I often wonder why we have emotions. It would be much easier to plan and act without the interference of worry and doubt, or excitement and surprise, or sadness and guilt. Doing what I need to do can sometimes feel like dragging myself through mud, and the idea that I might be able to just do whatever needs doing, without all the accompanying emotional weight, is a very attractive one. Having children who can do this also appeals; getting them through their days without the accompanying emotional barriers would seemingly work so well! It is very easy to view emotional experiences as barriers to the things we wish to achieve or the people we wish to be.
Being skilled at having emotions, knowing what they are, how they work, and what they do to our bodies and behaviours, are among the important skills we can develop, both for our children and ourselves. Those children who learn to understand and work with their feelings, and who can persevere with the tasks that engage negative emotions in particular, have better outcomes in school performance, social relationships and employment than those who continue to be drawn into the quicksand of their inner discomfort.
The 3 year olds who can resist eating a marshmallow for 5 minutes for the reward of 2 more, are learning not just about goal setting. They’re learning to understand what goes on inside them, in this case about an emotion ‘desire’, that this emotion can be accompanied by uncomfortable physical sensations, and a variety of thoughts about themselves or the situation. They can also learn that this feeling, although strongly urging them to act in a very specific way, can be resisted, if only for a little while. Knowing what to attempt and practising doing this, is not only quite hard, but turns out to be a very useful life skill.
Learning these skills, like everything we teach our children takes time and a great deal of patience. In fact most of us will struggle as adults to experience our emotions AND do what is in our best interests to do. But that is the object of what psychologists call Emotion Regulation and Distress Tolerance.
The aim is to be better at having our feelings, rather than to simply feeling better.
What is Emotion Regulation?
There are 4 skills in Emotion Regulation, which are the abilities to:
- Inhibit inappropriate behaviour in response to strong positive or negative emotions;
- Organise oneself to meet an external goal in a way that is not mood dependent;
- Self-soothe the physical arousal that is triggered by emotion; and
- Refocus attention in the presence of strong emotion.
Even babies will begin to regulate their emotions quite early, as for example when they turn away from loud noises or too much stimulation. Little by little, children will learn, for example, to wait their turn, or to give up a toy to another child, or to keep attempting tasks they can’t quite manage and don’t want to do.
What is Distress Tolerance?
Distress Tolerance skills are a whole range of practical strategies for living with inner distress when we can’t change the situations in which we find ourselves. When we experience intense and unpleasant inner emotions, and a lot of negative thoughts, beliefs and expectations about others and ourselves, we also have strong urges to escape these feelings. Not escaping, but allowing ourselves to make room for this inner life, and also for who we are and what the world is, is the work of distress tolerance. This includes finding ways to have painful emotions, cope with crises, self-soothe, distract, redirect our activity, and accept reality when we can’t change it.
What are Emotions?
The nature of what we experience internally is of course a philosophical issue. We can never know what it is truly like to be anyone else, or any other animal. We can only make assumptions based on the behaviours we observe in others, and from what we extrapolate about what we think we know from our own personal inner experiences. And, of course, there are many reasons why we may be wrong. When I see you there looking ‘bored’ and ‘unhappy’ because of what I think I see in your face and posture, you might just be thinking about what to have for dinner, and be feeling quite content.
Psychologists believe that we are born with a limited array of basic emotions, and that these become more complex and varied with the influences of the particular cultures in which we are embedded. Not that we develop more or different emotions, but that as we mature we experience combinations of feelings to which we learn to attach new and more complex names.
Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, studied facial expressions as a way of trying to understand what might be going on inside us. From analysing such non-verbal communication of people in many countries and in a wide variety of differing cultural and ethnic groups, he Identified 6 basic emotions. Basically, these are anger, fear, joy, sadness, disgust and surprise.
Robert Plutchik, another American psychologist, thought there are 8 basic emotions, which he grouped into 4 pairs of polar opposites: joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, and surprise-anticipation. These polar opposites act like continuums, along which we can identify the spectrum of subtle differences between the intensities of emotions and their various combinations.
There is general agreement that we are born with a universal and limited ready made set of inner experiences that we label Basic Emotions, that there are about 6 to 8 of these, that we experience them in varying degrees of intensity, and that they are different from physical sensory experiences or the activity involved in thinking.
Emotions and Bodies
Importantly, emotions are intimately connected with the systems in our bodies that activate physical sensations and that produce automatic behaviours that have very high survival value.
In prehistoric times, those animals that were able to experience emotions as a short cut to receiving important information about what was going on around them and could act automatically, without having to think, were the ones most likely to survive and reproduce. If I have to figure out whether that sound in the bushes is a tiger or a bird, and whether I should run or not, I may be seconds too late in finding out. The time to think is when we are no longer in a state of intense emotion, but when our bodies have returned to a more normal state of functioning.
Fear instantly and automatically activates a system that produces abundant energy and a reaction to avoid or freeze or fight to maximise survival. Joy binds us tightly to experiences that bring rewards and that we wish to repeat. Shock stops us and holds us back to reconsider. Disgust enables avoidance of possibly risky situations, like eating poisonous foods. Anger harnesses actions that force the gratification of our needs.
