Human beings are a complex blend of body, mind and spirit. While we highly prize our ability to think and reason, and we rarely question physical sensations in our bodies, emotions are often considered with much more suspicion and apprehension.
In different cultures and societies around the globe, myths about emotions abound:
- A person can be emotional or logical, not both.
- When you’re emotional you’re out of control.
- Emotions are unsafe and should not be trusted.
- Negative emotions are to be avoided and should be suppressed.
- I should feel differently than I do.
Thankfully, we are learning more and more about the role emotions play in mental, physical, spiritual, and relational health. There are countless correlations between emotional health and our overall success in life and business. Learning to harness the power of our emotions is an incredibly worthwhile endeavor if we want to improve the quality of our lives.
Emotions are one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind; they reflect the very image of God.
Throughout the Bible, sadness, anger, jealousy, compassion, patience, impatience, and love are just a few emotions displayed by God and attributed to both the Father and the Son. It’s interesting that when Jesus summed up the entire law of God, He did so by telling us to, “Love…with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-39, NIV). Here, Jesus acknowledges that we are not one dimensional. It is not enough for us to bring only one part of ourselves into our relationship with God or other people. We cannot love simply with our minds, nor can we love solely through our spirit or our emotions, without backing them up with physical action.
One of the reasons emotions get a bum rap is that they can be raw and powerful. At times they blindside us without warning. They can be overwhelmingly sudden and all-consuming. A simple explanation for this is provided through the pathway that our five senses travel. Each experience we have — whether it is taste, smell, touch, sight, or hearing — begins at nerve endings located at its origin (mouth, nose, eyes, fingers, ears). From there, the signal must travel into the spinal cord and through the limbic system before ending up in our brain. Typically the signal is first received in the amygdala, an important part of the lower brain that sits at the top of the brain stem. The amygdala is responsible for processing signals that allow us to respond quickly to outside threats. Fear and anger are largely related to the amygdala.
This design makes sense if we’re in a life and death situation. We don’t have time to stop and consider how great a threat is – we need to instinctively defend ourselves through fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Big emotions incite quick actions that keep us out of harm’s way. However, when the situation is less dire, the consequences of letting our emotions control our behaviors, rather than serving as initial indicators, can create a wake of undesired consequences in our lives.
Eventually, the initial signal makes it to our pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain where we process information more fully and think rationally about what we’re experiencing.
There are many reasons why signals get hung up or never make it to the pre-frontal cortex, and they are often responsible for irrational or impulsive behavior that is initiated before our pre-frontal cortex has a chance to fully process what the best response might be.
The ground floor for emotional health begins with living a healthy lifestyle. Substances like alcohol, drugs, and even tobacco, sugar, and caffeine set us up for sensations that overload the brain or cause a delay in the signal reaching its final destination. Physiological signs of fatigue, numbness, or jittery nervousness are indicators that our brains might not be operating at optimal levels. A healthy diet, regular exercise, plenty of sleep, and learning to incorporate rhythms of rest into daily life are the foundation of strong emotional regulation, as they allow our brains to function at its peak capacity.
When we are feeling overwhelmed by emotions, we are emotionally dysregulated. Dysregulation shows up in all areas of our lives and can spill over without us being aware of the devastation it’s causing. This can occur in both children and adults, and often results in behavior and reactions that we later regret.
Remaining grounded and allowing emotions to serve us as signals about experiences, our values, and our needs/wants occurs when our emotions are regulated. Developing healthy relationships with safe people who are able to speak truth into our lives helps to keep us grounded. These are people we can turn to when we’re struggling with difficult things; they hold our stories without sharing them with others and stand beside us in our discomfort without needing to fix our problems or fight our battles for us. Safe friends can increase our emotional awareness by practicing empathy, and reflecting emotions they see in us in loving, life-giving, non-shaming, and non-blaming ways.
How can we harness the power of our emotions for good rather than letting them steer the ship?
Here are some ways we can learn to let our emotions serve us well, especially in moments when we are feeling dysregulated:
- Since emotions are often experienced as bodily sensations, we must learn to recognize our body’s emotional signals. When my stomach has butterflies, and my heart rate speeds up, that typically signals that I’m nervous about something. When I feel a rush of warm energy to my hands and feet, it is likely that I’m wishing I could flee a situation out of a sense of dread or fear. Do you experience an increase in your heart rate or get tense muscles when you’re angry? When you experience heaviness, fatigue, or tightening in your throat, could it be related to sadness? Work to get to know how your body signals emotions and you’ll buy yourself more time to process what’s actually going on before responding with immediate fight, flight or freeze.
