How to own your emotions (Instead of them owning you)
To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom — Socrates
I’ve never been great at public speaking, but my first time giving a presentation to a large audience was especially nerve-wracking. My heart was racing and I could barely breathe. I felt like I was going to pass out or vomit. I was so embarrassed that I was shaking and my voice was trembling. I wanted to run away and hide.
But I didn’t run away. I stuck it out, and I’m so glad I did. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it. Why was it so difficult for me to give that presentation? There are a few key regions of the brain that are responsible for processing emotions.
- The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure that is responsible for detecting and responding to threats and danger. The amygdala is also responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response, which is the body’s natural response to danger.
- The hippocampus is another key region of the brain that is involved in emotion. The hippocampus is responsible for memory and emotion, and it is particularly important in the formation of memories associated with strong emotions.
- The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions, including decision-making, planning, and controlling impulses. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in regulating emotions.
So what does this mean for me? Well, the amygdala is responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight response, which is the body’s natural response to danger. This means that when I was giving my presentation, my body was preparing to fight or flee from the danger. My heart was racing and I was breathing heavily because my body was getting ready to take action.
The hippocampus is responsible for memory and emotion, and it is particularly important in the formation of memories associated with strong emotions. This means that when I was giving my presentation, I was subconsciously remembering all of the times I had failed in the past and all of the times I had been embarrassed in front of other people. This was causing me to feel overwhelmed and out of control.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions, including decision-making, planning, and controlling impulses. This means that I was able to take action and control my emotions, becoming able to stay calm and focus on giving my presentation.
Additionally, through this process, your brain is releasing a hormone called cortisol. The problem is that sometimes your cortisol levels can stay high long after the situation has ended which can lead to problems like anxiety and depression. It can also lead to problems with your physical health, like high blood pressure, heart disease and even premature ageing.
The good news is that there are things you can do to control your intense emotional episodes. Here are a few tips:
Immediate term (< 5minutes)
In case of intense emotional turmoil, the more immediate way to go is to shut down ALL devices and go for a walk and breathe deeply for 60 seconds to 5 minutes. However you still need to deeply introspect on what makes you feel overwhelmed and what could be the roots of this intense emotion, since you can treat the epiphenomenon of stress with relative ease (And if you’re lucky that your problem is self-contained as such then that’s great!) but in the case that your problem is more complex, infinitely adding quick fixes will just sink the problem deeper and deeper making it harder to treat.
A UCLA study found that when people looked at pictures of negative things and then labelled them as “negative,” the activity in their brains was lower than when they just looked at the pictures without labelling them. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC) was more active when people labelled the pictures, and this was associated with less amygdala activity. What this means is that this particular part of the prefrontal cortex was inversely correlated with the activity of the amygdala, so putting words on these strong emotions helps your brain organize information and make it more manageable and less chaotic
Random bursts of stress could be rooted in aversion from previous negative experiences, such that when the stimuli present themselves your body gets very alert without you even consciously knowing why. In my example above, I was subconsciously remembering previous times when I failed to deliver a ‘good enough’ speech and suffered the consequences for it thus implanting an unresolved freeze stress response deep down my mind.
“Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going inside ourselves.”― Bessel A. van der Kolk
What’s cool is that you can reprogram yourself into changing the interpretation your brain builds for the stress response, transitioning from freeze to fight, making yourself able to use the energy boost our body naturally provides by having the guts to dive through the stress associated with X activity and letting your pain be a guide of where you should move towards. It is key that you acknowledge that NO ONE BUT YOURSELF can make you react differently, only you. You need to learn to push past the pain of stress alone.
Ray Dalio writes:
It is a fundamental law of nature that to evolve one has to push one’s limits, which is painful, in order to gain strength — whether it’s in the form of lifting weights, facing problems head-on, or in any other way. Nature gave us pain as a messaging device to tell us that we are approaching, or that we have exceeded, our limits in some way. At the same time, nature made the process of getting stronger require us to push our limits. Gaining strength is the adaptation process of the body and the mind to encountering one’s limits, which is painful. In other words, both pain and strength typically result from encountering one’s barriers. When we encounter pain, we are at an important juncture in our decision-making process.
Know when the world is poking you
“An ability to recognize when your internal state is being driven primarily by external events (Intrusive thoughts, social media, sad world events) is as important for being able to emotionally regulate” — Andrew Huberman
People who are constantly yanked around by the external happenings of the world are emotionally labile, even if they are calm all the time, they are calm insofar there is nothing disturbing their environment and when that trigger presents itself they freak out.
