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How Brief Are Emotions?

A closer look at the science behind emotion duration

Most people react with some degree of skepticism when they hear me say that emotions (both positive and negative) are super brief. And rightfully so. That's because when we experience negative emotions (such as anxiety, anger, or sadness), it often feels as if these feelings will drag on forever. But, this is not the case. Let me explain.

First, emotions appear to last a long time. For example, the affective forecasting literature suggests that we all experience biases when estimating the intensity and duration of our emotional reactions to events. We tend to think that negative emotions will last a long time and that positive emotions won't last long enough. Think about it. Take a few seconds to imagine the last time that you experienced negative emotions. For example, imagine feeling anxious at the dentist. Did that visit seem to go on forever? Now think of the last time you did something exciting with people you like. Perhaps you went for a walk in the park with a friend. Did time fly? The answer to both of these questions is likely yes. That's because emotions can hijack our perception of time. In fact, when we are in the midst of having an emotion, our entire experience is colored by it. When we feel anxious, it is hard to think of a time when we were relaxed. When we feel happy, it can be difficult to remember a time when we were sad. And so on.

Not only are we pretty bad at estimating the duration of our emotions, but also we sometimes unwittingly prolong the very same emotions we want to go away. For example, inhibiting the facial expressions we automatically make when feeling an emotion (e.g. frowning when anxious, smiling when happy), can lead to increases in sympathetic nervous activity (activation of the fight-or-flight response). Thus, if we are feeling anxious at the dentist and we are trying to inhibit our facial expressions, this might increase our sympathetic activity (faster heart rate, increased sweating), which in turn, will make us more tense and anxious. In this case, we would be correct in concluding that our anxiety lasted a long time. But, that's only because we perpetuated it by trying to inhibit it. If we had left it unregulated, it would have likely followed its natural course of going up and down in a few seconds (maybe a couple of minutes if we were truly terrified of dental procedures).

So, as you go through your day and you find yourself feeling an emotion that seems to go on forever, try to take a step back and think about the two points I just raised. You can use these questions as a guide: 1) can you recall when this emotion started? (hint: probably not long ago), and 2) have you been trying to push it away only to notice it keeps coming back? (hint: likely yes). If you can, try to let go of the tendency to change that emotion. Sometimes just letting emotions come and go (without acting on them) can be the most effective way to remain in control.

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