Emotions: What are they & how do we manage them?

The blockbuster movie The Notebook depicts a drama- filled love story between a young couple in the 1940s. While they fall deeply in love, social class constraints, the Second World War, a meddling mother, and a host of other difficulties stand in their way, but ultimately, truelove prevails. Even as that female protagonist develops severe Alzheimer’s and is able to remember her soul mate only when he recounts the story of their love decades later by reading it to her from her notebook, their love continues to grow, even, as is suggested by the end of the film, posthumously. The premise of the story, in written print alone, has enough emotional power to elicit that terrible feeling of having a lump in one’s throat. Watching the movie, however, is a total emotional disaster for anyone, including those otherwise able to hold a stone-cold disposition, as the rhetoric of romantic love in the film easily allows for the shedding at the very least a tear or two or otherwise launching into what is now popularly referred to as an ‘ugly cry’ (sobbing uncontrollably). In fact, the movie was so popular that ‘notebooking’ (showing a romantic interest, usually male, the film in hopes of eliciting a strong tear-jerking response) became an actual term within the pop cultural lexicon.

While the context given above is only an example of how and when we use emotion, we all know what emotions feel like, and when they are getting the better of us (like lashing out at coworkers, or crying uncontrollably in inappropriate places), they often play an important role in our lives. Emotions allow us to feel highs and lows, they also signal to others how we are feeling in attempt to either get us help (if we are sad), or intimidate (if we are angry), and they help us to determine how we should behave, in turn. But what are emotions, exactly? According to Hockenbury and Hockenbury (2007), “an emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioral or expressive response.” For instance, if it’s late at night and you find yourself in a dangerous neighbourhood far from home, hearing footsteps behind you (the subjective experience), you may find you have butterflies in your stomach, your heart is pounding, and you start sweating (physiological response). You mind starts racing about whether you should run into a nearby store for safety or how much damage this potential mugger could do and you start walking much more quickly (behavioral response).

Scientists are still unsure of whether it is our thoughts themselves that trigger our physiological response to feel emotions (you think you are scared, therefore your heart starts racing), according to the psychiatrist Aaron Beck’s hypothesis, or whether, according to the James-Lange theory, our physiological response results in our thoughts (your heart starts racing, therefore you think you are scared). However, according to the Schachter-Singer theory, in order to feel emotions, we have to have both; feeling a physiological response and being able to label that physiological response. Effectively, then, because we may experience the same physiological response for a number of different emotions, (for instance, our sympathetic nervous system causes our heart to start racing and activates for a range of emotions including anger, anxiousness, nervousness and joy), we can label the same physiological response differently according to the situation we find ourselves in.

According to the psychologist Paul Eckman, who created theFacial Action Coding System (FACS), a system which keeps track of the face’s 42 muscles, there are seven facial expressions that all humans share: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, disgust and contempt. Some researchers, however, believe we have as little as four, while Eckman himself found that the human face is capable of 7000 different facial expressions, suggesting there are many more emotions available, as facial expressions generally match emotions. The emotions we feel can last for a long time, or just for a few moments, depending on the events we find before us. For instance, if we are in a complex situation (such as in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship), our brain processes our subjective experiences (seeing our loved one, touching him or her, hearing his or her voice) differently, so that we spend a great deal of time thinking about how we are feeling. For other experiences, like being startled at the barking of a dog, our emotions don’t last for very long because we simply don’t need them to, thus involving a simpler response in our brain. Sometimes, our emotions can be very clear (like feeling sadness because we have lost a loved one), or confusing (feeling a physiological response without being sure how to label it or what to attribute it to).

So how do we manage our emotions? Beck’s ‘ABC’ model of interpretation of events offers a helpful guide. In this model, ‘A’ is the activating event, ‘B’ is our belief about the event, and ‘C’ is the consequences of those beliefs. For instance, say you come home after a long day at work, and your partner is more quiet than usual (the activating event). You have just remembered that you forgot to wash the dishes last night, as you promised, so you take your partner’s silence as him or her being angry with you (your belief about the event). Maybe that leads you to feel anger at your partner, thinking to yourself “can’t s/he understand that I’m busy from working all day and am too tired to do dishes when I get home?”, leading you to lash out (the consequence to your belief about the event). Naturally, we can see how the belief we might have about events can get us into pretty fuzzy situations because we might start believing that otherwise harmless activities are intentionally done for an effect, eliciting a whole host of negative emotions. In fact, research shows that great marriages not only have more pleasant experiences than distressed marriages (for instance, the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions in happy couples is 20 to 1, in conflicted couples is 5 to 1, and in soon-to-divorce couples is .8 to 1), but in distressed marriages, even the pleasant experiences are viewed negatively; the belief about any positive event, such as bringing home a gift, is that it is negative, “what has s/he done now?”

According to Beck, we feel sadness because of the belief that we’ve lost something; anger is caused by the belief that something, not necessarily a physical object, has been taken away; and anxiety is based on the belief that something bad will happen. As a result of these beliefs, we have the consequences (our emotions). To change the consequence and help manage our emotions, we must first examine and challenge the beliefs we have about our experiences. For instance, if we can try to assume the best and give others the benefit of the doubt, we may not believe that others are taking something from us, that we are losing anything, or that something bad will happen, thus managing our emotions.

By: Mariana Bockarova 

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