Following on from our April Key of Focus, Resilience, this month we consider Emotions and how this Key of Happiness impacts our daily lives and how we can develop a better understanding of our emotions in order to manage the impact of our emotional responses more effectively and improve relationships with ourselves and others. 
 
So, let’s start with the basics…. 
 
What are emotions and why do we have them? 
 
Most of us have a sense of what emotions are. They’re obviously how we feel about things, right? Of course they are, but when we stop to really think about it what we mean by ‘feel’ and what we mean by ‘things’ it all starts to get a bit more complicated… Never ones to shy away from the tricky stuff though, we’re going to have a crack at explaining emotions in a way that does justice to their complexity, but also doesn’t make an already confusing concept even harder to make sense of. 
 
So, when we talk about emotions, what do we mean by ‘how we feel’? 
 
How we feel when it comes to emotions incorporates both our physical sensations and our psychological state. 
 
For example, being excited can physically feel a lot like being scared. In both instances our heart rates increase, we might experience “butterflies” or rapid breathing, we become more alert and may feel like our mind is racing, we can even sweat more and experience muscle tension or trembling. 
 
So, what sets these emotions apart if they feel so similar? 
 
This is where the ‘about things’ bit comes in. Differentiating between two emotions when the physical sensations are so similar usually comes down to context.  
 
For example, if we’ve just met a really cute puppy whilst taking a walk around the local park, it’s reasonable to assume that those physical sensations are because we’re excited. Whereas, if instead of meeting a puppy we’re taken by surprise by a much bigger, louder, and altogether feistier dog on our stroll, then those very similar sensations are probably the result of fear. Seems quite simple so far, right? 
 
But what about a situation that might illicit excitement for one person and fear for another? Like queuing for a rollercoaster maybe? Most people queuing for a rollercoaster will, to some degree, be feeling similar physical sensations. Some will be scared, some will be excited, and to add even more complexity to the situation, many of them will be both. This is where our psychological state comes into play. 
 
Whether we are scared, excited, or both scared and excited about getting on this rollercoaster, is influenced by so many different factors. External factors such as how the people around us are feeling, how long we’ve had to wait, whether the sun is shining or not, whether we’ve had a nice day full of positive experiences at the theme park in the lead up to joining the queue for this ride, and whether or not we’ve had positive experiences in similar situations in the past can all influence the intensity of our physical sensations and the psychological state through which we make sense of those sensations. 
 
If we’re queuing for our rollercoaster ride in the sunshine with friends who are all super excited, the queue’s just long enough for us to build a bit of anticipation but not so long that we start to get impatient, if everyone around us seems to be having a good day and we’ve all been having a lovely time up until now, and our previous similar experiences have all been positive, then it’s likely that you’re current psychological state is a good match for this ride and that you’re going to have a great time. 
 
In all likelihood though, you and everyone around you, won’t be having the most perfect day ever and won’t all be in the perfect psychological state for this experience. In which case, like most people, you’ll probably be feeling a mix of nerves and excitement, and the key is to work out which is the predominant emotions and if the nerves are worth tolerating in order to experience the full excitement of the ride when you get to it. These decisions can be hard and getting them wrong can have difficult consequences, but the more you understand about your emotions, the better you get at managing them and ultimately the better you get at looking after yourself as best you can in both the short term and the longer term. 
 
But why do we have emotions anyway? 
 
From an evolutionary perspective our emotions have been integral to our survival as a species. Without them, we wouldn’t form the bonds of love that encourage us to strive to protect and care for each other. We wouldn’t have developed the essential connections between our interpretation of a situation and our physical response to it, which allow us to respond quickly and effectively to threat or danger. Even today, emotions provide vital information about our environment, they influence our decision-making, they motivate us, provide an essential component to our social interactions, and give us information on our internal states that can be used to help us to identify both our physical and psychological needs. 
 
Emotions have a crucial role in human experience and motivate much of our behaviour, but a lot can go wrong if, instead of letting them act as a guide, we let them determine our path without reflecting on their origin and purpose first. 
 
So, why is it important that we take time to understand and manage our emotions? 
 
