Many scarcely go a day without an emotional response to commonplace experience. Emotions can have a wide range of expression and intensity while they simultaneously describe a range of life’s experiences. Diverse emotions have been felt in every corner of the world. Challenging emotions can promote conflicts, sow thoughts of unrest, sink negotiations, and color misperceptions. Happiness, sadness, gratitude, anger, shame, guilt, and fear are just several of the universal experiences of human emotion.
We can change what we notice. By building a capacity to observe our emotions, we will not be overrun by them. As we launch into this summer season, it has been apparent that many are interacting with consistent themes of strong emotions with a fear of failure, financial instability, and even negative social evaluation from others about not being good enough. Distraction, fear, and a lack of curiosity about oneself and the world have been true barriers to experiencing more well-being and happiness.
Processing and reflecting on current emotions, both positive and negative, have been known to yield greater measures of happiness. In a broad concept called emodiversity, there is a growing body of research citing that awareness through having a rich, complex, and authentic emotional life will promote subjective well-being and the overall health of groups of individuals.
This pandemic season invited all of us to lean into uncertainty, embrace a fuller spectrum of emotions, and intentionally adapt to ever-changing circumstances with grit and present-tense meaning. Happiness is not the end itself or the final outcome. In seasons of unpredictability with raw emotions, we are invited into a methodology to hack happiness. Australian entrepreneur and businesswoman Penny Locaso describes this fulfillment:
Happiness is being able to ride the wave of every emotion that life throws at you, knowing that you can come out the other side just a little better than what you were before because you have the skills (focus, courage, curiosity), the resources (a positive mindset), and the support structure (a community) to make that happen.
Emotional adaptability invites us into a new personal narrative. When students and staff were given the opportunity to better describe their personal feelings during the pandemic around the country, there was a torrent of emotional responses:
“I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, and anxious.”
“I feel frustrated and dismayed that we’re in the unknown.”
“I’m feeling more fearful and tired.”
“My current situation is wild and unpredictable.”
Negative emotions related to this global season are just as infectious as the virus itself. Fear, fatigue, overwhelm, and panic all influence our ability to have clear thoughts, creatively negotiate our daily circumstances, manage our important relationships, and make smart and informed choices while placing attention on priorities.
From a physiologic standpoint, psychologists coined the term allostatic load to account for the ongoing wear and tear of our thoughts, emotions, and body-related reactions to chronic stress. In addition, allostatic overload denotes how the external demands of chronic stress outweigh the internal resources to successfully navigate these stressors. This ultimately leads to poor decision-making, burnout, and an emotional breakdown.
How do we respond and effectively build resilience?
When we feel most threatened, our survival self tends to be most active. It causes us to hurry to our defense and respond to circumstances impulsively, reactively, carelessly, and counterproductively. Usually seen with many in survival mode, our prefrontal cortex (PFC) tends to progressively shut down. With a narrowed vision, we cannot see past the threat in sight. In many ways our reactivity replaces thoughtful deliberation. Problem-solving becomes amiss with multiple steps when our attention is mobilized to respond to the threat.
Often we are trained to believe that strong emotions need to be suppressed. Whether unspoken, organizational, or societal - there may be rules against giving expression to strong emotions. Anger, stress, anxiety, depression, and fear are commonplace among other emotional responses inside these pandemic circumstances; moreover, bringing language to better describe the nuanced precision of these emotions and their impact will allow us to more critically interact with ourselves and the world around us.
It has already been well-noted that when people avoid expressing their emotions, this leads to lower well-being and more symptomatic concerns (i.e. headaches, elevated blood pressure, weight gain/loss). There is a cost to avoiding our feelings.
Increase your emotions vocabulary.
Ways that you think about your emotions matter. When a moment comes along where you experience a strong emotion, write it down. Use two or more words to describe this feeling. After deliberating, you might become surprised at how there are more depths to the surface layer of this emotion with what you are uncovering! You can go beyond the surface to the deeper layers by using this list.
It will be important to note both the positive and negative emotions alike. Saying that you are excited about the new part-time job at Home Depot and are trusting of your friends is just as important for setting the intention for the relationship and being on the road to greater success down the line.
Also deliberate over its emotional intensity. On a scale of 1-10, what is the depth of this emotion? How urgent is it, and how strong? Will this self-assessment make you choose a different set of words to describe the experience?
Emotional acceptance is all about acknowledging our emotions... but not being threatened by them. In this stance, it is dynamically related to knowing that, if you desire, you can transform them. People who accept their more challenging emotions as they arrive actually experience less intensity in their emotions than people who are non-accepting of them. Simply being aware of the emotion and choosing not to be reactive can help in the long-term outcome of transforming it and becoming harmonious with it.
Write about it.
As a researcher from the University of Texas, James Pennebaker has over 40 years of evidence on the benefits of writing and understanding emotions. He acknowledged that those who dove into more stronger emotional themes as feelings of rejection, humiliation, anger, anxiety, and relationship difficulties had far more physical and emotional well-being than their control group counterparts that did not write about emotionally-charged experiences. These writers were able to use phrases as “It struck me that,” “I realize…” “I now understand” and “I have learned that.” More insight and clarity emerged from their own regular writing and reflection. Here is a writing exercise from his research:
Use this as a point of reference to consider how to grow in capacity for hope and optimism from this season:
Read more fiction.
Fictional literature brings us into direct interaction with an author's imagination. Writers are able to tap into believable, complex, and even abstract human emotions that are at times more convincing and authentic than reality itself. Fictional accounts can introduce us to understanding a panorama of human emotions that we may not have previously experienced. You can read more here.
Build a future more deliberately through understanding what you are experiencing and by describing this more accurately. In the wake of strong emotions, there are complicating consequences for emotional suppression. Find reliable ways to discharge strong emotions and quiet your mind and still your body. By more precisely defining our internal experience, we can become better equipped for constructively responding to our emotions.