What happens to our body when we feel an emotion?
Emotional Roller Coaster
I've been thinking about emotions a lot this year because, for me, this year has been full of emotional ups and downs. I can't complain, because the ups have been high. And the lows have been... an experience! At one point, technological failure resulted in the loss of a years' worth of work. Initial shock soon turned into sadness; I was disappointed and discouraged. I felt a lump in my throat which felt like it was radiating down to my stomach. Then anger– exasperation, at myself, for not having a foolproof back up; my head burning and my chest tight. This is my trigger for migraine. Followed by frustration, in attempts to retrieve data. And happiness– elation, when it worked (albeit temporarily!). Glowing with energy, I bounced around the room exhibiting gravity defying behaviours.
Whilst this experience was an emotional roller coaster, it's nowhere near the intensity of emotions experienced earlier in the year, when, for the first time in my life, I got to experience fury; at the hands of a stranger. I don't think I'll delve into that experience in this post, it's still a bit raw– maybe another time.
Emotion isn't all in the Brain
When we experience emotions we feel physical sensations within our body. Have you ever stopped in the moment of an emotion, to evaluate what you are feeling? And where that feeling is? In an emotion, our brain triggers physiological changes within our body. These changes alter our autonomic processes (processes we don't consciously control), such as heart rate, breathing, sweating and blink rate. In turn these physiological changes create physical feelings, or sensations, within our body. We associate these physical feelings with the emotion. Researchers at Aalto University have created visual bodily maps of emotions, based on self reported bodily sensations, experienced when an emotion was triggered. The results were gathered from 701 participants from around the world.
Triggering an Emotion
When feeling an intense emotion, it can be hard, yet not impossible, to stop and consider bodily sensations. It's not something that would be top of mind, which is why most of us haven't done it. We can, however, trigger emotions to tap into the bodily sensations that we experience. We can do this in a number of ways, the easiest being the recall of an emotional experience, but we can also do it by creating the expression of the emotion on our faces. Research shows that what we do with our body language and expression can actually change the way we feel. Not long ago I made a 1 minute video to explain this concept. If you missed it check it out here. Try recalling an emotional experience at the same time as expressing it on your face, and see whether your body responds in a similar way to the respondents of the study.
Controlling an Emotion
Although it can be hard to stop and evaluate in the moment of an intense emotion, when we do so, recognising our emotion and the sensations we feel, we start to gain the power of control. We gain the power to distance ourselves from the emotion and adapt our behavioural response. Let's use anger as an example. Anger can range from annoyance through to fury.
Annoyance: Mild anger caused by a nuisance or inconvenience.
Fury: Uncontrolled and violent in nature.
We all differ in our response to situations that cause anger (or any other emotion). Whilst some of us may feel annoyance towards a certain situation, others may feel a more intense feeling of anger, such as fury. As well as differing in the way we feel the intensity of the emotion, we differ in our behavioural response. For example, we may feel intense anger, yet we may be very good at controlling how we respond to it with our actions. Or, we may have poor coping mechanisms, and 'overreact' with our actions when we feel anger. If several people have told you that you overreact to anger, then perhaps you do. But don't worry, you can work on changing that by paying attention to your emotion. Each time you feel the onset of anger, stop and recognise the emotion. Feel the sensations within your body, so that you can recognise it easier, and earlier, next time. Each time you stop in the emotion of anger, prolong your response– your physical actions, to start to regain control. The more you do this, the quicker you'll be able to control your behavioural response. By prolonging your response again and again, eventually you'll gain the ability not to react.
You and Your Emotions
Take some time to consider how you experience, and respond to, four of our basic emotions:
Happiness, Sadness, Anger and Fear. Consider how they impact your life, what you do to avoid, or deal with, them. I'd love to hear about your experiences, feel free to share your response with me in the comments or by contacting me online. Here are my experiences of those emotions...
I'm usually happy and I've never had to seek happiness. Not bouncing around happy but content happy. I bounce around happy in the privacy of my own home, like a giddy kid, when I feel like I'm winning. Winning for me can range from achieving something (like retrieving my lost data!), my partner returning from work (especially on a Friday), or when I'm about to eat a take out curry! I would never bounce around giddily in public as I hate attention.
I feel sadness intensely, and it can easily be triggered for me from something as simple as watching the news. Therefore I read the news instead, so I can avoid certain topics. I also avoid sad movies. Fortunately I don't feel it often, because I avoid triggers and I'm fortunate to be happy in my work and relationships (I think that makes the difference). When I do feel sad, I feel paralysed with it and just want to curl up with a blanket over my head. Again, I'd never do this in public as it defies social norms.
I'm very tolerant so it takes a lot for me to get angry. When I do, it's when I feel disrespected. I can count on one hand the times that I've been angry in my life, but when I am, it's extremely intense, like a rage burning inside; I feel like I'm on fire! I keep it within and control my response, so it goes unnoticed, but I usually end up with a migraine. I can't easily shake anger off, and usually have to wait a day or two until I've calmed down, before pulling up the person that caused it. By then I'm calm enough to talk without anger and my motive is to convey to the person how they made me feel. I don't think it's fair for someone to be so disrespectful that they cause anger. So if the person is in my life, in some way, I face it head-on. At least they know if something's wrong. If it's a stranger I walk away, because they don't have a place in my life. Having said that, I feel happy with the knowledge that if I had to, I have it in me to physically respond, for survival. I discovered this in the incident earlier this year when I experienced a stranger's fury. Time slowed down in a moment of pure clarity; I saw opportunity to attack, rather than just defending. In that moment I evaluated the situation and realised my life wasn't actually in danger, so I forced myself to stop. The potential consequence just wasn't worth it.
In one way I fear trivial things (like attention, public transport and the dark) and in another way I'm fearless (like not being scared when I was mugged many years ago). I always think of worst case scenario, to prepare myself should it occur. If it does, by the time it occurs, I've already dealt with it in my head and can happily move on. I avoid scary movies and those programs that show people's mishaps, as well as being the first to walk away from a horrific scene that is about to unfold (like someone jumping off a roof), while spectators and public services gather. But if something needs to be dealt with and nobody steps up, I'll deal with it (like removing a giant huntsman spider, that strolled into an emergency department recently. Nobody acted so with my legs shaking uncontrollably, I removed it). I will not let fear get in the way of my life, so I continuously put myself out of my comfort zone to nip it in the bud. Sometimes I feel like I'm torturing myself. But continuously resetting the fear boundary prevents it from consuming me. I'm brave in a cowardly sort of way.