Emotions – What Are they and How Can We Control Them?
On the surface, emotions are a form of reaction all humans display in response to various experiences. They are officially defined as a psychological state involving three distinct components of a subjective experience, a physiological reaction to the experience and a subsequent behavioural or expressive response (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2010). Emotions are affective in nature, meaning that they are related to our moods, feelings (conscious experiences of sensations) and attitudes. In essence, we could say that our emotions underlie those elements where different emotions will elicit different affective states.
As it is personally understood by most people, emotions and their subsequent effect on our minds and behaviour are extremely powerful and can dictate how we function as human beings. Research shows that a consistent expression of healthy emotions has been shown to elicit significantly beneficial mental health outcomes and protective mechanisms against pathological processes such as depression and anxiety (Steptoe, 2019). Conversely, when emotions are expressed negatively, the risk of developing affective-based disorders is compounded, as studies have shown that pathological changes in an individual’s neurochemical functioning risk emerging (Clark & Beck, 2010). Moving beyond the impact they can engender on mental health, emotions themselves are fundamental to human functioning, where they play a significant evolutionary, social, and even spiritual role in many domains. The spectrum of innately human activities they drive is exhaustive and encompasses what it means to live as a sovereign and consciously complete individual.
However, what are emotions? Where do they come from? And how do we control them? These are all questions we aim to answer in the following essay, where we will begin by exploring the underlying root from which emotions arise. Second, we discuss the art of emotional control and the different outcomes that it can bring to the individual, and to complete the essay, we will finalize by outlining the various techniques and practices one can implement in order to take control of their own emotions.
Emotions – What Are They?
Before delving into the underlying nature of emotions, we must first uncover their function and adaptive use within the human mind.
Although they fulfil many different functions within human activity, at their base, the role of emotions can be boiled down to the process of signaling an element of interest to your mind (Frijda, 1986). More specifically, to signify whether a given stimulus will be an object of advantage or disadvantage to your survival.
To place into context, the human brain receives thousands of different informational inputs throughout the day, many of which are irrelevant and fade from our memory or attention. However, it is critical that the brain recruits different methods to glean and attend to information relevant to processes such as social functioning, survival and well-being. Hence, emotions come into play to signal that a particular experience or stimuli demands attention from the brain’s higher-order structures, which are responsible for planning and action (Lench, Lench & Ryan, 2018). Essentially, emotions provide an emotive layer of understanding that supports the brain’s cognitive systems for making sense and appropriately responding to various experiences.
This notion is particularly apparent within social dynamics and instances of threat and danger. For example, fear is a highly pervasive yet necessary emotion that informs the individual of a possible threat or incoming danger that could arise from a given situation (Asmundson et al., 1999). This emotion is crucial for signaling our neurochemical and cognitive processes to attend to any potential threat to the self and acting in accordance with a way that guarantees safety and survival. Another example of this is disgust, which is an emotion that signals the brain to avoid a given object (i.e., rotten food) because it may cause harm to the body and mind (Chapman & Anderson, 2012).
Emotions vs. feelings
Ultimately, emotions do not stem from a singular neurological process within the brain. Rather, they arise from the complex interaction of multiple systems that give rise to the affective state we refer to as emotions (LeDoux, 1998). They arise from the brain’s rapid and highly coordinated responses that work in unison to produce a given emotion. Unlike feelings, which are higher-order responses that include mental or visual representations of what is happening within the body, emotions are lower-order quasi-automatic responses that have distinct effects from feelings (LeDoux, 1998). Put simply, feelings are always imbued with personal subjective experience stemming from memories and beliefs, whereas emotions are innate genetic properties which do not possess subjective processes. Moreover, emotions are heavily laden with different physiological properties, such as goosebumps, sweating, and increased heart rate which lie outside of conscious control (Denollet et al., 2008).