- Learning to name emotions we’re experiencing is a powerful tool. Simply naming the emotion begins a calming and taming process. As you name the emotion, try to gauge its intensity. All emotions occur on a spectrum. Am I merely annoyed, frustrated, angry, or full of rage? Am I disappointed, sad, or depressed? Knowing where your emotions fall on the scale of intensity will help you figure out how to respond with appropriate intensity.
- Make peace with your emotions. Recognize that they are an incredibly powerful gift to be harnessed for good. Even negative emotions serve a good purpose. Know that they are temporary, and allow them to inform you. Learn to co-exist patiently with them until they pass.
- Take time to consider why you feel the things you do. Emotions are our body’s way of asking us to pay attention. Try to figure out what event/action/interaction is behind the feeling.
- Replace lies with truth. Part of living in a sinful, broken world is that we have come to believe lies about ourselves. Satan, the accuser, is a master at using lies to keep us from living wholehearted, integrated lives of freedom. What are the messages you attach to the emotions you have identified? How much of your discomfort is due to something you need to own and take responsibility for? How much is Satan derailing you with messages of shame? A big part of the work of letting emotions serve you is to identify the lies and replace them with truth. Turning to scripture can help remind us of God’s promises and the truth of how He created us to live.
- Even when we have tried to make peace intellectually with our emotions, our bodies continue to send us uncomfortable signals. There are things we can do in the moment to help our bodies calm down.
- Breathe deeply. This is incredibly calming for the body and the nervous system. Breathing techniques vary widely; the most important aspect is to slow down the breath, inhaling deeply, as you focus on feeling it move in and out of your body. Exhaling longer than you inhale automatically resets the parasympathetic system.
- Focus on all five senses. What do you see? Name five objects within sight. What do you hear? Are there any secondary sounds beneath the most obvious? What about smells? Are there tastes lingering in your mouth? What sensations is your body experiencing? It can be especially grounding to focus on the sensation of your feet planted firmly on the floor or under your chair. Repeat these steps as often as needed throughout the day.
- Count backwards, slowly, by 3s. Let your mind work at a task rather than get carried away by emotions.
- Hold an item in your hands. Spend time examining it from every angle and really contemplate it. Pay attention to its texture and weight. Focus on the physical object in front of you now, rather than the inanimate feelings or emotions that are trying to take over.
- When we are overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions, we typically react in one of the following ways: shaming ourselves, blaming others, trying to control others, escaping through addictions, or physical and emotional withdrawing. Instead of blaming or shaming, practice kindness and compassion for yourself and others. Instead of controlling or escaping, try to relax and connect with a safe friend or confidante. Let their presence comfort you and help you regulate your feelings. It may take some time to practice these new ways of responding to the unpleasant emotions. Don’t give up. Try again each time with heightened awareness of your new goal.
- Engage in physical exercise. Different emotions may call for different kinds of activity. If you’re angry, practice kickboxing or working out with a punching bag. If you’re anxious, a run or other type of aerobic activity may be helpful. If you’re sad or depressed you may not be able to muster up the energy for something extreme, but simply stretching or going for a walk outdoors can be very therapeutic. Try opening up your body, lifting your head and arms up to the sky. These simple changes in your physical state can have positive implications on the emotions rushing through you.
- Try journaling, song-writing, or another form of art as a way of processing what you’re feeling, letting what’s on the inside come out of you.
- Practice gratitude. Once you’ve spent time naming and exploring the difficult things in your life, it’s healthy to realize that’s not the only thing happening in this moment. No matter how grave our situation is, we can always find a few things to be grateful for. The balance this exercise provides can be life-giving as long as we don’t try to do it too early in the process as a way to suppress the harder emotions from being realized.
- Pray. Prayer journaling, meditation, focusing on the truths of scripture, or even listing attributes of God (beginning with ‘A’ and ending with ‘Z’), are practices that can be helpful for emotional regulation when we’re struggling.
- After you’ve practiced several of the previous suggestions, diversion can be healthy, as long as it’s not escape behavior. Listen to music you find up-lifting. Dance. Read engaging material or watch your favorite show, but only after you’ve spent some time trying to discern what it is your emotions are trying to tell you.
- Practice self-care. Enjoy a cup of tea, take a warm bath, get out in nature, engage in activities or hobbies you enjoy. The possibilities are endless.
- If you continue to struggle or if you lack safe people to turn to who will help you process the difficult things in life, seek out a therapist. A good therapist understands the toll that life trauma takes on your mind, body, relationships, and your ability to regulate emotions. They listen well and guide you in developing skills to overcome the hurt, loss, and injustice we all experience in life.
God gave us emotions for a reason. If we are wise, we learn to make friends with our emotions — even the most unpleasant of them — and find ways to let them serve us. Doing so is key to living wholehearted, fully-integrated, healthy lives that are physically, spiritually, and relationally regulated.