Choosing Your Emotional State

In olden days, if you were a serf, you had no choice where you lived. You stayed where your parents had grown up, or you went where your lord told you to go. You were powerless and stuck where you were, and there wasn’t much you could do about it. Many of us live that way in our emotional lives now. We passively accept the emotional states that come over us, or we use artificial mood changers like drugs, alcohol and the media to get us out of our sour tasting emotions.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can exert considerable control over our mental/emotional states if we choose to. Sometimes we may want to calm ourselves. Other times we may want to be more energized. Either way we just need to attend to a few of our behaviors and make some adjustments.

Usually, we think that our emotions cause changes in our physical condition. If we are sad, our face frowns and our posture slumps. If we are angry, we get physically tense and we breathe more rapidly. When we are happy, we smile. What we may fail to realize is that the system works both ways. If we intentionally change our breath, posture and expression we are likely to experience emotional shifts that reflect those changes.

Our brain’s limbic system is responsible for regulating emotion and it is locked up inside the middle of our head. It needs information from outside to know what emotions to generate. It checks for sensory input. What’s going on outside? If the senses pick up a lot of signs that there is anger directed at us, the limbic system will be prepared to match that by generating anger. Importantly, it is also monitoring what our body is doing and what thoughts we are generating.

If this limbic emotional control center observes that there is an angry red-faced guy shouting at us, but that we are breathing slowly and smiling, it will keep seeking information before going into red alert. It will assess what’s happening in our thoughts. It will check for memories of similar situations. For instance, if angry red-faced guy was once associated with us getting hit, the emotional center may run the fear and escape subroutine. But the limbic system will also check for rational analysis. Observing that this angry red-faced guy is only three years old, fear is not required. Continued calm remains an option. It will also check for our sense of confidence. If we generally think of ourselves as being able to manage children well, the calm state can continue. If we think we can’t handle a child’s tantrum, we may get the fear and anger emotional package.

The point is that our emotional mind requires input to know how to respond. The input from the external world that comes in via the senses is only one stream of data among several. When we use our higher-level mental processes to manage the input to our limbic system, we get the emotions we choose to have rather than the one’s our emotional brain thinks we should have.

So, if we want more control over our emotions, we need to be more aware of our thoughts and behavior. We must become more mindful. What follows is a description of some things we can do to alter our emotional states. Try them out. Observe the subtle changes that may occur in your emotions as you change what you do with your body and mind. 

Our autonomic nervous system, which responds to the brain’s limbic system, is in charge of regulating breathing, heart rate, digestion and numerous other operations related to emotions. The most accessible way to affect that system is by changing the breath. Slower, deeper breathing brings relaxation and calm. Faster, sharper breathing brings up energy. Try breathing in a way that simulates the HA, HA, HA of laughter and you may notice an emotional shift toward happiness.


If we slump our shoulders and cast our eyes downward, we are likely to feel sad. If we look defeated, our emotions will match. If we sit or stand up straight, elevate the ribcage just a bit and look out at the world, we are likely to feel more confident and powerful. If we lean back with our feet up and hands behind our head, we tend to feel more relaxed.  As a general rule, postures that open your ribcage and allow deeper abdominal breathing lead to relaxation.

Facial Expression

We smile when we are happy. The emotional brain thinks therefore that if we are smiling happiness is the appropriate emotion to create. Practice the half-smile you can see on any image of the Buddha. This subtle relaxation of the face and very slight upturning of the lips can induce a lighter, brighter feeling.


Cognitive-Behavior Therapy is built on the premise that what we think largely determines what we feel. If we are depressed, we need to break out of the thinking habits that generate sadness, fear, dread and futility. It is easy to observe that our thoughts can bring us down. Hang out with your most pessimistic thoughts for a while and you will surely feel unhappy before long. On the other hand, when we generate more self-affirming, grateful and hopeful thoughts, our emotions take on a brighter tone. Consciously directing our thoughts, we can guide our emotions. To be more energetic, give yourself more enthusiastic thoughts. To be calmer, give yourself peaceful thoughts. To experience more joy, put your mental attention on thoughts of gratitude and compassion. 

Visualization/Mental Imagery

Some of our thinking is verbal, but much of it is imaginal. We remember and create multi-sensory images in our minds and associate them with emotional states. If you think of the time in your life when you were most happy, sad or frightened, you will likely re-experience some level of those emotions. If you imagine being in a safe, pleasant place and imagine it vividly, including all of your senses, you will likely feel pleasant emotions and a sense of calm. Imagining a successful outcome to a challenge you face can make you feel more confident and may add to your chances of success. On the contrary, if you predict disaster, you are more likely to get one.


If we were going to sail across the ocean, it would be a good idea to know how to navigate or have a good navigator along. A navigator uses a destination, or at least a waypoint to orient towards. Otherwise we might just go where the wind blows. When we decide to master our emotions, we are setting a direction. We decide that we aren’t going to be blown around by the force of external events. We have the power to decide the type of emotional life we want to live. Wanting to be more peaceful at heart, we decide to do the things that create that condition. We practice mastering our emotions. We let go of thoughts that keep us upset. We breathe. We are attentive to our posture and facial expression. We take care of our bodies. We guide our thoughts to be more loving.

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© 2008 Tom Barrett