By: Bonnie Brown, PsyD
How are you? How’s it going? How have you been? These are frequently
asked questions in social settings that have almost become a requirement
to initiate a conversation. Social norms have stamped these phrases into
our brains in such a way that the person answering often doesn’t
actually answer honestly. Common responses might be: “Good, how are
you?” or “I’ve been okay, how have you been?” Only later, in deeper
conversation, do we find out that our speaking partner may not actually
be “good” or “okay”. That being said, perhaps a response of “you know
I’ve actually been pretty depressed lately and let me tell you why…” may
not be the best way to begin a conversation depending on your audience.
Regardless of the social rules in play, I urge everyone to actually take
a moment to check in with your emotions. How are you feeling right now?
If this is a relatively foreign concept to you, you have come to the
Why does it matter if we know what we are feeling or not? Well, emotions
are actually quite important to us and the world around us. First,
emotions motivate and organize our behavior. They typically have “action
urges” that have been a part of our biology since the beginning. These
action urges can save us time by getting us to act quickly in important
situations. An example might be when we see and hear a rattlesnake. If
we experience fear, our action urge would likely be to move away from
the threat of the snake. This does not mean that we react appropriately
to every situation, or that acting on emotion can be used as an excuse.
Our system can go haywire and produce inappropriate or inefficient
action urges. Second, emotions communicate to others. Facial
expressions, voice tone, and body language are ways in which we
communicate how we’re feeling to the person with whom we’re
communicating. Those ways of showing another person our emotions can
even influence them, whether we intend to or not. Finally, emotions
communicate important information to ourselves. They can be like
signals, red flags, or alarms that plead with us to further examine what
might be going on for us. An example might be a feeling of sadness. If
there is no obvious stimulus that would produce sadness, such as loss,
then we may look deeper within ourselves to try to identify why that
sadness might exist. Perhaps that sadness is actually loneliness, which
is a product of the isolation of the current pandemic. That
understanding and realization can then help us to set a goal to interact
virtually or socially-distanced with a friend.
Sometimes it’s hard to regulate our emotions for a variety of reasons.
Biological factors, lack of skills, environmental reinforcement, and
high emotional arousal can all increase vulnerability to struggling with
emotion regulation. There are ways to reduce your vulnerability to
“emotion mind”: 1) make appropriate changes in your life that will help
you accumulate more positive emotions; 2) do things that make you feel
competent and effective in order to reduce helplessness and/or
hopelessness; 3) identify coping skills plans to help you feel prepared
during future emotional situations; and 4) take care of both your mind
and body by getting enough sleep, incorporating exercise, eating a
balanced diet, and avoiding mood-altering substances.
Below are some common myths about emotions.
There is a right way to feel in every situation. This is, in fact, a
complete myth. Feelings are a personal experience, and there is no
governing body that identifies how someone should feel in any situation.
There is also no wrong way to feel. It may be the case that the feeling
or emotion you’re experiencing doesn’t actually fit the facts of the
situation, in which case a re-examination of feelings would be
appropriate. However, feelings are not “right” or “wrong” at all.
Negative feelings are bad. This is an incredibly common myth that tends
to increase fear. Anger and sadness are typically the “bad” feelings
that people have either been taught they shouldn’t experience, or should
be afraid that those feelings mean they’re weak. The truth is, no
feelings are bad. They all help us understand ourselves, our needs, and
the world around us. That information helps us move throughout our
lives, and if we listen close enough, we can use that to our own
Emotions can just happen for no reason. False. I commonly see my
patients struggle with identifying their thoughts and related emotions.
I often hear, “Well I know I felt sad, but it came out of nowhere.”
Nope…it came out of somewhere. I encourage you to attempt to identify
the thought or situation that goes along with that emotion. It may be
something you can attend to, change, or set a goal about in order to
increase or decrease the desired emotion.
Extreme emotions get you a lot further than trying to regulate your
emotions. This is also a myth. Some people may have grown up in an
environment where extreme emotionality was the only way to be heard, or
to get their needs met. That probably worked pretty effectively as a
child, and maybe even now as an adult. Regulating emotions is not
learning how to “numb” down your emotions, but rather learn effective
coping skills to respond appropriately given the situation. A basic
example of this is a baby crying for food. The baby only knows that
crying gets her food so she continues to do that until she learns how to
use her hands and words for food. As an adult, crying for food is likely
less effective than going to your pantry or refrigerator, even though
you may still want to cry because you want food.
It is likely that people are much more in tune with their emotions these
days because of several external factors that the year 2020 has
delivered. It is also likely that when someone asks you how you are
doing, you don’t take adequate time to actually check in with yourself
about how you’re doing in that moment. I encourage you to do more of
that. When you first wake up, check in with your emotions. When you’re
taking a break from work, ask yourself how you’re feeling and what
you’re needing. Before going to bed, take some time to reflect on the
different emotions you experienced throughout the day. This increase in
awareness can help you to better identify what is and what is not
working in your life, and possibly increase the control you have of your