An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.
- Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett
When we consider being our “best selves,” we imagine overcoming challenges, confronting injustice, and succeeding when we thought all was lost. We don’t envision ourselves giving up when it gets tough, giving into our fears, or letting anxiety get the best of us.
Contrasting the two options, we find the difference between achieving our vision and failing to live the life we want most comes down to managing emotions. Instead of giving in to our “feelings,” we find we excelled most in those times when we pushed through to overcome discomfort.
And yet, as crucial as managing our emotions is to live our best lives, we see more than ever an alarming trend towards indulging in feelings regardless of the costs to our wellbeing.
To understand better the risks of following our feelings, we look to the work of the renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, who explains how emotions are “your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.” Contrary to historical speculation, through many years of research and testing she discovered how “Human beings are not at the mercy of mythical emotion circuits buried deep within animalistic parts of our highly evolved brain: we are architects of our own experience.”
These findings are not surprising and align well with all the other neuroscience insights more recent studies have uncovered. However, what’s equally compelling in Dr. Barrett’s research is how emotions are socially “shaped by the realities of the world that you find yourself in, including the social world made by agreement among people. Your mind is a grand collaboration that you have no awareness of.”
And finally, her findings help us understand more about the physical impact of our emotions - how we interpret feelings and experiences: “Social reality is not just about words—it gets under your skin. If you perceive the same baked good as a decadent ‘cupcake’ or a healthful ‘muffin,’ research suggests that your body metabolizes it differently.”
What we’ve come to understand from the work of Dr. Barrett and other neuroscientists is how much power we have over the lives we live. Alarmingly, however, we also find how much influence society has over how we interpret our feelings (think marketing, gaming, placebo effect, etc).
While it’s true that we are a product of our experiences, it’s also true that we choose how to interpret our experiences. A simple example of learned interpretation would be the different ways people consider pain during physical exercise. Although it’s the same experience for everyone, some have learned to interpret the feelings as discomfort, while others have learned to interpret the tearing of muscles as healthy growing pains.
Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.
- Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
There are many factors to learning, and it’s not always easy to overcome deeply held beliefs or feelings, but we now know it is possible through attention and "smart" practice. In the same ways we learned to interpret feelings one way, the proven plasticity (the brains ability to change) of our brains means we can “rewire” and learn new thoughts and different ways to interpret our senses in the future. We see examples of our brain's plasticity at all ages all around us as people learn to hate smoking, love the feeling of exercise, and quit drinking. (It's true the brain is most plastic when young, but we retain plasticity throughout our years).
In the same ways we can positively change our thinking, to our demise, we can choose to strengthen our ideas about how we interpret experiences and feelings. We can fail to believe in our ability to change, continue to consume the same information, and double down on excuses that hold us back - continuing the decline in our wellbeing.
Alternatively, we can recognize the personal and organizational opportunities to improve wellness through effectively managing our emotions, and collectively working together to move beyond our chemical impulses. We begin by modeling for ourselves and others how to de-escalate in emotional moments. We proactively practice soothing our emotions to keep them in check. We don’t fight feelings with feelings by responding emotionally, or we continue the trend. While we don’t deny or ignore our feelings, we instead learn how to better understand what our feelings are telling us. Our goal is to find a balance, which means recognizing our feelings are one of the inputs but not the answer.
No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care
- Theodore Roosevelt
A good example is helping a child in the store learn how to manage their impulses. They desperately want that toy right this moment. It’s new to them, and their dopamine “more” drive is on full display as they throw a tantrum. However, these are the critical opportunities where we can teach, as well as, practice managing our feelings. As challenging as it may be, a parent(s) models breathing and staying calm as they listen and coach their child through overcoming their impulses. In so doing, the parent(s) avoids escalating emotions and teaching a lesson of emotion versus emotion.
Another example is practicing empathy in the workplace. A co-worker, team lead, or manager listens to understand someone's feelings without reinforcing those feelings. Instead of saying, "I would be angry too.", they ask questions that help the individual better understand what they are experiencing and if those feelings are serving them well.
Here we find the most important goals in empathy and modeling effective emotional management are moving past the emotions and letting the individual uncover the thoughts behind their feelings.
There is a reason marketers use emotions to drive consumer behavior - emotions are strong drivers and seldom logical. When people act on their feelings, they are far more inclined to make decisions that go against their best interests. Whether we’re trying to be our best, raise a child to thrive, improve a relationship, lead a team, or build a high-performance culture, we want to avoid the emotional trap of fighting emotions with emotions. Instead, we want to respect feelings, seek to understand what they are telling us, and recognize they are "learned interpretations" of signals from our senses that seldom tell the whole story.
Finally, achieving lasting change is seldom easy. It takes a healthy routine of continued skill practice to overcome learning that does not serve our best interests, which is why WellVisor focuses on daily practice. For managing emotions, reducing stress, and lowering anxiety, our pause feature includes multiple relaxing mindfulness videos to help proactively soothe the amygdala, which lowers the fight or flight instinct that leads us to emotional impulses. In addition, we offer numerous mental walkthroughs for practicing mediation, self-control, and other critical life skills. And of course, we continue to add new life skill walkthroughs to keep the best life journey going.
To learn more about emotions and neuroscience, check out the following highly recommended reads*:
*The links are through our Amazon associates account, so we may receive a small commission on purchases.