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May 23 2016
Although I research and teach about emotions, I also have clients, colleagues, and a family (including two cats, two dogs a husband, and an almost four-year-old), so I can very well understand why we all struggle sometimes. This afternoon, my son has been in the house for 15 minutes, has spilled water all over the kitchen floor and then walked in it with his dirty feet from outside, screamed (happily) about 100 times (or so it seems) while playing with one of the dogs, whined about having his nails cut and has been singing in between it all. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am very grateful to be able to work from home some of the time and have him come by for a hug once in a while and to just be here in the midst of the craziness of life. But, all of these things also make it very difficult to focus when you are trying to get work done. The default mode is that your patience wanes, and before you know it, you are irritable and snap at someone when something goes wrong.
So, if an emotion only lasts for a few seconds or a minute, why can’t we just let it go? Well, blame the thinking part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex (one of the main brain areas involved in thinking and impulse control). As humans, we are really good at rehashing, and holding onto our emotions when we should just let it go.
I am losing it—what do I do?
When you find yourself losing control over your emotions, take a time out. A time out gives you time to calm down and reflect. If you have ever been in a close relationship with a small child, then you know the benefit of not engaging when they have had a meltdown. This is especially important with small children who do not have well-developed emotional control, but is also true with adults! The time to engage is not when your emotions are running high and you are closing off your rational thinking.
If you are experiencing a conflict with someone, most of the time the matter won’t be resolved at that moment anyway, so just take a break. Whether you need to run to the bathroom, take a short walk outside, or decide to come back to the matter in a day or a week, taking a break will give you an opportunity to reset your emotions. Once you stop dwelling on whatever happened to trigger an emotional response, you can focus on the problem—not the person—and not be clouded by your emotion.
You should never ignore or suppress your emotions, but rather recognize what you are feeling, where these feeling are coming from. and processing the situation with your thinking brain. Name what you feel and realize that you can control your behavior.
Practice makes perfect.
Now that you know what you should do, how can you make this your default response? Like anything, you have to practice to improve; behavior is no different. To prepare, you need to workout your brain just like you work out your body. Improve your response to emotion through mindfulness meditation. I know, most people think that mindfulness meditation is hokey, or they don’t have time for it—but, it can be as little as a few minutes a day to make a real difference in your emotional self-control.
Meditation practice increases your moment-to-moment awareness. The more aware you are of what you are feeling, the better you will be at controlling your emotional response. Take a cleansing breath, go for a walk, or practice meditative hand washing. The key is to be aware and in the moment. Tune into how your breath fills your body. Consider how the breeze feels as you are walking. Be deliberate about washing all the negative thoughts and stress away while washing your hands.
There are many options for mindfulness practices that will work for anyone. And there is plenty of research that shows the positive physiologic outcomes for those who practice meditation. So, why not try it a few minutes a day to find out how it can help you?