Managing Intense Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 2018 (edited February 15, 2021)
Emotions motivate action. Dangerous emotions commandeer attention, pushing for immediate and divisive action. Sometimes negatively impacting our lives.
I feel good, so, I do it. I feel afraid, so, I refrain. A swirl of emotions direct behaviors, sending us chasing after opportunities, and protecting against threats. But sometimes, heightened arousal leads to behaviors that poison futures. Our systems can be overwhelmed by the crazed bitterness of hate or blind rage. Some heightened arousal is appropriate. Some circumstances can be vehemently opposed with angry abhorrence—such as child abuse; but with too much hate for too many things, the dangerous emotions strangles, destroying peace and retarding growth. Hate, anger, and jealousy are dangerous emotions often sparked by threatening encounters. Blind adherence to these emotions is dangerous.
What are Dangerous Emotions?
Emotions range in valence (pleasant or unpleasant) and arousal. Extreme emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, may shut down or limit mitigating cognitive processes that may suppress actions with distasteful consequences.
Dangerous emotions are heightened states of arousal that limit our ability to consider future impact of action.
Past Pain and Heightened Emotion
Our feelings are complex. Fears are partially innate and partially learned. Traumatic experience intertwines with experience, infusing memories with emotion. Once stored, these memories project significant meaning on mundane events, attributing arousing purpose where no hidden dangers exist.
A person we dislike (or hate) acts poorly, and we interpret their actions as intentional evil, performed with rancor and a desire to hurt. Our faulty judgement is confirmed by our tainted interpretation. The underlying feeling poisons new perceptions.
See Self-Confirming Labels for more on this topic
When we fear, we respond defensively—sometimes pulling back, other times attacking, and occasionally freezing. Our history and biology influences our perception of danger and our response to our subjective interpretation.
Emotions are not perfectly designed for directing decisions. Our unique constellation of biological sensitivities and trauma combine to create emotional reaction to new experiences.
Interrupting Dangerous Emotions
Because dangerous emotions tend to motivate defensive and retaliating reactions, they deserve inspection. We must interrupt the automatic cycle of trigger, emotion, reaction, inserting a pause for a moment of clarity.
Even the slightest pause provides an opportunity for closer examination. We can pointedly ask, "is this behavior protecting my future or just an automatic reaction, blindly following a familiar cycle of bad actions and distorted judgements?"
See Wise Decisions for more on this topic
Powerful Emotions are Essential for Survival
Strong emotions are essential. Some circumstances deserve strong responsive reactions. We waste precious time with hurtful others; but don’t need to. Our emotions can guide us to safer environments.
We shouldn't disregard emotional messages for action. The emotion conveys an important message. Our interpretation of the message and our chosen response to that message may be entirely misguided. Perhaps, the message is nothing more than, "beware, something similar to this hurt you in the past." The current event may share some similar attributes to the past but is missing key elements that made the previous situation hurtful.
See Emotional Guidance System for more on this topic
Complex Constructions Behind Emotion
We are drive to find meaning. We want clarity and purpose. We learn from discovering causes to events. However, We can never completely uncover all the contributing factors motivating heightened arousal.
See Meaning Making Machines for more on this topic
Some connections we can reasonably assume. If a certain person has repeatedly hurts us, our heightened arousal to small events that has provoked abuse in the past will likely provoke abuse in the present. The small event, like the bell for Pavlov's dogs, sets biological events in action--we react with strong emotion. Our emotional arousal alarms of danger and we automatically seek safety.
Pavlov's dogs would likely salivate if a child rode by ringing the bell on his tricycle, even though the bell ringing, this time, was not predictive of serving of kibble. Circumstances change quicker then biological responses.
Protective impulses to dangerous emotions need examination for appropriateness, whether our impulsive reaction creates safety or future limitations. Awareness exposes emotions from past underlying hurt that need compassion, understanding and reprograming. Seeking outside and professional help is often necessary for objective insights. We are too involved, blinded by biases, to see past the ego protecting fluff.
See Healing through Awareness for more on this topic
Acknowledge the presence of dangerous emotions is the first step to slowing the cycle. An ensuing pause provides an opportunity for the mindful work to widen views, considering other possible explanations, and evaluate the best response. By freeing ourselves from the powerful grip of dangerous emotions, we can entertain deeper perspectives and respond with effectiveness.
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