Are Your Emotions Hijacking You?

How to tell your feelings to beat it, so you can stop drowning in the quicksand of you.

By Amy Alkon, published January 2, 2018 - last reviewed on April 16, 2018

Feelings are Dylan McDermott and emotions are Dermot Mulroney. People sometimes have a hard time remembering which Dermot(t) is which.

There's a similar problem with feelings and emotions. Neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux both point out that people, even researchers, use the terms emotions and feelings interchangeably.

Emotions and feelings actually describe two different processes that philosopher William James highlighted—bodily driven ones (emotions) and thinky-driven ones (feelings). Emotions are your subconscious reactions to physical experience—the information from your environment that comes in through your senses (sight, taste, touch).

Emotions are your brain's split-second responses to a situation, and they kick off changes in your body. Damasio explains that some of these bodily changes are perceptible to other people—like shifts in skin coloration (blushing), posture, and facial expression. Other changes, like a boom-boom-booming heart, are "perceptible only to the owner of the body in which they take place."

Say you're in a parking garage and there's the slightest movement in the shadows. It's so faint you don't notice it on a conscious level, but your senses pick it up. They, in turn, message your brain's threat-detection circuitry—the amygdala and its policing pals—before you have any conscious awareness that there may be something to fear. That circuitry, in turn, sets off neurochemical reactions that put your body on the alert and ready to run or serve up some whoop-ass.

It's only then—after your body gets into the act—that feelings finally come in.

Feelings are your conscious reactions expressed in thoughts. They are your mind's conscious interpretation of the environmental input affecting your body, or as Damasio puts it, feelings are "mental experiences of bodily states."

However, feelings aren't just reactions to environmental input. Memory, beliefs, and associations play an essential role in feelings, bringing meaning to whatever you're experiencing.

This meaning-making business happens last in the emotion-feeling sequence. Take that creepy shadow in the parking garage scenario. In your conscious mind, in the wake of the bodily ruckus of emotion—the goosebumpy heart pounding of fear—a feeling pops into words: I'm scared! And then, also in your conscious mind, another feeling may come up—about what the situation could mean for you: Omigod, it's probably a serial killer, and he'll come bludgeon me with a tire iron, and I'll die a virgin!

As Damasio explains: "Emotions play out in the theater of the body, feelings play out in the theater of the mind."

Mea culpa: I, too, use these terms interchangeably here—because I'm hoping to help you manage your life, not perform backyard neurosurgery. However, understanding the difference helps us take advantage of how the body and mind work together to shape who we are—which is the sum total of how we behave.

Illustration by Eric Palma

Your Fears Are Not The Boss of You

Harness the tyranny of the clock

There are people who keep their writing "pure" by doing it only when they feel inspired. We call these people independently wealthy. For the rest of us, there's the daily terror of the blank page. Come anywhere near it and it sneers, You suck. You're not interesting. You have nothing to say to anyone. But hey, go ahead and type something. Truth be told, the fear that this provokes can be motivating. For me, it typically leads to a burning desire to clean out my refrigerator—a task I usually reserve for when some long-abandoned bowl of leftovers starts growling at me as I open the door.

Unfortunately, my lack of inherited wealth is accompanied by a lack of practical job skills, such as the ability to do more with tools than hold them while smiling flirtatiously. So, I really, really do need to write. Luckily, I've found the perfect way to make myself do that, and it's by refusing to let my feelings be in charge of my behavior.

I do this by writing with a timer—52 minutes on and 17 minutes off. So there's no stalling to the tune of Whoa ... I don't think I can pull this piece together. There's only that bitch, the clock. I turn it on, and no matter how horrified I am by what I've put down on the page, I keep at it until I hear that "ding!" of the timer running out. Just to be clear, this clock doesn't change my feelings an iota. It simply tells them to f*ck the hell off.

Illustration by Eric Palma

Fight the Cower

It's not what you feel; it's what you do

You may have a feeling—like the urge to dodge some scary, ego-filleting challenge—but that doesn't mean you have to respond: Yes, your lordship! Sure, feelings are motivational tools, but they aren't necessarily motivating you in the right direction, right now. Say there's some person you should talk to—somebody who'd be really good for your career. But—whoops!—up come your fears, singing their usual tune: Quick! Find somebody portly to hide behind!

Your feelings are trying to act in your best interest by protecting you from rejection. Unfortunately, it's your evolutionary best interest. Yes, it's that annoying mismatch between our evolved psychology and our modern-day environment popping up again. However, these days, the worst thing that's likely to happen to you from overstepping is getting humiliated. "Died of embarrassment" is a figure of speech, not something they write on the coroner's forms.

The fear keeping you from going after what you want has a co-conspirator—your automatic behavior, such as your habits. Because neurons that fire together wire together, creating behavioral grooves, all your ducking instead of doing has turned ducking into your thing. You have become predisposed to duck. The solution: Tell your feelings to beat it, and get on with whatever needs to be done.

