s more about learning to accept and deal with emotions, both your own and others’. We become less attached, reactive, and overwhelmed by emotions when we give ourselves and others permission to feel all of them.
Goals and Strategies:
It’s helpful to think about emotion control in two components.
The first component is our goal. Goals we have for our emotions are like goals in many sports: we look at the net or goal posts, and we pick where we want the ball to go. When we create a goal for managing our emotions, we are selecting where we want our emotions to go. Do we want them to go up—like feeling even more joyful about a party we’re planning? Or do we want our emotions to decrease, such as less anxious about our ability to regulate what the coronavirus is doing? We have a goal in sports that incorporates where the ball is now and where we want it to be in the future. We do the same thing with our emotions, setting a goal by asking ourselves, “What am I feeling now, and how do I want to feel?”
The second part of managing emotions is the strategy we decide to use. We know where the ball should go, but how are we going to get it there? Will we go for it right away? Or will it be passed to a different player first? That is our plan of action. We shall reach our objectives through strategies. If we’re frightened or apprehensive about what’s going on around us, and we genuinely want to feel less nervous…or calmer, what would our strategy be? Could we take a few deep breaths? The ultimate preventative technique may be mindful breathing. Our ability to be present, accept feelings as they come and go, and not be unduly reactive or overwhelmed by them improves with daily practice.
Given our hectic lifestyles and current lack of control over the future, allowing our minds to be idle is a huge problem for many of us. It’s even more difficult when we’re dealing with powerful emotions like anxiety or fear.
Our brain activates the sympathetic nervous system in response to strong emotions: our heart rate increases, stress hormones and/or endorphins are released depending on the emotion, and we prepare to leave or freeze (when under duress). By lowering our heart rate, mindful breathing allows us to put a brake on the activation of our stress response system. Breathing through the nose is helpful because mouth breathing tends to be faster and shallower (think of a panting dog), which can reactivate the stress response system. When we count our breaths or repeat a relaxing phrase while we are breathing, we regain control because by doing so, the control centre of the brain shifts from the brainstem to the motor cortex. Breathing also aids in autonomic nervous system reset by activating the parasympathetic nervous system while inhibiting the sympathetic (excitatory) nervous system.
Mindful breathing can be done anywhere: at home, at school, at work, or even while trying to fall sleep. It’s ideal to start small and gradually develop a mindful breathing practice. Begin by sitting and breathing deliberately for a few minutes a couple of times a week. You can gradually increase your daily practice time to five, ten, fifteen, or even thirty minutes per day.
Do your best to:
Remove any potential sources of distraction, such as your cell phone.
Lower your eyelids or close your eyes.
Be aware of your body and posture.
Take a deep breath and relax. Count to ten by inhaling one/exhaling one, inhaling two/exhaling two, and so on until you reach ten. Then do it again. You can also take a breath while repeating a phrase. You can also say “in” on the inhale and “out” on the exhale. Bring your attention back to your breath if you notice your mind wandering.
If you’re anything like me, and you get easily sidetracked during practice, you might think to yourself, “I can’t do this.” It’s a bleak situation. Try to think of yourself as an emotion scientist rather than a judge. Even a little self-compassion will help you try again. You’re working out a new muscle.
Because emotion regulation necessitates the use of mental resources, it is influenced by seemingly unrelated factors such as food, exercise, and sleep. Our minds do not work correctly when we eat poorly. Too much sugar causes our blood glucose levels to rise and then fall sharply, affecting cognitive function and self-control, particularly when it comes to healthy eating. So have some nutritious snacks in your office or set a reminder on your phone to remind you to eat every three hours or so. Reduce the use of junk food as they can really sabotage your emotional health.
Our mental capacity and moods are also harmed by insufficient physical activity. In one study, subjects were exposed to a stressor, and then half of the participants did aerobic exercise while the others did not. The exercisers claimed to be much less depressed than the control group. Exercise can even help with anxiety and depression.
Poor quality of sleep or insufficient sleep also affects our emotional health badly. When we’re tired, our defenses are down, and our ability to function mentally is low. Sleep is a restorative activity. We show increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as exhaustion and aggression, when we don’t get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to weakened connections between brain regions involved in cognitive control and behavior, and the use of effective emotion regulation mechanisms.
There are a few more things we can do to protect our overall well-being. The first is by engaging in activities that we enjoy. Spend time with family and friends, explore hobbies and interests, connect with your spiritual side, spend time in nature, read a good book, or watch a comedy movie. This allows us to build up self efficacy and self esteem reserves, which can be beneficial during emotionally trying periods.
Being social animals, we are hardwired to seek out social contact and support, thus people who lack social contact and support are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease. We know that social distance (I prefer the phrase physical distance) helps to inhibit the spread of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean we have to remain socially disconnected. The mere presence of a caring individual (whether in person or online) allows us to calm down and regulate our nervous system.
Finally, there are a few other things you can do in these tough circumstances.
Limit the amount of information you consume. Take some time away from the news and social media.
Saying no isn’t a bad thing. It’s fine to avoid hugging, kissing, or shaking hands right now. If you don’t know what to say, bow elegantly or use gestures if that makes sense to you.
Compassion for yourself and others, especially those who are ill or whose lives have been disturbed by the virus or society’s response to it, is essential.
Try to be encouraging to friends, family members, and coworkers who are concerned or frightened. You are not required to mention anything. Simply be there for them. When we serve others, we not only make them feel better, but we also make ourselves feel better.
- The author is a practicing clinical psychologist
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