Nathanael Garrett Novosel, May 24 2023

The Three Relationships Between You and Your Emotions

Emotions are complicated and can be incredibly annoying if you’re trying to live your life and an emotional state is distracting you from it. It can be so difficult that people often ingest chemicals to manipulate or suppress them. Is there anything you can do about them that is a more healthy approach? Well, to do this effectively, you should first understand the relationship you have with your emotions and, therefore, how you can manage them effectively given those conditions.

First, a quick recap regarding what emotions are. Emotions are neurochemical responses to external stimuli that act as both an instant-response mechanism as well as a reward system for human behavior. In the response function, it is one of three types of responses that people have: reflexes (coming from the spinal cord), emotions (coming from the Limbic system), and rational thought (coming from the prefrontal cortex). Those systems are triggered depending on the required speed and complexity of the response needed; for example, a puck coming directly at your head would trigger a reflex, a bear approaching from 30 yards away would trigger an emotional response to prepare to fight or flee, and a complex problem of how to find food would involve rational thought to make a decision. In the reward function, your brain will release chemicals that incentivize future similar behavior, such as when you eat a delicious meal and return again later to relive the pleasurable experience.

Understanding these basics are just the beginning to managing them, however, because emotions can get complex and can be difficult to dissect. You might be angry and not understand why. You might feel overwhelmed and not be able to focus on the task at hand. As a result, knowing that emotions are response and reward systems is not enough to help you deal with them effectively. So let’s break down the three relationships that you have with your emotions so that you can use the information to manage them in tough situations.

Stimulus->Response Relationship

This is the one we covered above: something happens, and you experience an emotion in response to it. You could feel elated at graduating from high school or sad that a family member has died. In any case, an event is causing you to feel this way.

However, humans are different than most other animals in one way: their advanced brains can affect their emotions to go beyond just the external stimulus->response approach. People have advanced desires and beliefs about the world around them, from wanting to build the world’s fastest car to believing that bungee jumping is dangerous. As a result, it’s not just the stimulus itself but also the desires and beliefs of the individual having the experience that causes the emotion. For clarify, let’s write this as a formula:

Emotion = Desire + Belief + Experience

Understanding this formula gives you great power in your life to now control and manage your emotions. The obvious portion is the experience/stimulus portion, as you know immediately when you touch a hot stove that you should not do that again and so you avoid that experience in the future to avoid the negative emotion. But the desire and belief parts are useful to understand so that you can manage them as well.

Philosophies such as Stoicism and Buddhism are famous for teaching people to release their desires so that they don’t make them feel bad, while most self-help books talk about how to eliminate negative beliefs both so that you can feel better and so that you don’t hold yourself back from your goals. So, by using all three mechanisms, avoiding negative experiences, eliminating negative beliefs, and focusing on things you want that you believe that you can have, you can manage and control your emotions effectively. Specifically, these techniques help you to control the emotions that you experience before you experience them.

(Note: there are unhealthy avoidance behaviors, of course; this post is focused more on the classic “dad advice” of, “If it hurts you, then stop doing it!”)

Your Emotions Influencing Your Actions

The most famous saying that covers your role in this relationship is, “You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you respond.” That is your role in relation to your emotions: to control how you respond. If you get angry, you can punch someone in the face or learn how to calm yourself down. That’s why people in anger management focus on these first two components: they reduce the rate at which they get angry (by working to not get angry at things) and then practice techniques to control their emotional response once they become angry. It’s this combination that helps them to control their problem.

You need to understand this relationship if you want to manage your emotions effectively. When you get sad, what do you do? When you get angry, what do you do? If you have unhealthy responses such as drugs, alcohol, or berating your significant other, you have to change that behavior to something more constructive. It can be difficult at first—especially when you have both habit and the dopamine reward of addictive substances or behaviors to fight against—but it gets easier every time you practice a new habit. If you make this change, you can transform your life in terms of not letting your emotions control you.

Choosing How You Feel

In addition to controlling the drivers of your emotional state and controlling your response to your emotions, you can simply decide how to feel in your life. Now, this needs clarification because it does overlap with the other two techniques: choosing which experiences to expose yourself to and choosing to react constructively is effectively making a choice about how you feel. But you can also simply choose to be happy even when bad things happen, thus overriding the emotion directly. Yes, the same techniques can help you with this: you can choose to believe that a situation is not that bad or to tell yourself that you did not want the thing you were told that you couldn’t have, anyway. You can choose to take deep breaths and reduce your anxiety level. But you can also simply tell yourself that you’re not going to let something that did happen ruin your day.

The biggest controlling factor in this is your attention. You choose what to focus on, and so if you’re at a football game and found out that you failed a test, you can choose to put it aside for now and finish enjoying the game first before you worry about it. You haven’t changed your desires, beliefs (per se), and you haven’t changed your outward behavior. Instead, you’ve simply chosen how to feel so that you don’t let the stimulus cause a response that can bring you down.

This is most important when invisible factors or conditions are involved because you can be mopey all of the time or happy based on what you choose to focus on or feel. For example, if you don’t earn as much money as you would like, you can choose to be happy despite that or choose to be miserable because if it. That choice affects everything from how you treat people to how high your stress level is to whether you feel satisfied with your life. It’s a simple choice of happiness that causes you to focus on things that make you happy and begin to behave more like a happy person than a sad or miserable person.

By understanding these three relationships between you and your emotions, you now have more power over your emotional state. Remember that there are plenty of people who don’t have a lot of money, aren’t famous, don’t have the latest pair of jeans, don’t have a six pack, or don’t have many friends and are perfectly happy. Happiness is just as much based on what you make of your life as it is what happens to you in life. Yes, any negative event can get you down, but it is within your control to shape your perception of that event, respond constructively to it, and to focus on things that make you feel better. Now that you understand these three relationships, you should now focus on being as happy of a person as you can if you want to feel better overall about your life.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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