Processing Emotions

04/18/11: One of the most common things my clients want help with is understanding and processing their emotions. Essentially, this means getting a deep understanding of what we are feeling, why we are feeling it, and what to do with it. The following is a brief overview of a model of doing just that.

Before we begin, I want to note that psychologists often make a distinction between “emotions” and “feelings”, usually believing that emotions are larger concepts that encompass many simultaneous feelings. But for this piece, I will use these terms interchangeably.

How Emotions Work
There have been debates in many disciplines for centuries about how emotions work. Some new work has attempted to synthesize all of these understandings (Gross & Thompson, 2007). Basically it goes like this:

1) We have contact with a stimulus (an event, object, situation, sensation, or thought).

2) We pay attention to this stimulus.

3) We have an interpretation of the stimulus.

4) We have an emotional/physiological reaction to the stimulus.

For an example of this process, imagine you were having a fun day at the zoo, but you suddenly saw an escaped gorilla roaring and charging toward you. Instantly, you would have a burst of adrenaline, a dramatically increased heartbeat, and you would run, possibly scream, and focus all attention on finding safety. Basically 1) you had contact with a charging gorilla, 2) you paid attention to it, 3) you easily interpreted it as a threat, and 4) you had a fear response.

In the 4th step, the reaction includes instant changes in the body in alertness, respiration, facial expression, heart rate, digestion, muscle tension, release of specific hormones and neurotransmitters, and a variety of other things. It also includes impulses to approach, avoid, flee, attack, freeze, submit, shut down, laugh, or celebrate, among many others, depending on what the stimulus is.

Furthermore, some emotions are instinctual responses, like what would happen with a gorilla charging you. However, emotions can also arise automatically after we have been conditioned to have certain responses. For example, say you were chased by the gorilla in the above scenario. What would happen next time you someone asked you to go to the zoo? You would likely get anxious and want to avoid going because your memory of being chased, and therefore you now have a conditioned (learned) fear response.

Sometimes emotions and a stimulus (like the zoo) can be paired even without actually experiencing it for ourselves, like when we are taught something, watch someone else go through it, or even just image it. An example would be a high profile story and video that you saw of people being chased at the zoo.

What Emotions Are There?
Another widely debated concept in psychology is whether there are a handful of “basic” or “primary emotions” that underlie everything (seeking, fear, rage, grief/panic, lust, care, play, etc) or if emotions are much more complex, and better seen though a set of open dimensions (positive/negative, activating/deactivating, approach/avoid). Like a lot of things in psychology, I think that a greater truth lies in blending perspectives. So I think it is important to have our unique individual experience of emotions, while knowing that many of our experiences are not limited to a finite set of primary emotions.

Emotion Regulation Styles
Going back to the 4 part process of emotions allows us to understand a variety of ways of dealing with experiencing them. The following is a quick summary of the ways we can do this, and I’d encourage you to become a master of each of them.

1. Choose the situation: basically we can take some kind of action to make it more or less likely that we will end up in a situation that causes a type of emotional experience. If you didn’t want to possibly experience a gorilla charging at you, it might be best to avoid the zoo. Instead you could go see a movie about animals that would provide you a more positive emotional experience.

2. Modify the situation: this is when we are already in the situation but try to modify it somehow to alter its emotional impact. If you were already at the zoo, you could wait until the gorillas were done eating for the day, or make sure there was someone less capable of running between you and their cage.

3. Shift your attention: this is when we change our attention focus related to the event or object. Distraction focuses attention on different aspects of the situation, or moves attention away from the situation altogether, whereas concentration draws attention to emotional features of a situation. If you were already afraid of gorillas, you could focus on the trees in the enclosure instead of the animals. If you had a lot of joy seeing gorillas (like I do), you might really concentrate on their playful behavior as a way to have a more emotionally positive experience.

4. Change your perspective: this is when we change how we appraise (evaluate) the situation we are in to alter its emotional power. The two main ways of doing this are to change our perspective (being charged by a gorilla and surviving is actually kind a pretty cool experience) or change our views of dealing with it (if I did get charged, I would be able to handle it).

5. Manage your reaction: this is what we do after we already have the emotion and try to influence the physiological or behavioral responding as directly as possible. Ideally we want these to be adaptive (healthy for us, and also fit into the situation appropriately). For example, if you were trying to impress a new date who wanted to go to the zoo, you might have to find a way to play it cool in front of the gorilla enclosure by using a discrete breathing technique.

Processing Emotions
Most people in counseling are searching for ways to manage their feelings better. So I developed a 5-step tool to help understand emotions. The main process was developed by researchers Kennedy-Moore and Watson, in their book Expressing Emotion (2001). Over the years I have modified this to be more practical for anyone to use on their own. At each step I will identify the common places people make mistakes in the process, and offer some things that can help. The basic idea here is that when you are feeling something, you can pause right then, and work through these five steps, correcting things along the way.

processing-emotions

1. Sensing
The building blocks of emotions are in the physical sensations and automatic impulses we have. Therefore, the first step is to scan your body and identify the types of sensations and motivations you are having. Is your stomach turning? Is your jaw clenched? Is there a lump in your throat? Is your face flush? One mistake people make is skipping over this step entirely, which leaves us somewhat out of tune with our body.

