Habitual Practices to Sooth Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2018 (Revised 2020)
When emotionally flooded, cognitive functions shut down, limiting our ability to regulate the emotion. We need habitual practices to calm our emotions.
We struggle to imagine a different emotion than the one we currently swamping our system. When I am sad, I think sad thoughts. When I am happy, I think happy thoughts. Our current mood influence perceptions and our perceptions solidify the mood.
When we feel down, it’s difficult to consider future joys. We get stuck in the current emotion. Dreary days lag on, inviting dreary futures. We feel the weight of hopelessness closing in and pulling us further into the abyss.
"Our current mood influence perceptions and our perceptions solidify the mood."
Much of the well-being advice is very antidotal, ignoring the dilemma of mood altering perceptions. Anxiety and fear flood the the brain, interfering with the balancing regulations of the pre-frontal cortex. Implementing advise, largely a function of the pre-frontal cortex, is strained when cognitions is blurred by overwhelming emotions.
Feeling affects are fleeting. Jumping to work to alert the system of danger. Once they warn and the threat subsides they can resume normal functions. However, as the arousal settles, cognitive functions begin, ruminating on the event, keeping the moment alive.
We must calm the arousal. A healthy practice is to have several emotional soothing techniques available. Activities that we automatic employ without much cognitive coaxing. Even in moderate states of arousal, implementing a new tool regulation practice is difficult.
Once our system has settled, if the problem still exists, such as a dispute with a partner, we can re-approach with our cognitive functions back on-line to find a creative solution or properly consider the problem against other priorities.
Bessel van der Kolk explains, "Successfully working through stressful and overwhelming emotions requires a conscious combining of top-down approaches with bottom-up methods" (2015).
Key Definitions: Top-down; Bottom-up
Top-down and bottom-up are psychological terms referring to differentiated brain functions influencing other areas of the brain.
There are many top-down practices that calm emotions. We must explore different avenues to find the best practice for us. Albert Bandura wrote, “having a serviceable coping skill at one’s disposal undoubtedly contributes to one’s sense of personal efficacy” (1977). We need serviceable tools to calm our system, establish safety, and open our mind to address vexing problems.
Life’s full of ups and downs, successes and failures, pleasure and sorrows, happy beginnings and sad endings. It’s the nature of the rich experience of living. Hold on with patience when life’s not going so well, calm your mind, and implement change. Even sadness, we can maintain hope of a better future—even though we can’t envision exactly how the future will be.
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Bandura, A. (1977) Self Efficacy: Towards a unifying theory of Behavior change. Psychological Review, 84(2), 191-215.
Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.