Emotions are impulses to act. They force you to stop, assess any potential threat, and then act, all within a split second. Some of the stronger emotions like fear and anger are very threatening and can trigger the fight or flight response all by themselves.
People often confuse negative emotions with stress. They are two different things. Negative emotions are just emotions. The stress response involves emotions but transcends them. How you perceive negative emotions and cope (or not cope) with them is the determining factor in whether or not they triggers a stress response.
For example, if you wake up feeling anxious you can tell yourself, “Huh, I’m feeling a little anxious this morning. I’ll have to be extra careful to relax a little more today.” This self-talk will defuse the stressful potential of the emotion. If you told yourself, ” Wow, I’m really feeling anxious. I am so stressed,” your mind would perceive you anxiety as a threat that you can’t cope with and trigger a stress response. Anxiety, like any other emotion, is a feeling, not stress.
One of the cornerstones of my work is integrating Japanese psychology techniques drawn from Naikan and Morita therapy into stress management. These two forms of Japanese psychology incorporate a uniquely Eastern approach to understanding and managing emotions that is influenced by Buddhism.
The following five principles are derived from the work of David K Reynolds (2002), the person most responsible for bringing Japanese Psychology to the United States. These principles clearly illustrate a Japanese Psychology approach to understanding emotions.
Principle # 1. Your feelings are not controllable by your will.
While you can learn how to identify what you are feeling, and even understand how it relates to your stress, you can’t switch feelings on and off with your willpower. Feelings arise on their own; they come and go like the wind. You cannot will yourself to feel something you don’t feel. For example, stop reading and feel happy. Just use your will power to feel happy. OK, now shift your focus and be sad. Go ahead, feel sad.
As you can see, you cannot directly control them by your sheer will alone. What you can control is your behavior; what you do in response to your feelings.
Principle # 2. You must recognize and accept your feelings for what they are.
Since feelings come and go on their own, and they are beyond your ability to control, it doesn’t make sense to feel responsible for them or feel guilty about being unable to control them. Rather than feel guilty or responsible for your feelings it is better to simply note what you are feeling, accept this, and move on.
Principle # 3. Every feeling, however unpleasant, has its uses.
Even though you cannot control your feelings, you can use them as a catalyst for action. Acknowledging that you are feeling guilty, for instance, can motivate you to change your behavior and stop doing whatever it is triggering the feeling. In this sense you are using the feeling to identify the behavior and change it.
Principle # 4. Your feelings will fade in time unless you re-stimulate them.
Feelings, both positive and negative, diminish over time. Unless you do something to re-stimulate them (like constantly think about them and sub-vocally bring them up) your negative feelings will start to fade. This is a completely different approach to dealing with feelings from the one promoted by Western Psychology which advocates that you must analyze your painful feelings and figure out “why” you feel the way you do before taking any action to make them disappear.
Principle # 5. Your feelings are influenced by your behavior.
Feelings change in response to behavior. For instance, you can help get rid of negative feelings more rapidly by doing something that promotes positive feelings. This will not only take your mind off your painful feelings, it will trigger new positive feelings.
The Japanese psychology approach to managing painful feelings is simple; since you cannot control or fully understand them, it is a waste of time working on them or analyzing them. It is better to simply acknowledge them, accept them for what they are, and stop blaming them for causing your behavior. It is more productive, and emotionally healthy, to shift your focus to what you can control, your behavior
A Six Step Action Plan for Coexisting With Your Painful Feelings
Purpose: The following exercise, A Six Step Action Plan for Coexisting With Your Feelings, is designed to teach you a simple technique for noticing, accepting, and coexisting with painful emotions. It incorporates principles and practices from ACT and Morita therapy and will help you become aware of your painful emotions and be able to co-exist with them.
1. This week, pay closer attention to your stressful emotions. You can use a journal to help you keep track of them.
2. Don’t question them or try to figure out why you are feeling them. Merely note what you are feeling.
3. After a couple of days of attending to your troubling feelings use the following six steps to help you manage them:
Step 1. Identify the feeling – Pay close attention to feeling and describe how it affects your body and mind in a non-judgmental manner. Example (using anxiety related to giving a presentation):
“Isn’t this interesting, I am getting anxious again. I notice that whenever I have to give a presentation, I feel this way. My neck muscles start to tighten, my hands get clammy, and I start to breathe more rapidly and in a shallow fashion.”
Step 2. Accept the feeling– Tell yourself:
“I am definitely feeling anxious. I’d rather not feel this way but I guess it is normal to feel like this when I have to do stand up in front of a work group and give a presentation.”
Step 3. Tell yourself that you can co-exist with these feelings and still take action – Example:
“I really envy people who find it easy to give presentations. It is hard for me to stand in front of a group but I can co-exist with my anxiety while giving the presentation. I’ll have to prepare harder and just accept the discomfort.”
Step 4. Redirect Your Focus – Rather than focus on your emotions, re-direct your focus to behaviors related to the stressful situation that you can change. For instance, in this example you can make sure that you know your subject inside and out. You can use practice rehearsal in front of a mirror or a couple of friends to get ready. Check your audiovisual aids and other props to take the focus off of you and onto the technology. Make sure you have back-up materials just in case your primary ones fail.
Step 5. Get physical -Take a break and do something physical during this step. If you are home, be sure to get in some vigorous physical activity. If you are at work, take a break and walk a few flights of stairs. If your worksite has a fitness facility, get in a workout.
Step 6. Reinforce your ability to co-exist – Remind yourself that you can give a productive presentation despite being anxious. Tell yourself:
“I can do this. My feelings do not have to control my behavior.”
In time, becoming more mindful of your painful feelings and practicing co-existing with them will become part of your daily routine.