Different brain regions need to be activated in a cascade to produce these varying set of psychological, physiological and behavioral responses (Davidson & Irwin, 1999). Areas such as the amygdala, insula, anterior cingulate and orbitofrontal cortex are directly responsible for producing emotions such as fear, disgust and happiness (Izard, 2010). However, the Limbic System, the brain’s centre for emotional processing, is the most important in how we manage and feel our emotions.
For emotions to be produced, they need to be triggered by an event or thought that activates the relevant brain regions, which send electrical signals to the Limbic System to increase its production of various hormones creating an instant emotions of happiness, fear, or anger (Rajmohan, 2007). One crucial function of the Limbic System is how it modulates the fight-or-flight response when intense emotions arise. It sends out immediate signals to the relevant brain regions, increasing the hormones responsible for producing adrenaline and cortisol. Ultimately, the Limbic system is the primary actor in how our emotions are felt and processed.
The Art of Emotional Control
Before continuing, a significant point must be made – the term emotional control cannot refer to controlling the actual emotions. At the end of the day, emotions are ingrained within ancient brain systems, which produce them automatically in response to various experiences. At the time of occurrence, we are unable to control the type or degree to which they are present. However, we can evoke different emotions to create change on the spot. Also, what can be controlled is the psychological and cognitive responses that arise from various emotional reactions, which in long term can change the degree of the emotional response.
More specifically, we can control our emotions, not by directly changing how they are produced but rather by managing our mental reactions to them. In research, this process is referred to as “emotional regulation”, and it describes an individual’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience (Hill & Updegraff, 2012).
Interestingly, this is a learned trait that is not naturally present in people, but can be built up the desired level. Emotions can be very challenging obstacles to face at times, as they have the capability to engulf our normal cognitive processes and significantly deviate our behavioural responses to various experiences.
A central mechanism of emotional regulation is cognitive reappraisal, which is how emotion is cognitively framed within an individual’s mind (Gross, 1998a). In many instances, various emotions become intensified due to how it is perceived by someone, resulting in the subsequent increase of physiological and psychological potency that is felt from those emotions. Hence, the impact of a given emotion depends on how it is interpreted or responded to by an individual’s cognitive processes (Gross & John, 2003). For example, suppose an emotional eliciting situation is appraised through a negative lens. In that case, this may lead to attentional bias towards the negative aspects of the situation, making it challenging to control the emotional state caused by this compounded effect. On the other hand, if an emotionally challenging situation was appraised through a positive or adaptive lens, this would significantly reduce the psychological and physiological impact of the experience.
Effectively, the concept of appraisal demonstrates that each experience has the potential to elicit intense combinations of emotions which may impact the way you feel and behave. One way to ensure that those emotions do not significantly influence your usual modes of functioning is to control your response to them through cognitive reappraisal. This is crucial as studies have shown that the maladaptive appraisal of emotions can cause pathological states of depression and anxiety to form within the mind (Dryman & Heimberg, 2018).
The inability to control negative emotions is associated with a prolonged stress response within the brain that can cause damage to homeostatic functions maintaining the chemical balance between various brain regions (Romero, Dickens & Cyr, 2009). Thus, when this system is disrupted, dysfunctional processes risk appearing. However, if we can bring ourselves back to an emotional baseline following a particularly distressing experience, the stress response will be significantly reduced, allowing our neurochemical process to function normally in balanced homeostasis.
