How to ex­er­cise and ex­press your emo­tions in a good way


Good Health (Australia) - - Content -

It all started with an­cient Greek philoso­phers, like Plato, who val­ued sto­icism and a stiff up­per lip. Plato be­lieved that emo­tions were not for show­ing and that they should be con­trolled, mas­tered and kept un­der wraps.

“Plato char­ac­terised emo­tions as be­ing de­struc­tive forces that took con­trol of peo­ple, and I think to an ex­tent, that idea con­tin­ues to­day,” says Dr Peter Ko­val, from the Mel­bourne School of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sciences at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne.

“Emo­tions have been char­ac­terised as very dis­rup­tive and as pos­si­bly lead­ing to men­tal ill­ness and the down­side of this is that we can of­ten be scared or cau­tious of ex­press­ing emo­tions and of ac­knowl­edg­ing our own feel­ings.”

But Dr Ko­val ar­gues that in fact, ex­press­ing and ex­er­cis­ing emo­tions can be im­por­tant for our phys­i­cal and emo­tional well­be­ing.

Read­ing the room

While we may try to keep them at arm’s lengths, emo­tions are a use­ful barom­e­ter and some­times a warn­ing sig­nal to show how we are trav­el­ling through life at any mo­ment.

“When we ex­pe­ri­ence an emo­tion it’s an in­di­ca­tion that our brain has de­tected a change in the en­vi­ron­ment rel­e­vant to our well­be­ing or our goals and con­cerns. It draws our at­ten­tion to those things,” says Dr Ko­val.

“Of­ten peo­ple can ex­pe­ri­ence strong emo­tions quite un­ex­pect­edly and that will be a cat­a­lyst for them to pay at­ten­tion to what is go­ing on at that time. It flags some­thing im­por­tant is hap­pen­ing that they may not have re­alised. And the in­ten­sity of the emo­tion strongly cor­re­lates to how im­por­tant a sit­u­a­tion is for us.”

Ev­ery­day ex­changes

Whether we see our­selves as an emo­tional per­son, or as a stee­l­ier char­ac­ter, emo­tions are in­volved in al­most ev­ery facet of our psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up and of our daily lives. From birth, our re­la­tion­ships hinge upon a series of emo­tional ex­changes.

“Ba­bies ex­press what could be de­scribed as prim­i­tive forms of emo­tions and their care­givers re­spond to them and ex­press emo­tions that in­fants then re­spond to. We like to think busi­ness re­la­tion­ships are purely

‘Emo­tions are a use­ful barom­e­ter and some­times a warn­ing sig­nal to show how we are trav­el­ling in life’

‘Note your neg­a­tive thoughts, and imag­ine them float­ing away from you’

ra­tio­nal and cal­cu­lated, but of­ten peo­ple lis­ten to their feel­ings when mak­ing busi­ness de­ci­sions as well,” says Dr Ko­val.

“It’s hard to imag­ine what life would be like with­out the ca­pac­ity to ex­pe­ri­ence emo­tions.”

How openly emo­tional we are – or aren’t – is in­flu­enced by ge­net­ics and how we’re taught to deal with emo­tions dur­ing child­hood and ado­les­cence. Cul­ture can also play a role.

In Eastern cul­tures, the clin­i­cal preva­lence of de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety is lower than in Western coun­tries, although they ex­pe­ri­ence just as much neg­a­tive emo­tion. Dr Ko­val says re­search sug­gests this may be due to dif­fer­ences in how emo­tions are ap­proached, with peo­ple in Eastern cul­tures more ac­cept­ing of the fact that feel­ing happy, ex­cited and en­er­gised is al­ways bal­anced with mo­ments of feel­ing up­set, sad, anx­ious and lonely.

“By ac­cept­ing un­pleas­ant emo­tions and see­ing them as a valu­able part of our psy­cho­log­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, they tend not to go to emo­tional ex­tremes,” ex­plains Dr Ko­val.

‘There’s a ten­dency for neg­a­tive emo­tions to take on a life of their own, and once they go in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion, they gain mo­men­tum and don’t turn back to base­line’

Is emo­tional sta­bil­ity all it’s cracked up to be?