Give Performance Anxiety a Name Change

Reappraise your anxiety as excitement

Illustration by Eric Palma

Harvard Business School's Alison Wood Brooks points out that anxiety is "signaled by increased heart rate"—but so is excitement. Her research suggests that reappraising your pre-performance anxiety as excitement actually helps you feel excited—and less nervous—and perform better because of it.

I do this anxiety-as-excitement reappraisal whenever I'm about to go on the radio for a short segment. Short segments are particularly tough because they require me to be smart and funny in an extremely concise way. TV is even scarier, because it adds the visual element. I have to wrangle my wriggling hands, try to look sane, and sit at an angle that doesn't make me look like Mr. Ed. Feeling this pressure does not make for cool confidence on the air.

I increase the power of my reappraisal by bringing in my body—doing what we often do when we feel excited: smile big and boogie. Of course, I do these radio segments on the phone at home. To do this one-person dance party thing discreetly in the workplace, go in a bathroom stall with your phone and headphones and do your best not to dance your phone into the toilet.

Rethinking Outside The Box

Redecorate your emotional challenges as opportunities.

Illustration by Eric Palma

A technique called cognitive reappraisal is helpful for shrinking your looming sucky feelings to a more manageable size. It involves changing how you interpret a situation to change how it affects you emotionally. Say you need to introduce yourself to some important stranger standing across the room. At the thought of doing this, a lightning bolt of fear comes down and slices you in two. Now, you could just lie there on the floor in pieces until the stranger goes away—or you could do a little rethinking: No, this is not a fearsome experience I'm facing; it's an opportunity, an opportunity to show courage and maybe make something magical happen.

Psychologist James J. Gross finds that reappraisal is most successful when it's done early on in the emotional process—as an emotion is first bubbling up. This helps keep your cognitive resources from getting hijacked so you don't end up stammering or speechless. Cognitive reappraisal does take some mental work, so it's tempting to try to shove your feelings in the drawer with all the Chinese takeout menus so you can't hear their nasty little whispers about what a big pile of suck you are. But, according to the late psychologist Daniel Wegner, emotional suppression—trying to forget, ignore, or shove away thoughts—brings them right back up.

However, there is a trick you can use to prevent those thoughts from pawing at you. Psychologists Jens Forster and Nira Liberman found that you can keep yourself from end-lessly revisiting a thought if you simply admit that not thinking of it is hard. This probably sounds too simple to be real, but it makes sense. Removing the need to patrol your thoughts also removes the mental sticky note that tells you to keep going back into Thoughtland with a flashlight to see how well you're doing.

Illustration by Eric Palma

Call a Meeting of the Logic Board

Demote your fears from positions of power

Our fears are often overblown and seriously irrational. Psychologist Albert Ellis, the late cofounder of cognitive behavioral therapy, advocated using reason to reappraise our fears—to help us see how absurd many of them actually are. Ellis was influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said that it is not things or events that disturb us but the views we take of them—meaning it isn't what happens or could happen that makes us feel so bad; it's our interpretation of it.

Say we flub a line in a presentation we're giving to coworkers. The ridiculously irrational interpretation: I am a rotten, worthless, accidentally employed turd who is only still working here because I'm too insignificant for anyone to remember to fire me. The rational comeback to that: I'm human; humans screw up all the time. I've seen colleagues stumble over a word. They laugh and get back to what they were saying. They aren't dragged out of the building past a jeering mob.

Ellis explained that it's okay to want to do well—to prefer to do well. The problem comes when we "awfulize"—engaging in drama-queeny generalizations, like telling ourselves that failing at something will be "awful!" or "horrible!"

Illustration by Eric Palma

Don't Take It Personally

Even if you're pretty sure it's personal

You can also use cognitive reappraisal to reinterpret others' behavior toward you. You just make up a little tale about them that involves a less ego-trashing reason for whatever they're doing. Say somebody hasn't responded to your email. Tell yourself that they're probably slammed at work and really tired, not really tired of you. Picture them in a disaster movie, heroically fighting an onslaught of paper and flying file folders in a paper-clip hailstorm.

Of course, you are well aware that you just made up that "slammed at work/really tired" explanation; you can't know for sure whether it's the actual reason. Fortunately, that doesn't seem to matter. Energywise, like suburban McMansions, our brains are expensive to run. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that the brain likes to take shortcuts whenever it can—going on autopilot instead of going to the trouble of thinking everything out. Or, put another way, our lazy-slob brains are suckers for a story, and once you give yours one that's at all plausible, it'll go with it and screw the fact checking.

Most helpfully, providing yourself with a less degrading explanation for somebody's behavior could keep you from prematurely dashing off some resentypants follow-up: "Can't even spare that precious two minutes while you're on the f*cking john to email me back?" That's important, because you'll really feel like an asshole if you get the reply that a journalist friend of mine eventually sent to an obnoxiously persistent publicist: "Sorry I didn't respond to your pitch; I was in a coma."

