How Our Minds Keep Our Emotions From Getting Out of Control

James Stockdale, a commander of a naval wing during his third combat tour over North Vietnam in September 1965 was on the way to becoming a Navy wing Commander. Stockdale flew at almost 600 miles an hour, just above treetops. His A-4 Skyhawk aircraft ran into heavy flak. Stockdale was forced to eject the plane after it caught on fire.

He was taken by North Vietnamese soldiers upon landing. They beat him so severely that his limp lasted the rest of their lives. After being captured by North Vietnamese troops, he was taken to North Vietnamese prison and was tortured fifteen times.

Stockdale was an inspiration throughout those years. He became the clandestine leader of what would grow to be a prison population of nearly 500 pilots and, after the war ended, rose to the rank of vice-admiral and was Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential election. Stockdale: What was the secret to his strength and his survival?
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It was his ability manage emotions, he said.

If you ask people—especially men—about strategies for dealing with the emotion of a dire situation, the most common advice will be to distract yourself or find some other way to curb and suppress the feeling. Stockdale noted that, in his prison camp, those who took that approach didn’t fare very well. Researchers have shown that psychological psychologists who study emotional suppression are more likely to increase distress than help with coping. In its place they’ve identified and studied several other strategies that Do work.

Stockdale’s approach was not to focus on when the ordeal might end, or the ways in which he could change it his plight, but on precisely the opposite: recognizing that it might last indefinitely and that he could do nothing about it.

Psychologists today call that coping mechanism “acceptance,” but it dates back to the Stoics of ancient Greece. These Stoics warned against using energy to avoid wasting it on things that are out of your control. You can lessen emotional pain, they argued, if you accept that the “worst” may happen and focus only on what you can do to respond in a positive way. You can allow emotion to be motivating you and not sabotage you.

Consider anger. It would be silly to get angry at the rain because we can’t do anything about it. We can get mad at someone who treats us poorly. We usually can’t control or change that person any more than we can banish the rain, so that is equally silly. The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote, “if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” To accept that is liberating, for to depend on no one except yourself to satisfy your desires means you are in charge of your own happiness. The strategy of acceptance is exactly that—taking charge of your life, learning to work on those things that are within your power to accomplish or change and not to waste energy on things you cannot.

Although the Stoics advocated acceptance as a philosophy today, research psychologists support this claim. As part of an experiment to test their resolve, students were asked to match up in a game called “matching”. It was important that participants were offered the choice to continue with the game, but to receive an electric shock. Or to give up and quit. They were both longer and of greater intensity.

Before the game started, subjects were split into two different groups. One group was taught how to cope with pain through distraction. Although they had the same amount of training as the first group, the second was taught to be able to handle and accept pain. This is the outcome Subjects who had practiced acceptance were able to play longer without quitting. These studies confirm what Stoics believed, and we now have a deeper understanding of this process because modern technologies allow us to pinpoint the brain structures that underlie the behavior.

These new technologies were partly responsible for the rise in academic research on emotion regulation. There are thousands of papers that have examined the effectiveness of various approaches. Reappraisal, expression, and acceptance are the most effective.

Imagine you’re driving to a business meeting and you run into a street blocked by construction. You end up getting lost and 20 minutes late because you couldn’t follow the correct route. You might respond by thinking, “Why can’t those idiots provide clear directions?!” Such thoughts could make you angry. Alternatively, you might blame yourself, thinking “Why am I always getting lost? What’s wrong with me?” That response might make you frustrated. Each one of those negative evaluations about the roadblock and its effects probably holds some truth. However, it is likely that the dominant interpretation will determine how you feel.

This is how emotions work—making sense of what just happened is one of the phases your brain goes through as an emotional reaction develops. Psychologists call that phase “appraisal.” Some appraisal goes on in your unconscious mind, but it is also occurs on the conscious level and that’s where you can intervene: if there are different ways of looking at something, which lead to different emotions, why not train yourself to think in the way that leads to the emotion you want? That’s “reappraisal.”

In this case, for example, you might guide yourself to think such thoughts as “People won’t care if I’m late because there are many others at the meeting.” Or “This won’t bother anyone because they know I am usually on time.” Altering the course of how your brain makes sense of things is a way of short-circuiting the cycle that leads to an unwanted emotion.

Expression is the third and most powerful strategy. Ever notice how, if you are angry with someone, the act of writing them a blistering email defuses that anger, especially if you don’t send it? That’s expression.

Most people are familiar with this approach, but surveys taken by research psychologists show that most people think it doesn’t work. This is true. In recent studies it’s been shown that expression has such wide and diverse effects as lowering the distress felt after viewing disturbing photos and videos, calming the anxiety of people who are nervous about public speaking, and reducing the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the most interesting studies on expressions was done via Twitter. In that, the researchers studied 109,943 subjects who had made a tweet that included an unambiguous statement expressing a negative feeling—for example, “I feel sad.” The researchers then obtained, for each of those tweeters, all tweets made in the six hours prior to the expression of emotion, and in the six hours following it. Researchers found that tweeters who had already expressed their emotions experienced a dramatic drop in emotion intensity after they posted later tweets. It had dissipated the negativity. The emotional pulses of over 100 thousand Twitter users confirmed what laboratory and anecdotal evidence suggested.

Emotional reactions can either empower you or hinder you. Empowering emotions helps you to learn the lessons from each situation and guide you towards your goals. Negative interpretations can lead to negative outcomes and hinder your ability to achieve your goals. Given the benefits of being able to manage your emotion, it’s not surprising that over time people have employed many methods for achieving that end. Some work, others don’t. Research psychologists have been focusing on this issue for the past ten years or so, by studying the effectiveness of various methods and validating their efficacy.


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