 
There are innumerable ways that our emotions can lead us astray.  
These are just a few of them... 
 
Misattribution 
 
What if we misattribute the physical sensation of an emotion to a similar feeling emotion? What if we think we're angry but we’re actually overreacting to something relatively insignificant because we haven’t acknowledged that we’re really just worried about something else altogether? 
 
The misattribution of emotions is a well-documented psychological phenomenon and I’m sure we can all think of a time when, instead of correctly identifying the source of our feelings, we’ve wrongly attributed them to something else. We can even get the emotion itself wrong altogether. Have you ever been shocked when, seemingly out of the blue, someone has got angry and frustrated with you about something that would be insignificant to almost anyone else? Yes? Then you’ve also probably experienced the impact of someone else’s misattribution of emotions too. 
 
This is just one of the reasons why taking time to reflect on the source of our emotional responses and how our emotions effect our behaviour is such a valuable investment. It is also worth bearing in mind when you are on the receiving end of someone else’s emotional behaviour… 
 
More often than not our emotional responses are about much more than the whatever it is that appears to have triggered them. So, next time someone’s getting cross with you about something that seems kind of ridiculous or petty even, try not to take it to heart - they may just be having a really bad day and you’ve just been caught in the crossfire of their misattributed emotions. 
 
Of course, this doesn’t mean to say you should just accept it when other people treat you badly, just because they might be having a hard time more generally. It is vital that when we extend compassion and consideration to others, we don’t forget to extend that compassion and consideration to ourselves also. So, whilst it’s great to give others the benefit of the doubt on the odd occasion, if you are frequently becoming a target for someone else’s emotional outbursts, it may well be time to consider your own long-term wellbeing and what boundaries you can put in place to keep yourself safe from harm. This will not only help to protect you, but also to sets an example to others; demonstrating that not only is it not ok to take your problems out on other people, but also that it is just as important to look after yourself as it is to be empathetic towards others. 
 
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Avoidance 
 
What if we’re so worried about the potential impact of emotions that we avoid the theme park and all of life’s rides altogether? What if we’re so used to feeling an emotion that we default to it before even considering an alternative? 
 
I think most of us, at some point or another, have experienced times when we’re anticipating a situation or event and considering how it might make us feel when we come to it. But what about if we let that anticipation of the emotions come dictate our actions to the point where we actively avoid potentially emotional experiences? Emotional avoidance can manifest in various ways, from avoiding challenging conversations to steering clear of opportunities that might actually end up being wonderful. It’s easy to understand why we might feel safer avoiding the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with life’s many highs and lows, but are what if, in the longer term, this prevents us from leading a full and beautiful life? 
 
By opening ourselves up to life’s emotional highs and lows, and by accepting them as something fundamental to the human experience, we give ourselves the opportunity to not only learn and grow as people, but also to build the courage resilience that we need to manage our emotions more confidently in the future. 
 
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Overwhelm 
 
What if our emotions drive our behaviour in a way that feels overwhelming and out of control? What if our emotions become so intense that it all just feels like too much for us to manage? 
 
This is where mindfulness and reflection become essential tools in understanding and managing our emotions. It’s not unusual for our emotions to feel all-encompassing but, in order to ensure that they guide us without dictating our path, we must spend time considering the origin of our emotions, what they are trying to tell us, and how we respond to them. Setting aside time for reflection when we are not caught up in the emotional moments themselves provides opportunity for us to untangle the roots of our emotional reactions and can help us to identify patterns and triggers so that we can create space between those triggers and our response to them in the future. 
 
By acknowledging and accepting our emotions without judgment, we give ourselves opportunity to respond to them consciously rather than react impulsively. Empowering us to make the most of what we have to learn from our emotions and our responses to them without sacrificing our agency and letting them alone decide how we live our lives. 
 