Another is when we deny that the sensations exist, or assume them to be something other than part of an emotional experience, like saying “I’m just tired”. Research done in 2012 has now mapped the ways our bodies respond during specific emotions, and you can see the chart of that at the end of this post.

2. Naming
Once you have the physical feelings down, it is important to accurately name the emotion. The mistakes people make here are mislabeling the emotion, or using generic words that do not get it exactly right. For example, using words like “weird”, “upset”, or “bothered” all have a variety of ambiguous meanings. There is more power and more ability to work with the emotion when using words like “anxious”, “sad”, or “angry” instead.

Additionally, we often have blends of several emotions at a time, or conflicting emotions, which makes this part even more difficult. Having a good emotional vocabulary is an important part of this, so check below for a large list of emotion words. People I know who have this mastered will say things like “I am feeling a blend of righteous indignation and that worried sensation you have when you are running late for a the airport.”

3. Attributing
After you have the right name, it is key to accurately determine what caused it. Sometimes this is obvious, whereas other times emotions seem to “come out of nowhere” or “for no reason”. Emotions are almost always triggered by something, but the triggers may be unknown to us. A common explanation for emotions coming “out of nowhere” is that the emotion was present, but was only consciously experienced when there was space for it, like when doing a mindless task, or taking a familiar drive.

A mistake people make in this step is attributing the emotion exclusively to one thing. For example, say a man that just had an argument with his partner became enraged in traffic. In this step, we’d say that the anger was immediately provoked by the traffic, but the strength of the emotion is likely due to anger that is related to the earlier argument. Furthermore, not sleeping enough, being hungry, or a variety of other things can also contribute.

4. Evaluating
In this step we ask ourselves how we feel about having the emotion. We all have different answers to this based on our identity, culture, and comfort with certain emotions. For example, someone may feel perfectly comfortable being angry, but feel very uncomfortable feeling sad. I often hear my clients say things like “I’m angry that I’m angry.” This extra feeling means that the intensity of the emotional experience has dramatically increased because discomfort, shame, or something else has been added to sadness.

Basically, things can get really complicated here if we do not accept or value the emotions that we are experiencing. In counseling I generally promote the idea that all of our emotions are valid and have value, even if it is just a signal that something is happening within us, or in the world. Judgment can be reserved for our actions related to our emotions (step 5), but spare the emotions themselves, and instead work to accept that they are there, they are innate parts of the human experience, and have a purpose.

5. Acting
After all of this is complete, we are left with choices about how to proceed. When we have a flash of a very strong emotion the action will often just happen. But for emotions that linger or come and go in lower doses, we get to decide whether and how we will express the emotion, and/or how to cope with it. The key here is that if we think ahead about what kind of action to take, we can avoid making mistakes in our lives based on flares of emotion. Developing a set of coping strategies is also important for this step, and something I have written about here.

Experiencing a Lot of One Emotion
I have a lot of clients that are looking for help dealing with one predominant emotion in their lives, usually anxiety or anger. Part of counseling is about learning to use those emotions for their intended purpose as well as control them, but the other part is to look more closely at them. The closer look will reveal a wide range of differences in the anxiety and anger depending on the situation. Once you can start zeroing in on each individual experience (see steps 1-3), a range of options opens up on how to deal with them (see steps 4-5).

More Information:
Here are some other things that can be helpful as you learn more about emotions and managing them.

Body Map of Emotions
The yellow/red indicates “activation” or increased sensation in those parts of the body, and the blues indicate reduced activation. (Full study here: Bodily Map of Emotions)

body-map-of-emotions

List of Emotions
Below is a list of common variations on primary emotions. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but may be able to help you expand your emotion vocabulary.

Fear: anxious, avoidant, cautious, concerned, frozen, insecure, intimidated, guarded, overwhelmed, panicked, stressed, tense, terrified, trapped, vulnerable, worried.

Anger: aggressive, bitter, cold, competitive, defensive, disgusted, disrespected, enraged, frustrated, hostile, irritated, jealous, mad, outraged, resentful, revolted.

Sadness: apathetic, depressed, disheartened, disappointed, disillusioned, embarrassed, grief-stricken, guilty, hurt, lonely, needy, regretful, rejected, shameful, stuck, tired, weak.

Joy: blissful, brave, confident, connected, ecstatic, energized, excited, friendly, happy, hopeful, loved, loving, proud, powerful, rebellious, relieved, relaxed, spiritual, strong, thankful, touched, tough, warm

Self-Conscious Emotions

Guilt, shame, embarrassment, and pride.

Dimensional Model of Emotions
Discrete categories of emotions are supported by a lot of neuroscience research. However, when we actually experience our emotions, they can be a lot of complex. In response to this, James Russell (an emotion researcher) focuses on a dimensional view. You can think about how to more elaborately describe your emotions using his dimensions below, and I added some of my own words to help you get the idea.

russell-emotion-graph

Plutchik Emotion Circumplex

Additionally, below is the wonderful graphic representation of a highly regarded emotion classification system.

plutchik-emotions-chart