Rather than emo­tional sta­bil­ity, Dr Ko­val be­lieves emo­tional flex­i­bil­ity that al­lows us to ex­press emo­tions in an ap­pro­pri­ate way is bet­ter for us. He says stud­ies have found that peo­ple whose emo­tional re­sponses are more pre­dictable, tend to be more de­pressed, un­hap­pier with their lives and have lower self-es­teem. Emo­tional sta­bil­ity can lead to emo­tional in­er­tia or in­flex­i­bil­ity. While it’s nat­u­ral and healthy to re­spond to an event with emo­tion, such as feel­ing an­gry when a part­ner up­sets us or when we feel we have been wronged, we need emo­tions to re­turn to a base­line af­ter­wards. So, we emo­tion­ally re­spond but re­cover quickly. A sign of emo­tional in­flex­i­bil­ity can be ru­mi­nat­ing over an is­sue. Some­one makes an in­no­cent and offthe-cuff com­ment about your work or ap­pear­ance – and in­stead of let­ting it go, you dwell on it… and dwell on it… “There’s a ten­dency for neg­a­tive emo­tions to take on a life of their own, and once they go in a par­tic­u­lar di­rec­tion, they gain mo­men­tum and don’t turn back to base­line,” says Dr Ko­val.

“You chew over neg­a­tive thoughts re­peat­edly, get sad and get stuck in a neg­a­tive pat­tern of think­ing ‘Why is this hap­pen­ing to me? What is wrong with me?’ There’s an idea that if your emo­tions are in­ert or in­flex­i­ble, you may be un­able to adapt to changes in your en­vi­ron­ment and to mod­ify your emo­tions in line with the sit­u­a­tion you’re con­fronted with.”

Flex your emo­tions

So how can you give your emo­tions a work­out? Us­ing some of the tech­niques that are part of ac­cep­tance and com­mit­ment ther­apy is one op­tion.

“It en­cour­ages peo­ple to ac­cept their un­pleas­ant thoughts and feel­ings with­out try­ing to push them down. At the same time, it en­cour­ages peo­ple to strive to­wards per­sonal goals that align with the val­ues they hold dear,” says Dr Ko­val.

“It is about in­creas­ing emo­tional

flex­i­bil­ity to re­spond to any sit­u­a­tion you are con­fronted with in a way that aligns with what you want and how you want to be­have.”

Ac­cep­tance and com­mit­ment ther­apy en­cour­ages peo­ple to come to terms with a sit­u­a­tion or event and the un­pleas­ant feel­ings it trig­gers. Make space for those feel­ings in­stead of try­ing to push them away or avoid them. Ex­perts say when we stop giv­ing un­pleas­ant emo­tions un­due at­ten­tion, they be­come less po­tent for us. Let emo­tions wash over you with­out act­ing on them and recog­nise that you may not be able to con­trol a sit­u­a­tion, but you can con­trol how you re­act and feel about it. Ac­cep­tance and com­mit­ment ther­apy also stresses the im­por­tance of clar­i­fy­ing your val­ues – the kind of per­son you want to be and how you want to be­have. “This is about re­spond­ing to a sit­u­a­tion but en­gag­ing in be­hav­iour you want to en­gage in, rather than get­ting car­ried away,” says Dr Ko­val.

No­tice how you are in­ter­pret­ing your emo­tions and cur­rent sit­u­a­tion – and do a re­al­ity check. Are your in­ter­pre­ta­tions ac­cu­rate? Or are you over-re­act­ing?

Mind­ful­ness is also a use­ful tool to build emo­tional flex­i­bil­ity. It en­cour­ages peo­ple to pay at­ten­tion to their emo­tions – good and not so good – with­out judge­ment. It is also about stay­ing an­chored in the present and rid­ing out emo­tions while stay­ing calm.

Take a breather

The Black Dog In­sti­tute rec­om­mends mind­ful­ness tech­niques, in­clud­ing a one-minute ex­er­cise where you time your­self with a clock or watch and, for a minute, fo­cus all your at­ten­tion on your breath­ing. Or try a de-stress­ing ex­er­cise. Sit up­right and ask your­self, ‘What is go­ing on with me at the mo­ment?’ Note your up­set­ting or neg­a­tive thoughts, and then imag­ine them float­ing away from you. Breathe slowly and calmly through­out.

See your­self as a wit­ness to what you are feel­ing and see­ing, rather than some­one caught up in the mid­dle of those feel­ings. It won’t hap­pen im­me­di­ately, but the more you prac­tise mind­ful­ness, the eas­ier it be­comes.

“We won’t all be equally emo­tional or ex­pres­sive,” says Dr Ko­val.

“There are times when it isn’t ap­pro­pri­ate to ex­press neg­a­tive emo­tions – in a job in­ter­view you don’t want to let peo­ple know you feel un­pre­pared and un­able to deal with pres­sure, for ex­am­ple. But we need to ex­press our emo­tions in a sit­u­a­tion­ally ap­pro­pri­ate way. It’s that abil­ity to shift our emo­tions to meet the sit­u­a­tion which is re­ally cru­cial for our well­be­ing.”

‘Let emo­tions wash over you with­out act­ing on them and recog­nise that you may not be able to con­trol a sit­u­a­tion, but you can con­trol how you re­act and feel about it’

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