Stretch your emotional muscle

7 Elements of Wellness, Emotional Well-Being.

This week we are going to jump into the first of the seven elements of Wellness, Emotional Well-Being, with some up to date information on why we should even bother with emotion at all, what exactly is emotion, the how of emotion including emotion as a process and the emotional process in action, encouragement to review your current emotion self management strategies and one powerful strategy for expanding our Emotional Wellness through noticing, naming and taming our emotions.

In the first email of 2017, I posed some questions about your current wellness in those seven areas. What did you discover about yourself?

I found that I was stronger in some areas than others. With our natural tendency to focus on what is not going well, I suggest you take that as information, noting it and giving yourself some encouragement about what you are doing well.

For example I have been at a plateau in the area of physical activity for a long time now. It has been enough to be able to carry 35 pounds on my back whilst heading into the back-country, but it’s always a grunt, especially early in the season.

Now I want to turn it up a notch such that I start the summer hiking season with strength and fitness to have it be less of a grunt. To that end, I have started morning walks even in the very cold weather most of the time, an at home program of strengthening with bands and some personal training to increase my strength. It is not an easy process, and slow, but then change and expanding oneself seldom is comfortable. So like hiking up a mountain, I prepare, show up, go one step at a time and keep going.

In the seven areas of wellness, I hope you will come along with me in a journey of going beyond, going within and going deeper in our experience of overall of well being. The one we’re focusing on this week, Emotion, is important to pay attention to and increase our awareness in and clarity about, so that they can be a colorful, ever expanding and beneficial experience in our lives.

Why bother with emotion?

  • Did you know that only 1 – 20% of job success can be attributed to Intellectual ability (IQ)?
  • Did you know that being able to effectively feel and manage your emotions, also known as Emotional Intelligence (EQ) can be attributed to 27 – 45% of success on the job?
  • Did you also know that humans experience on average 27 emotions per waking hour. If you are awake 17 hours per day, that’s 456 emotions per day, 13,770 per month?

Having clarity in emotional functioning and management can have big effects on how you function at work and in your moment to moment well being emotionally. And I don’t know about you, but I was really surprised by the number of emotions experienced in an hour, never mind in a day or month. That’s a lot of emotional activity that goes on below our awareness most of the time. Emotions are like hunger, you can go without food for awhile and not notice it, but then suddenly you are hungry and need to eat. Similarly we can go on having these feelings just below the surface of our usual awareness and then something happens and we do notice them, perhaps strongly. Emotional clarity involves awareness of this background of emotions and catching them earlier.

What is Emotion?

So whether or not we like it or spend our lives in logical, rational pursuits, or find ourselves yelling at someone for no apparent reason or have a “meh” feeling much of the time, we do have emotions and it is essential to our well being to notice and understand them more so we can use them to our benefit.

Over the past 20 years much has been studied and researched about the role of emotions in our lives What is known about emotion is that we have basic emotional circuitry with which we are born. We are hardwired with emotions at birth. According to Dr. Jaak Panksepp, Estonian born Researcher & Neuroscientist , all humans have seven basic emotions. These are seeking, care, rage, panic/ grief, fear, lust and play. Over the course of our lives these get used to a greater or lesser degree and produce the emotional patterning we have at present.

Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, Canadian Clinical Psychologist, Researcher and Author explores what is at the heart of conflict in relationships. It is the failure of couples to have and sustain secure emotional connection. When that is absent, our internal alarm bells go off and we usually do one of two things, protest or withdraw from what is essentially a threat to our very survival, our partner or spouse no longer being there for us.

Emotional Intelligence, researched and developed by Dr. Daniel Golemen is said to have three components: 1. the ability to understand our own emotional state and the emotional states of those around us; 2. The ability to use our feelings to guide our thoughts and actions in appropriate ways, and 3. The ability to monitor our own as well as others’ feelings and emotions.

These important researchers in the realm of emotion have identified that we have core emotions, that emotional connection is at the heart of secure, healthy, positive relationships and that learning to be emotionally intelligent can be an integral component of effective functioning in the workplace and at home.

The how of emotion

Emotion is a process. With EFT, Emotion is a process, not just a one word description. When we feel something there is a triggering event. This can be someone saying something to you or something you say inside yourself. This sets in motion a very quick event, reaction physiologically particularly if they are negative emotions such as anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, sadness. When we are triggered it registers in our our fight or flight mechanism.

Emotion is a bodily sensation. This bodily sensation may register as an increased heart rate, feeling of tension somewhere in our bodies, such as the stomach, heart, lower back, in the head or all over.

It is the outside feeling we name and show to others. Examples of outside emotions include anger, frustration or anxiety.

It’s the inside feeling, the more vulnerable one we keep to ourselves most of the time. These are our more vulnerable feelings that we really don’t want others to see and end up protecting with the outside emotion. Examples of inside emotions are fear, panic, hurt. It’s hard to see in another that when they’re angry, inside they really are scared, sad or hurt.

Then there is the deep feeling or attachment connection. This is our most vulnerable place where we fear being rejected or abandoned for what we are really feeling.

