Why do we respond emotionally, the way we do? And, what can we do about it?

Emotions not only determine how we behave and how we deal with situations that confront us, but they are an integral part of who we are. Emotions rule our mind, we allow them to overpower our intelligence, how much ever we wish this is not true. Each of us has faced ‘amygdala hijack’ situations where we have been unable to control our emotions and have been completely devoured by them. 

Why do we react in an unreasonable and disproportionate way in some situations, and not in others? Why do two people emotionally respond very differently to the same situation? Why don’t we feel the same depth of emotions as the person facing the situation? Is it nature, nurture or situation which determines our emotional response and the intensity of it?

Paul Ekman, in his ground-breaking work around emotions, has identified some key factors which determine the power of an emotional trigger, the intensity of the emotion and the length of the refractory period (time during which we are in the grip of the triggered emotion).

These factors, listed below, can help us understand our emotional reaction to various situations:

Closeness to a universal theme

Any trigger closer to the universal theme will elicit strong emotions. One such example is road rage, which manifests in angry behaviour by motorists towards another driver to intimidate or release frustration. Have we noticed how we react when someone ahead of us crosses over to our lane from another lane? Even if we all know that it hardly makes a difference in our travel time, it is almost impossible to control our reaction. This is because the situation is closer to a universal theme where we have seen everyone reacts in a similar way, and hence, this is our learned reaction to this situation.

Resemblance to the original situation

The more a situation is like the original one, in which the trigger was first learned, the more likely is the chance of not being able to control one’s emotional response. Suppose you were constantly bullied and teased in school by other boys. In that case, there are more chances that you may have strong emotional reactions to being teased by your male colleagues at work of your age, but you may be able to ‘accept’ this from a female or a much older colleague.

The time when the trigger was learned

The earlier in life a trigger is learned, the harder it is to weaken the same. The ability to control emotional responses is not as well developed in our early age. This is one reason we have stronger emotional reactions to triggers learned in early life, which stay with us even as adults, compared with those we learned as adults.

Initial emotional charge

The stronger the emotions that were experienced when the trigger was first learned, the harder it will be to weaken the same over time.

Frequency of the experience

With more repeated episodes of highly charged emotional events of the same kind over a short period of time in childhood, the more overwhelming is its effect. Hence, if something happened to you repeatedly as a child, the more chances that it would leave you emotionally vulnerable to similar situations.

 So, how can we get better with our emotional responses?

Emotions affect our temperament, personality, disposition, motivation and perspectives. Emotional predisposition influences our behaviour, which in turn impacts our relationships. Managing emotions is not a choice but a necessity, to be accepted in any organisational or social setting.

Get better at managing your emotional responses by:

  • Becoming aware of when our emotional responses were disproportionate and unreasonable compared to the situation we faced.
  • Understanding what kind of situations trigger such strong and immediate emotional responses within us.
  • Analysing the situation and reflecting on it in the context of our experiences. What is our past could be impacting the way we respond? What is similar between the two situations (past and now) and what is not?
  • Being conscious that the dynamics of the situation has changed. E.g., we are not as helpless as we were as a child but have much more control over the situation around us, hence our ‘learned’ response is not required anymore.

When it comes to managing our emotions, self-awareness can possibly make the biggest difference. There are three stages of evolution when it comes to self-awareness of emotions and our aim should be to eventually graduate to the third stage (though it is ambitious, to say the least).

  • The first stage is post-facto, where you become aware that your reactions have been disproportionate after the event. You can’t undo what is done but becoming aware helps you make amends and salvage your relationships. And, without this first stage, you can’t graduate to the other two more evolved stages.
  • The second stage is when you become aware of your emotions during the emotional response phase. This awareness can help you shorten the refractory period and calibrate your response to the situation so that you behave in a more ‘acceptable’ manner.
  • Third, is the most evolved stage where you are conscious that feelings are welling up in you, which may lead to a disproportionate emotional response. This consciousness helps you respond with a measured emotional response.

It will always be a hard battle between what I know and how I feel but being aware will help our mind not to be completely overpowered by our emotions.

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