Can Emotions Control Our Behavior?

My first answer was a ‘Yes’.

Because when you are feeling a negative emotion, such as anger or stress, it is pretty easy to lash out at someone, or when you’re having a bad day, it is easy to cancel all the plans with friends and just lie in your blanket forever.

But, reading more about this made me realize that’s not the case. We don’t have to be at the mercy of our emotions all the time.

Our emotions do not control our behavior. You can feel angry but you can very well choose to act calmly.

You may have the tendency to shout, grimace, or lash out violently but you don’t have to. You can rather choose to speak slowly and calmly in a relaxed manner.

I think we all have been through times when we wanted to just run away from some situation, but we didn’t, we persisted and made it through.

For instance going for an interview, before a big public speech, asking someone out for a date, or maybe before a bungee jump.

Your legs are trembling with anxiety on the stage, but you still go through the whole speech.

Think of the poker player who keeps his face deadpan even when his internal emotions are on a rollercoaster ride. Think of the times you’ve put on “a happy face” even though you were feeling miserable on the inside.

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In all these cases, the actions are distinct from the emotions. We are feeling something else and acting in a totally different way.

One last example… I promise!

Imagine you’re out on a trek and you met a grizzly bear.

Obviously, you’ll shit your pants…

That aside, you’ll be filled with intense fear, adrenaline would be flooding from everywhere and your first impulse would be to run(Obviously).

But if you have read a survivor’s manual you’ll know that’s about the worst thing you could possibly do. If you turn and run, you will incite the bear’s pursuit instinct. It will chase after you and easily outrun you within seconds. After that, you’re bear fodder.

Now, although there’s some discussion among the experts about the best response, they tend to agree that a good rule is to back away slowly, without any sudden moves or loud noises, and never turn your back on the bear.

Many people have survived following this advice. They all felt terrible fear and panic that was much out of their control, but they were able to control how they acted.

So here’s the final point, although we don’t really have much direct control over our feelings, we can control our actions.

When we’re feeling strong and intense emotions we may do all sorts of things we later regret. We may smash things, shout, abuse people, drink excessively, or engage in any number of destructive behaviors.

And it seems as if the emotion were causing us to do this.

But actually, it’s not.

We’re only acting this way because we’ve developed bad habits, and if we consciously bring our awareness to how we are feeling, and consciously observe how we’re behaving, then no matter how intense our emotions are, we can still control our actions.

Even when you are furious or terrified, you can close your mouth, walk out of the room, drink a glass of water, and scratch your head.

3 phases of your emotions

Phase One: A Significant Event Occurs

An emotion gets triggered by some sort of event, such as a distressing memory, heartbreak, or disturbing thought, and this alerts our brain notifying it that the event is important.

Phase Two: Get Ready For Action

The brain then evaluates the event as good or bad. At the same time, it prepares the body for a fight-or-flight response. If the event seems harmful, fight and flight is triggered, and if the event seems potentially helpful, then our body prepares to approach it.

Phase Three: Speak of the devil!

Enters the mind. It starts attaching words and meanings to the changes happening in our bodies. For instance, it may give our sensations labels such as ‘frustration’, ‘joy’, or ‘worthless’.

And what our mind tells us about these sensations has a significant impact on how we relate to them.

For example, imagine two people on a rollercoaster.

One of them is terrified; the other is exhilarated!

Both are experiencing the same physical changes (raised adrenaline levels, increased blood pressure), the same physical sensations (churning stomach, pounding heart), and the same urges (to scream), but their subjective experiences are very different, depending on what their minds tell them.

One mind says, ‘This is fun!’, the other mind says, ‘This is dangerous!’ Guess who feels exhilarated and who feels frightened.

In the same way, one performer’s ‘stage fright’ can be another performer’s ‘adrenaline rush’.

Modern-day Fight-and-flight response

In the olden days, this fight-and-flight response was actually lifesaving. When a predator charges toward you, your only two options are either to fight it or run away.

But today, we would rarely find ourselves in life-threatening situations, but still, this response gets triggered where there’s really no use for it.

woman in black dress holding brown paper bag
Photo by arash payam on Unsplash

Evolution is to blame here… don’t start blaming yourself again.

Quoting from the book “The Happiness Trap” by Dr. Russ Harris

Our mind, trying to make sure we don’t get killed, sees potential danger almost everywhere: in a moody spouse, a controlling boss, a parking ticket, a new job, a traffic jam, a long line at the bank, a big mortgage, an unflattering reflection in the mirror – you name it.

The threat may even come from the mind itself, in the form of a disturbing thought or image. Obviously, none of these things are actually life-threatening, but our brain and body react as if they were.

If the brain judges an event as harmful, then feelings such as fear, anger, shock, guilt, or disgust are evolved. If an event seems beneficial, we develop pleasant feelings such as calm, curiosity, or happiness.

We might describe these feelings as positive or negative, but they are all simply feelings and obviously, we prefer the positive ones.

This just makes clear that though the emotions might have a considerable intensity, we still have the choice to make a conscious decision and take appropriate action.

In the next post, we will uncover how to disassociate from these feelings.

Question Everything!

The Curious Overthinker

Sarthak Mirchandani

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