Choosing Your Emotional State
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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