Each basic emotion has this same survival value, and its own distinctive and dedicated physical pathways and connections in our brains and bodies. That is, emotions are ‘hard-wired’ into our bodies.
Emotions and Thinking
Life experiences lead to thoughts and expectations about the situations in which we find ourselves. We develop a complex system of beliefs, based not only on what we perceive and experience personally, but also on what others communicate to us. Unlike other animals, we learn to have beliefs based on the experiences of other human beings, for example, ‘don’t pat the dog, he’ll bite you’.
These thoughts, expectations and beliefs become themselves the triggers to our feelings, physical experiences and actions. We no longer need the events themselves to set off the process.
Thus, not only do we acquire thoughts and beliefs we have never tested for ourselves, but also the mere thought of a thing, takes the place of the real thing. We believe the dog is dangerous when we haven’t tested this, we become fearful at the mere thought of the dog, and our bodies become tense as it prepares to act. Even more importantly, we learn to make connections between things in such a way that even seemingly quite random events trigger emotions. For example, the smell of oranges might provoke fear in someone frightened by a dog while she/he was eating an orange ice-block. Or our excitement level and heart rate increases at the sound of an email arriving, or we breathe more slowly in anticipation of relaxing by a pool when we read the ‘Get Away’ holiday section of the newspaper.
Emotions and Individuals
The degree to which individuals can regulate their emotions depends on their developmental level, but also on the basic physiological capacities that underlie their personalities. Psychologists believe that we are all born with an array of temperamental traits, and that we vary in the degree to which we exhibit each trait. We vary in the level of:
- Stimulation required to get us to respond;
- Activity engaged in when awake;
- Intensity of emotional expression;
- Predictability of bodily functions;
- Usual mood;
- Reactions to new people, places and change in routine;
- Ability to handle obstacles; and
- Capacity to concentrate or resist distractions.
These temperamental differences impact on an individual’s capacity to manage their emotions. It makes sense that a more intense emotion, is harder to cope with than a less intense one. If one’s urge to respond is stronger, it makes sense that it is harder to learn to inhibit it. If the feeling take more time to dissipate, that individual remains vulnerable longer.
Obviously, emotions and the accompanying behaviours we display have an effect on the individuals around us. And reactions from those individuals will then have a further impact on our emotions and behaviours. Temperament traits moderate the ways that carers respond to children, and vice versa. Parents will have a more difficult task managing a more sensitive baby, and more sensitive parents will have a harder task than less sensitive parents.
Individuals who recognise emotions in others, and can understand that their emotions may be different from others, will have more skill in relating and in solving problems that arise in relationships. Those who come to know that they can feel one way but act differently have a wider range of choice in how they will respond to others. And those who learn to express emotion in safe ways and talk about the impact of these, on themselves and others, will learn to handle stresses more successfully.
Putting it all Together
Given the above, what do we know about emotions?
- We all have emotions, although the intensity of these varies from one person to another depending mostly on our genes, and then on how their expression is shaped by our environments;
- We can’t prevent the triggering of emotions;
- Emotions don’t happen for no reason at all, they are meaningful responses to events;
- We can’t force emotions to go away;
- Emotions are not right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate;
- Emotions are not dangerous or abnormal;
- We are not out of control when we have emotions;
- We’re not going mad when we have emotions;
- It’s not weak or stupid to have emotions;
- It’s not immoral to experience emotions;
- Emotions are triggered by events and things in the world, but most often by the thoughts and beliefs we have about events, people, things and places;
- Emotional experiences lead to further thoughts about the world, the self and others;
- Emotional experiences are accompanied by physiological arousal, which varies according to the intensity of the emotion;
- Emotional experiences lead to specific urges to action.
Emotions are not trivial irritating side effects of life, but are fundamental to how we function. They give us the capacity to experience the most prized reasons we have for being alive, and the least. Whether we like them or not, we can no more escape them than we can escape our lungs processing oxygen, or our livers sugar, or our retinas the light photons that fall on them.
Resources Used in the Writing of This Article
- www.cci.health.wa.gov.au Centre for Clinical Interventions
- Marsha M. Linehan. Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. The Guildford Press. 1993
- Stephen C. Hayes. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2005
- Russ Harris. ACT Made Simple. New Harbinger Publications. 2009
- Dr Neel Burton Heaven and Hell. Acheron Press. 2015. Oxford, UK.
About the author: Emotion Regulation and Distress Tolerance.
Jane Handley, a retired Clinical Psychologist, describes the meaning of these terms, and why they matter. The degree to which we can understand, express and work with our emotions impacts on learning and relationships and ultimately, on employment and mental health.
Some ideas for adults and children to understand and handle emotions effectively are described in three separate sections. The first part looks at emotions, what they are and are not. The second part discusses emotion regulation and ways to achieve this. The third part briefly discusses Distress Tolerance, or what to do when we can’t change the situation or ourselves.