What am I feeling 2: Your emotions are a superpower
The first article in this series introduced us to emotions as having multiple components (feeling, thought, and bodily sensations) the next article in this series examines how our emotions when properly understood with the help of our rational brain can be a superpower that allows us to live more fulfilling and connected lives.
Growing up I really enjoyed watching the Spider-man TV show and reading the comics from the library. Spider-man has all kinds of powers, but one that I thought would be really useful was “spidey-sense”. The ability to know something was up before it happened and then act accordingly - poetry in emotion. What is interesting is that as I started to learn more about emotions I realised that we all have “spidey-sense”. Our emotions.
We have already seen how our emotions can drive our behaviour (What Are Emotions). In our previous example, the anger and fear took over so quickly that the behaviour in response almost didn’t feel like a choice. However, with practice, we can learn to tune into our emotions as another source of information to help us inform our decisions and behaviour. This is the difference between reacting and responding to emotions.
Like spider-man when we have an emotional reaction to a situation or event it is giving us important information. The obvious one is fear emotions - these emotions are usually telling us we’re in danger and need to do something to get ourselves out of danger - and fast. However, sometimes these emotional signals may be misplaced or if we are tired, stressed, or unwell etc we might be quickly overcome by them and end up constantly reacting to them until they consume us and dominate our experience.
Psychologists have taken to describing these phenomena as the emotional mind. This includes those pathways and circuits which house our feeling states and are mainly housed in our older and deeper brain structures (The Three-Part Brain/Nature of Thoughts 2). When we are overwhelmed with emotions this can be difficult and it means our more rational thinking processes housed in the cortex (What Are Emotions) go offline. Another way of describing it is that our rational, slow thinking and our emotional, quick-thinking mind disconnect and stop speaking with each other.
Integration occurs when these two aspects of mind are in full communication. That is when we are able to notice changes in our feelings, consider what these feelings might be telling us about the situation and as such provide us with some information on how we can respond or react. This ability to connect with our emotions and respond accordingly is another of our mind’s superpowers and is fundamental to healthy relationships. Caregivers and babies who are attuned do this naturally. Essentially what the emotionally attuned parent does when their infant is crying is to react emotionally to the distress of their child, then working really hard with their rational mind think about what that crying is about and choose how they respond (cuddle, change a nappy, give food, sleep etc).
We might find it difficult to tune into our emotions in this way or understand what they are trying to tell us. The previous handout gives some ideas on different emotions, what they might mean and how they might feel to start to give you some ideas. The handout below provides an introduction to how you can begin to cultivate the ability of attending to or tuning in to, our emotions.