Illustration by Eric Palma

Use Your Words

You can actually talk your feelings smaller. 

We typically see our feelings as abstract mental states. But that's a rather dignified view, and dignity is power. Instead, it helps to think of your feelings—and maybe even talk to them—as if they're rotten children. Really, Fear? Throwing yet another tantrum today? Lovely. Yes, go right ahead—dump your applesauce on the floor. You're still not getting your Lego out of toy jail.

Beyond how fun it can be to berate the little sh*ts, putting labels on what, exactly, you're feeling may be helpful in dialing down the roar of your fear and anxiety. There's basically a power shift that takes place. Using language requires you to put your mental weight on your brain's higher reasoning department, the prefrontal cortex. With all of that increased activity up there in the front office, there's less action in your brain's alarm center, the amygdala, which likely means less anxiety coursing through you.

Illustration by Eric Palma

A Pen for Your Thoughts

Or an audio recorder, if you aren't much of a writer

When you're facing a challenge, writing down what's worrying you may help yank you off the negative-thinking hamster wheel. Psychologist Sian Beilock has tested this in an area rife with dread for many—math tests. She found that students who wrote about their worries for about 10 minutes beforehand were less anxious and performed about 15 percent better than those who, say, sat around staring into space and hoping for a miracle.

Beilock explains that the mental processing that goes on while writing may allow a person to tame distracting emotions—shrinking anxiety so it no longer takes over so much of what's called working memory. Working memory is kind of like a mental whiteboard—a temporary workspace for information you need to keep accessible—like partial results to a math problem or the ingredients you've already added when you're baking a cake.

It's likewise very helpful to write about painful experiences that have already happened. This is called expressive writing, and it also seems to keep stress and anxiety from taking such big bites out of you. In psychologist James Pennebaker's first study on expressive writing, students did 15 minutes of writing, for four days in a row, about the emotional impact of a traumatic experience. 

Trauma leads to stress, and stress—especially prolonged stress—can cause all sorts of medical problems. However, in the month after the study, those who had written down their experience (along with the emotions that went with it) showed a 50 percent drop in visits to the university health center.

Pennebaker explains that the benefit of expressive writing seems to come from reinterpreting and making sense of what happened. In fact, Pennebaker found that the more people wrote about their trauma using explainer words (such as because, reason, and caused) or insight words (such as understand and realize), the more improvement they saw in their health.

Good news for those pressed for time: Research by social psychologist Chad Burton and personality psychologist Laura King finds that just two minutes of daily expressive writing for two consecutive days may do the job to ease your emotional load. A month after their subjects did the writing, they showed fewer physiological symptoms of stress. But if you just aren't a big writer, not to worry. Just tap that record button on your phone. Experiments by happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, among others, find that the benefits of recording your feelings for 15 minutes are pretty comparable to those of writing them down.

Lyubomirsky points out that perhaps because both writing and recording our thoughts involve an "external source"—either a piece of paper or an electronic device—they tend to involve a level of organizing, integrating, and analyzing that mere thinking does not. Also, the thinking required to create a narrative on the page or in a recording often leads to a search for meaning and enhanced understanding about what you're going through.

Illustration by Eric Palma

Hello, Dalai Lama

Meditate your fears down to size—even if you "can't meditate"

Emotions are grabby little f*ckers—fear, anger, and anxiety especially. They jump out from nowhere, get you by the neck, and start dragging you down some gully. The thing is, you don't have to go with them. You can say no. It helps to remind yourself that you are not your feelings; your feelings are happening to you. You surely understand this intellectually, but what's helpful is looking at them with a little perspective, a little distance—as if you were standing across the street watching yourself go about life rather than drowning in the quicksand of you.

Mindfulness meditation is very helpful for this. It simply entails sitting or lying quietly, scanning your body with your mind, and observing your thoughts and bodily sensations nonjudgmentally—kind of like watching scenery from a passing car.

You are being engaged and aware—bringing more attention to the present moment and getting used to your bodily sensations and feelings. It could help train you to approach intense negative feelings more like a tourist—observing what's happening instead of impulsively reacting to it. This gives you something important—time—which gives you your best shot at a cooler response.

Now, maybe you're convinced you can't meditate because your mind always wanders. Well, wandering is just what minds do. Don't judge the wandering. Just notice it: Oh, there goes my mind, drifting over to that mole I'm sure is cancer. Then just refocus—bring your mind back to, say, your fingertips or your ear... until your mind runs off again, which it will.

Nonjudgmentally yanking your wandering mind back is a form of self-acceptance. You're noticing your thinking rather than flogging yourself for the subject matter. This may help you get in the habit of witnessing your feelings—as opposed to panicking that you're having them, which gives them full run of the place.

From the book Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence, by Amy Alkon. Copyright @2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Griffin. Alkon writes the weekly advice column The Science Advice Goddess.

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