What is it? and How does it work?
Have you ever felt as if your emotions were getting the better of you? Harmless conversations that suddenly turned into heated arguments, the pressure to deliver an assignment that brought you to the brink of having a panic attack, or... maybe that awkward encounter with the gossipy neighbour who decided to talk to you on a bad morning and ... well ... didn't exactly get a 'Good morning!' back.
On occasions like these, our emotions can become so intense that they completely take over our behaviour and make us say or do things very differently from what we would say or do if we were relaxed and calm. If this has happened to you more than once, I invite you to read this article to the very end, as I will now proceed to explain what emotional self-control is and how it works.
What is emotional self-control?
Emotional self-control is the skill that allows us to manage our emotions properly and prevent them from controlling us. This skill is not only used to control negative emotions, but also positive emotions, because if these are expressed in inappropriate circumstances, e.g. a funeral, an exam, etc., they can also be quite problematic.
How does it work?
Although emotions are innate in nature, how to regulate and manage them requires prior learning and lots and lots of practice. Emotional self-control is a skill that needs to be developed and strengthened. To achieve it, is important to:
1. Know our emotions. We cannot control what we do not know. Therefore, the first step in managing our emotions and their expression is to know them well. Five basic emotions have been identified: JOY, ANGER, SADNESS, FEAR and DISGUST. 'Do you know them?' Surely you do, these emotions are easy to recognise. Depending on the cultural background, some people might feel them one way or another, associating them to very different stimuli. However, what is known to be truth is that they are UNIVERSAL; meaning that, each and every one of us has felt or will feel them throughout our lives. In fact, their combinations, e.g. joy + sadness = melancholy, anger + disgust = loading, sadness + fear = anxiety, and many more; make up everything that human beings can feel and express.
2. Identify key emotions. Once we know the basic emotions, we have to learn how to identify them in order to be able to manage them. Associating sensations or physiological reactions to each emotion will help us to identify them. For example, when we are in a stressful situation, it is common for our heart to start beating faster, our body temperature increases, we start sweating, etc. These reactions usually indicate that FEAR is present. To learn to identify your own emotions, the next time you feel your body reacting, ask yourself: 'What am I feeling? What emotion could be behind this?
3. Manage our emotions. In order to manage our own emotions, it's important to:
- Find out what stimuli or situations provoke the emotions we want to control. For this, it is important to consider: Why do we explode in certain situations but not in others? What happens just before? What thought goes through our head? As a result, how does our body react?
- Avoid triggering stimuli* Once we identify what triggers us, we can prevent certain emotional overreactions by avoiding the exposure to those stimuli.
*Note: this step only applies when making this decision does not prevent us from fulfilling our daily activities e.g. a triggering stimuli that could and should be avoided: poisonous snakes.
But... it is most likely that we are not able to prevent everything that activates us emotionally e.g. exams, presentations, arguments, our partners and children (sometimes) etc., so it is important that we...
- Learn to identify and change our irrational thoughts about these stimuli and situations.
Ellis and Beck, two great figures of cognitive therapy, postulated that the belief system (that each of us possesses and which reflects our thoughts and opinions about the self, our world and the people around us), is the main mediator of our emotional reactions. Ellis's ABC model is a very useful tool in understanding this idea, as it argues that :
certain events (A) → activate our belief systems (B)
cause certain emotions to be expressed (C).
Thus, faced with the same activating events e.g. an exam; a person with an adequate belief system would think: 'I studied and I am able to pass this exam' and would experience positive emotions. While another person, with an inadequate or irrational belief system, would think: 'I am dumb, I am not able to pass any exam' and would, consequently, experience negative emotions.
The ABC model in a nutshell: 'The same As activate different Bs and produce different Cs'.
Considering Ellis' proposal, if we identify those irrational beliefs or thoughts and work actively to change them for more rational and adaptive ones, we could manage to control our emotions.
Finally, I would like to share with you that although we are not able to control what happens to us; we can decide how we perceive it and, consequently, how we react to it.
Where there is will there is strength
Ninibeth Leal Perez
& The Home Schooling S.O.S. team
P.S. If you are interested in this topic and would like to learn more about specific techniques to manage your emotional reactions, please like this post and share your interest in the comments section down below ;)