As well, it is what we tell ourselves about what happened or the meaning we give to what we’re feeling or and how we feel. We also have thoughts about what we’re feeling which pertain to what we’re saying to ourselves about ourselves and what we’re saying to ourselves about the other person in the interaction.

When we have these thoughts and feelings, we have an action tendency, which is something we do or say in addressing the emotional activation. This can be a result of how we typically deal with things when our fight or flight mechanism gets triggered. Some of us prefer to stay and fight it out, while others of us just want to get away. Still others go numb and frozen.

One thing to remember about the process of emotion, once activated it is very quick and often the above aspects are not immediately evident until it is slowed down, which usually takes place after the triggering event and reaction has occurred.

The Emotional Process in Action

So here’s now it works. Imagine your partner saying to you something like “Honey I am disappointed that you didn’t do what you said you were going to do”.

What happens for you? Of course it does depend on where you’re at that day.

Suppose you’re feeling calm and happy in yourself and the relationship. Your partner’s statement might trigger a mild tightening in your chest (bodily sensation), annoyance at the comment (outside feeling), the thought “I wonder what’s happening for my partner and how I am going to deal with this” (what you’re telling yourself or the meaning you make about the comment) and some worry about this (inside feeling) and then asking “So what’s going on?” and moving closer to my partner (what I said and did; action tendency). All of this occurs quickly and probably with minimal awareness. Then you proceed to talk about it and work it out without too much difficulty.

Now imagine again that you’ve had a hectic day, your boss criticized your work for what you thought was no good reason and the drive home was intense as the traffic was very slow. You arrived home late and frazzled.

Upon walking in the door, your partner greets you with a hug, which feels good and then says the same thing, “Honey, I am disappointed that you didn’t do what you said you were going to do”. You’re already upset about your day and you haven’t had a chance to work through it. You explode in anger (outside feeling); you wonder what is wrong with your partner, that they are always criticizing you and you say to yourself “ I am never good enough” (what you’re telling yourself or the meaning you make about the comment) and then you notice a sharp tightness in your chest (bodily sensation) which you identify as fear, fear that this means the relationship is doomed (inside feeling) and you start yelling that your partner is always causing problems and you’re going to leave (action tendency). You may also feel that spells the ending of the relationship (Attachment meaning)

Where understanding that emotion is process can be most helpful is with difficult situations like the second scenario. When we are triggered by another’s comments things go very quickly. We get into reactive mode before we know what’s going on. While the example is in a personal relationship, this applies in relationships and situations at work and friendships. It’s easy to see how things can spin out of control especially when we are stressed or tired.

Emotions play a big part in all our lives, whether at home, out in the community or at work. Emotions bring a range of color and liveliness, as well as dullness and pain. While emotions tend to be divided into positive or negative, all of our emotions are valid and necessary for our survival and living well.. Most of our difficulty arises in those more negative feelings and understanding our own emotional process can be a helpful step to managing our interactions with others.

What strategies are you using to manage emotions on a daily basis?

Emotional Well Being means taking care of ourselves to ensure that we are functioning well on a day to day basis. So what are you using on a daily basis to ensure emotional well being emotionally?

Noticing and Naming is taming

Given that emotion figures so largely in everything we do even if we think it does not, it can be potentially very effective to become more aware of our emotional landscape as it unfolds. Most of us downplay the importance of emotions to our daily life. And knowing that on any given day we all experience somewhere in the range of 400 to 500 emotions it can be overwhelming about where to start. Most of us don’t know what we’re feeling until it gets so strong that we notice it..

How about experimenting with noticing and naming? In his research, Dr. Matthew Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles found that when his research subjects named their emotion, it calmed the emotional center of the brain. What we know about emotion is that if we can do these two things, noticing and naming, that can go a long way toward increasing our emotional intelligence and sustaining emotional wellness.

Noticing and Naming Activity

Mindfulness has been shown to be useful in awareness of many things including emotion. One particular strategy I suggest is called noticing and naming. It stems from Jon Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as “ awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,”

Many people are not aware that emotions are a physiological response and we feel them in our bodies. Think of a sick stomach when you hear some bad news; or a pain in your heart when someone hurts your feelings or tightness in your chest when you hear something difficult.

Take a moment now and breathe deeply and see if you can notice what you’re feeling and where it is in your body. Or remember a time recently when you felt hurt or angry. Where does this locate itself? Notice that.

Now take another deep breath and see if what you are feeling can be named. Is it sadness, fear, anger, worry, frustration? Naming it can tame its intensity. While seemingly a simple activity, it is powerful to be present in the moment to notice, name and eventually tame your emotions as one strategy for expanding your emotional wellness.

Do this noticing and naming activity several times throughout your day and see what happens.

Stay tuned for the next email in the seven areas of Wellness series, Relationships. Reference books & links for further exploration of Emotional Wellness. Register for our newsletter to get the next one in your inbox if you haven’t signed up already.

Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence : 10th Anniversary Edition Why It Can Matter More Than IQ

Jon Kabat Zinn. Full Catastrophe Living

Sue Johnson. Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships

Jaak Panksepp

Cheryl Richardson. The Art of Extreme Self Care

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