“When you categorize something as “Not About Me,” it exits your affective niche and has less impact on your body budget. Similarly, when you are successful and feel proud, honored, or gratified, take a step back and remember that these pleasant emotions are entirely the result of social reality, reinforcing your fictional self. Celebrate your achievements but don’t let them become golden handcuffs. A little composure goes a long way.” ― Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain
That’s why it’s so important to develop an awareness of when the external is poking you. This world is a mess, it’s constantly poking us with its problems. It’s no wonder that people are emotionally labile, especially when they are constantly being exposed to different news sources and the average teenager spends between five to seven and a half hours a day on social media. It’s important to develop an awareness of when the external world is poking you either positively or negatively so that you can regulate your emotions.
Talk about it
Numerous studies have found that an hour with a random stranger is just as good as an hour with a professional therapist.[Source] In one study, for example, sessions with untrained university professors helped neurotic college students just as much as sessions with professional therapists.[Source] (This isn’t to say that therapy isn’t helpful — the same studies suggest it is — it’s just that what’s helpful is talking over your problems for an hour, not anything about the therapist.)
“As I often tell my students, the two most important phrases in therapy, as in yoga, are “Notice that” and “What happens next?” Once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than with fear, everything shifts.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk
Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is an altered state of consciousness that is induced during certain types of deep relaxation and that is characterized by theta-band oscillations in the electroencephalogram (Electrical readings of the brain) and a lack of awareness of the surroundings.
NSDR can be induced deliberately by practising relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation, and autogenic training and can also be spontaneously triggered by sensory deprivation, sensory overload, or certain pharmacologic agents.
NSDR is a great tool for emotional regulation because it:
- Involves a deep relaxation of the entire body
- This leads to a lack of awareness of the surroundings, which decreases stimulation and allows the mind to rest.
- Is associated with theta-band oscillations in the EEG, which are known to be associated with deep relaxation, creativity, and learning.
Thus, NSDR provides a state of mind in which the body is deeply relaxed and the mind is relatively free from distractions, which can be helpful for emotional regulation.
Reveri is a zero-cost app on Android and Apple that has short hypnosis protocols. Anywhere from 10 minutes to 15 minutes. Hypnosis and yoga Nidra both fall under the umbrella of NSDR, non-sleep deep rest. And these are protocols that people can use to deliberately access states of deep rest for sake of, again, falling asleep more easily, reducing stress, but also enhancing rates of learning, of neuroplasticity. And they are grounded in excellent peer-reviewed research, here’s an example of a protocol:
Long term (1–2+ months)
There are a few reasons why yoga Nidra might be important for emotional regulation. First, yoga Nidra allows people to access deep states of relaxation that can be beneficial for emotional healing. Second, yoga Nidra can help people to become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, which can help them to manage them more effectively. Finally, yoga Nidra can help to increase feelings of connectedness and well-being, which can also have a positive impact on emotions. In addition, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with relaxation and calming effects.
“The yoga Nidra groups in significant experiments showed significantly decreased life stress intensity levels compared to the control group. The yoga group also showed significantly increased self-esteem scores compared to the control group. [Source] [Source]”
Even though I mentioned earlier that you can get relatively better by speaking to someone instead of a therapist, there’s still the underlying possibility of this being a deep-buried trauma that has built up in you since you were a kid maybe through different stressors (Predisposed family situation, Abuse, etc) SO I’d suggest that once you’ve tried the before-outlined steps for some weeks and see no results, that you approach a therapist with the intention of discovering yourself
“Emotions are not reactions to the world; they are your constructions of the world.” ― Lisa Feldman Barrett
So, what can I do to prevent my intense emotional episodes? In short, there are a few things you can do to help prevent your intense emotional episodes:
- Label your emotions
- Facing your triggers
- Know when the world is dragging you down or pushing you up
- Talk about your problems
- Practice yoga Nidra
- See a therapist
Ray Dalio, Principles (2001)
The Science of Emotions & Relationships | Huberman Lab Podcast #13 — YouTube
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk (goodreads.com)
How to make stress your friend | Kelly McGonigal — YouTube
Two Solutions to Anxiety — YouTube
What’s normal anxiety — and what’s an anxiety disorder? | Body Stuff with Dr. Jen Gunter — YouTube