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Are Emotions a Choice?

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

Do you sometimes feel like your emotions come out of nowhere? Or do you get stuck in a mood and have trouble getting out of it?

When it comes to emotions, we often we tell ourselves stories, half-truths or fiction about our emotional experience. One of the most common fictions is that we have little or no choice in how we feel.

That doesn’t mean that we can choose to never feel painful emotions. Anger, shame, guilt, fear, sadness and other painful emotions play an important role in our lives and even in our survival. And they are a part of life, whether we like it or not.

These emotions are triggered by events that happen in our lives. Physical pain, the loss of a job, feeling that important beliefs are threatened, a traumatic event or losing someone important to you are the types of life events that happen to most people at some point or another in life that can cause painful feelings.

But, that initial experience of emotion that occurs nearly immediately after something happens is more short lived than you might think. An emotion’s life-span is a matter of minutes or even seconds, not hours or days.

So how is it that we can be stuck in painful emotions for long periods of time? Every emotion has a powerful aftereffect. After we experience anger, for example, our attention narrows, typically causing us to overlook aspects of a situation that are fair, just or otherwise not related to feeling anger. Instead, after anger our focus contracts to those parts of our experience that make us angry. We may ruminate about other situations that have made us angry in the past, imagine future situations that will make us angry or get stuck thinking about the current situation, to the exclusion of all else.

The end result is that we continue to feel angry for a long period of time, rather than for the seconds or minutes that it takes to experience an emotion.

So where is the choice?

After we experience an emotion, whether we continue to feel it or whether it passes and we experience other emotions depends on the focus of our attention.

When you recognize that you have experienced a painful emotion that will have powerful affects on your memory, thoughts and functioning, you can make choices about where to focus your attention.

We don’t always want to let go of an emotion. They stick around sometimes to communicate something important, either to ourselves or to others.

But if your emotion isn’t helping you and you want and need to move on, you can make choices that impact how you feel.

There are many different ways to let go of negative emotions. Below are 2 strategies to try when your stuck in the narrowed focus that often comes after an emotional experience:

1. Be Mindful of Your Emotion. Begin by observing your emotion. You might allow yourself to experience it as a wave, say by concentrating on the physical parts of the emotion and noticing how physical experiences such as nervousness, a beating heart or a heaviness in the pit of your stomach ebb and flow like a wave.

Now remind yourself that you are not your emotion. Don’t try to push it away or hold it close. You may think of your emotion as a messenger, telling you something about your experience. Welcome it, allow yourself to experience it and then let it go on its way.

2. Focus on Positive Experiences. Painful emotions can narrow your attention so that you are aware of only those experiences that continue to trigger the painful emotion. Consciously refocus on positive events and positive aspects of your life. To do this, you must notice when your mind has wandered back into remembering painful times or imagining more difficulties. Bring your attention back to positive thoughts and experiences over and over, until the after effects of the emotion no longer cause you to return to it.

Both of these strategies require practice. They can be difficult at first, but with time and repetition, they become easier and more effective.

Taking the time and making choices will allow you to get distance from painful emotions, which is essential to figuring out what message they send. Experiencing your emotion as it occurs, without acting on it, reduces the intensity of the emotion. Feelings that were scary or seemed catastrophic will no longer feel so overwhelming.

We experience emotions all the time. Sometimes they cause us to change a situation or even to change our lives. But often, we simply experience them and then move on. It is when you are stuck and not moving on that you most need to make a choice about how you want to feel.

One caveat: If you are stuck in a major depression or are suffer from an anxiety disorder, these strategies can still be helpful, although seeking the help of a professional and considering medication may also be necessary and a recommended course of action.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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