Emotions are as nuanced and shaded as the colors of a painter’s palette. Human beings have long struggled to name and explain what emotions do to us and many struggle with increased levels of negative emotions that overwhelm us. Because emotions are so personal and experienced so individually, it is difficult to find universal explanations of emotions and this makes it difficult to express and understand what other people are going through. It even makes it difficult to understand what we ourselves are going through at times when emotions have overtaken our ability to think straight.
Because of this, learning to define our emotions in simple and useful ways is the first step to managing them.
Modern psychological theory states that emotions have three parts: cognitive, behavioral, and physiological. The cognitive part of an emotion is what we are thinking about, or our “cognitions”. The behavioral aspect is what we are doing and the physiological is how our bodies feel. The benefit of explaining emotions in this way is that the three parts can be controlled by you while the emotion itself can feel out of control. In other words, you can decide what to think and what to do. You can cool your body down if it is hot or relax it if it is tense. The trickiest part of this definition is that there is no particular order in which these three parts come on and any one part can prompt an emotion.
This is because human beings think and remember things in terms of “associations”. In other words, one thing can make us think or feel another thing that is related to it. Smelling a perfume can remind you of your mother who used to wear it when you were a kid which can in turn remind you of the blueberry pancakes she used to make which can make your stomach growl and you head for the fridge in search of a snack which then makes you feel guilty for cheating on your diet. And so on. Psychologists refer to these complex associations as “schemas” and think of them as intertwined webs of experiences that makes each person unique.
Because everyone’s schemas are unique, everyone’s experience of emotions is unique as well. Something which will trigger a thought, behavior, or physiological responce in one person will not trigger another person in the same way. For this reason, defining your emotions goes far beyond just naming it: anger, fear, frustration, happiness. Instead, you need to really figure out what is going on for you personally to understand your emotions.
Some therapists and psychologists use what is called a column method to help people figure this out. It is a simple method of tracking emotions, particularly troubling or strong emotions that can lead to helpful results.
A common method is to take a piece of paper and divide it into four columns. The headings for each are: (1)name the emotion (2)what are you thinking? (3)what are you doing (4) how does your body feel. Then, as the strong or troubling emotions is experienced, really sit down and think about these four factors and write them under the headings. When you have gathered a handful of examples, look over the information for patterns. Do you have a common triggering point? Does what you do in response always make things worse? Are there things you do that make it better? Are there things that you are thinking that you could change to improve your emotions?
Understanding your emotions in practical ways is the first step to managing them. But it is not easy. Emotions come in jumbles and can come on very rapidly so don’t be surprised if it takes a lot of practice. But in the end, it is worth it to get relief from overwhelming emotions.