How To Cultivate Emotional Control – Proven Techniques
Research in the domain of emotional regulation has shown that there are various ways in which the impact of emotions can be effectively managed and controlled for. To better understand how emotional regulation can be developed, we must shift our vision to the various professions and abilities that demand high levels of emotional regulation in order to succeed. Special operations soldiers, elite athletes, martial artists and even Buddhist monks have been shown to possess significant levels of emotional control and regulation (Van Vugt et al., 2019; Sohail & Ahmad, 2021). Considering this, there must be overlapping features between these professions that impart the capability of managing one’s emotions consistently and effectively. Here are a few methods that have been informed by research to elicit efficient emotional regulation:
- Mindfulness (Hill & Updergraff, 2012) – Mindfulness tics multiple boxes that support the ability to regulate one’s emotions. First, it allows the individual to undergo various experiences as an observer without inserting any preconceived judgment or interpretation into them. Second, it tunes awareness into one’s bodily processes and allows the mind to attend to the natural shifting of its feelings and emotions. Lastly, it emphasizes the present moment and does not let any focus shift to negative past events. This combination of processes trains the mind to acknowledge the different emotions as they are without adding or removing the weight of their impact. It is this endeavour that monks dedicate themselves to with the aim of achieving mastery over their thoughts and emotions.
- Affirmations (Lakuta, 2020) – Affirmations largely misunderstood as often regarded as a cliché. However, when an individual is able to create a mental path, usually with the strategic support of a mental health practitioner, to positively affirms their way through life’s events, research shows that they feed their subconscious mind with positive and beneficial content that enhance processes such as emotional resilience (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). This is also tied into the concept of belief effects which athletes and soldiers adopt to increase their performance in a given domain. Beliefs change slowly tho’, and require cognitive effort to move them from one concept to another, so in case they less supportive, often require some form or therapeutic intervention to change.
- Stress tolerance (Benuto et al., 2022)– There are multiple ways to build up a tolerance to stress. After all, cortisol (i.e., the stress hormone) production decreases when the mind becomes habituated to a recurring stressful stimulus (Grissom & Bhatnagar, 2009). This is how high performers, leaders, martial artists and special operations soldiers are able to maintain a sense of calm while being in highly stressful situations. They do this by voluntarily, and more importantly, consciously and in a controlled and planned manner, placing themselves in emotionally stressful environments, such as intense training, to build tolerance. By doing this, they gain the ability to cope, navigate instances of stress, and function with a clear mind despite adversity. Moreover, during these circumstances, the associated emotions are felt very intensely. However, the reaction to them is significantly blunted through training and experience.
- Cognitive Reappraisal (Gross, 1998a) – Cognitive reappraisal can be implemented daily in almost every situation; it does require mindful reflection on what triggers your emotions to spike. Whenever a triggering event occurs, take a mental step back and watch how your mind automatically attributes a negative appraisal of that event. Being aware of this, ensure that you do not identify with that appraisal and reorient yourself in a stance that does not worsen any negative emotions. For example, finding the silver lining is one way you can do this. Every negative event also produces new opportunities to be explored, much like every loss indicates a new beginning. By distancing yourself from the negative appraisal as an external voice that doesn’t identify with yourself, you create space for new thoughts that can support your goals. The practice takes effort to build up and can be effectively supported by cognitive behavioral therapies.
- The Middle Way: This method is simple yet profound in how it fosters emotional regulation. Ultimately, it boils down to the concept of balance and how it needs to work both ways. The goal of emotional regulation is to support individuals in managing the overwhelming negative emotions that arise from various circumstances. However, how can these skills be achieved when it does not address the overwhelming emotions on the positive side? The middle way posits that emotional mastery and balance can be achieved when both sides of the emotional spectrum are adequately controlled for. Hence, if you want to bring yourself to a normal baseline when faced with negative events, this is something that must be equally done when faced with strong positive emotions. The next time you feel yourself being swept away by the sea of positive emotions, pause and bring yourself back to a normal baseline where you can function with clarity.
The Bottom Line
To master our emotions, we must first look towards aspects of our psychology which react negatively to adverse experiences. All lines of evidence agree that emotional control demands the presence of an internal cognitive infrastructure that allows the mind to respond adaptively to overwhelming emotions. The more you implement practices that promote this infrastructure, the higher the level of control will be present. Whether from mindfulness meditation, distress tolerance or adopting the Middle Way, or mental resilience techniques, there are beneficial practices that contribute to a robust foundation that will allow the mind to confront and regulate the plethora of different emotions that can arise.
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