IN THE HERE & NOW
Do you know that moment when you felt anxious, angry, frustrated or upset? When you said or did things you didn’t want to say or do? You felt overwhelmed by the emotion, didn’t you? Maybe you felt stuck in it.
How about having a magic button that you could just press and feel free of that strong emotion?
Neuroscience points to an ability we all have that works pretty much like magic.
We call it self-awareness.
Self-awareness is the knowledge of how you are feeling in the here & now, and the ability to accurately label the emotions you are feeling.
Does this “name it to tame it” really work?
If we’re anxious, scared, or worried about something, is it really going to make us feel better to dwell on it by speaking or writing about it?
This is odd and counter-intuitive. We would rather prefer to ignore these intense emotions, try to suppress them or get rid of them by being aggressive.
How does this magic button work?
According to research at a prestigious university, it seems that the intensity of the raw emotion diminishes under the light of cognition; talking about my unpleasant or overwhelming emotion would minimize the negative flush.
In an experiment at University of California, Dr. Michelle Craske tested out this hypothesis about labeling emotions with a group of participants with a fear of spiders. The participants would have to approach a tarantula as close as they felt comfortable. Then, they were divided into four groups. The first group was told to describe the experience of being around the spider and label what they were feeling (e.g., “I’m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider”). The second group was told to think differently about the spider, using a form of reappraisal (e.g., “The spider is in a cage and can’t hurt me, so I don’t need to be afraid”). Another group was instructed to distract themselves from the anxiety while the final, the ‘control’ group – did not receive any specific instructions.
The results were impressive. During a new exposure to the tarantula, individuals who were told to specifically label their emotions got closer, were less emotionally aroused, and their hands were sweating significantly less than the first time. In fact, participants who used a higher number of words associated with their fear and anxiety had the lowest levels of physiological stress.
What does these findings tell us? They suggest that the more specific we are describing our intense emotions, the better we can handle their effects. Recognizing and honestly labeling our emotions can help reduce the physiological manifestation of the emotion.
Similar to the participants in this study, when you and me are facing a challenging situation that triggers an unpleasant & overwhelming emotion it is essential for us to describe it in as much detail as possible. Just to tell it like it is. This might mean to put our worries on paper before a high-stress exam if we want to increase our chances to perform better, as it was shown in this study.
Just to be clear, emotions are not good or bad, have no positive or negative value. Their expression can be experienced positively if it is adequate for the present moment or negatively if it’s inadequate for the present moment. Each emotion has a cause and a need to be satisfied behind it. By approaching it with gentleness and respect is our only chance to discover its unapparent personal message.
Making our emotions less intense feels great, and it is necessary, especially when we want to enhance our resilience and quality of life. First, we can increase our awareness and accept the emotion. We let it be. Then, we interrogate it with curiosity and listen to what the emotional ‘data’ is trying to tell us.
What could help us to be in the here and now? The following grounding trick might help us to bring ourselves in the present moment through sensory awareness. It’s a five-step exercise rooted in mindfulness that can help interrupt overwhelming emotions and unhealthy thought patterns:
- Look for 5 things you can see in the room
- Become aware of 4 things you can touch
- Acknowledge 3 things you can hear
- Notice two things you can smell
- Become aware of 1 thing you can taste
Being back in the here & now, anchored in the moment, where, in fact we always have been, is the magic button that frees us not from the storm, but gives us peace amidst the storm.
And this how we can start practicing Emotional Intelligence.