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And a few other examples… 
 
Other examples of ways in which our emotions can lead us in unhelpful directions include the development of feedback loops where our physical state influences our psychological state which then leads to increased physical effects of an emotion and vice versa. Problems can also arise when our emotional states are complex or are informed by so many different factors that fully understanding their origin and impact on us becomes impossible. And how about emotions are being informed by our past experience in a way that has lost sight of our current reality? Or when our emotions are unduly influenced by outside factors? By other people’s emotions? By other people’s expectations? By other people’s behaviour? What if our emotions are informed by others so much so that they haven’t been given opportunity to develop in a way that is actually helpful to us personally? 
 
 
In all of these instances, our advice remains the same… 
 
Take time to reflect: If you can, set aside a regular time to sit down and consider your emotions and your emotional responses. Ask yourself why you are feeling a certain way or why you responded to an emotional situation or event in the way that you did. Then, ask yourself why again. Keep asking yourself why to see if this helps to uncover any underlying causes and motivations that you may not have previously considered. 
 
Please remember though, that this isn’t an interrogation! If you find it tiring, or too much to manage in one go, take a break and come back to it another time and, if you find it difficult to set specific time aside for this, just keep it in mind and see what you can fit in. 
 
There are no quick fixes on anyone’s journey to improve their mental fitness and wellbeing so take all the time you need. Just make sure that you do take some time and remember that, one way or another, you have managed every emotional experience that has come before: you are resilient and resourceful, you have the ability to adapt and grow, and you can draw strength and insight from your past emotional experiences that will help prepare you for new ones. 
 
Let others participate in your journey: Whether it’s leaning on an existing support network, joining a peer support group, letting the lived experience of others inspire you, seeking professional support, or just appreciating a smile from a stranger whilst you’re out and about, sharing your ups and downs with others helps to remind us of our inherent and shared humanity and that, whilst the combination of factors that inform our experience of emotions will be unique to us, the factors and emotions themselves, are not. It’s all part of a perfectly natural human experience and, whilst that doesn’t always make it easier, it does mean that you’re not odd or strange for feeling the way you do - you are just a human doing the best you can with what you have right now. 
 
Try considering emotions as ‘value neutral’: We frequently assign our emotions to positive and negative categories but what if we recognised them as tools to guide us rather than assigning value to them. If you think about anger for example, this is traditionally considered to be a negative emotion, but how often has anger inspired someone to fight against injustice or for what they believe is right? And how often has fear helped to keep us safe? Even emotions that are generally considered positive may not be so positive in every context. For instance, excessive happiness might lead to complacency or overlooking potential risk. By viewing emotions as inherently neutral, we can better understand their purpose and utilise them effectively. 
 
Plan your coping strategies: Whether you are about to embark on a journey of emotional self-discovery, are already on that path, or have done the majority of the work already, we can all benefit from planning strategies for how we will cope when dealing with our emotional highs and lows. Whether it’s activities or practices that help you feel grounded and calm, or things that boost your energy and lift your mood, considering the resources and tools you already have or would like to develop ahead of the moment when you need them most is a valuable investment in your future wellbeing. 
 
These strategies might include, breathing exercises to manage emotions in the moment, seeking professional support to help manage and understand your emotions in the longer-term, or simply planning self-care activities to help manage the build up to emotional events and the aftermath of them too. Whatever it is, identifying and preparing coping strategies ahead of time, can make it significantly easier to navigate challenging emotions and help build future resilience. 
 
And, if you’re really struggling to look after yourself emotionally, then try to focus on looking after yourself physically. Sleep as much as you need to and can, keep yourself hydrated, eat food that nourishes you as much as possible, try to stay active (even if it’s just a walk around the block), and try to get some fresh air daily. Taking care of your physical health can provide a solid foundation for managing your emotional well-being. We all deserve to live our best possible life but, in order to do that, we need to learn to look after ourselves as best as we can too. 
 
And don’t forget to be gentle with yourself: Don’t get us wrong, we absolutely understand that some of us have more reasons than others to feel that life’s highs really aren’t worth the risk of the lows or that, even if they were, we may not even have what we need to cope with them. Spending time trying to understand your emotions and their source, or opening yourself up to emotional experiences that may seem insignificant to many, can take a lot of courage for someone who’s learnt to shut themselves off from the world in order to protect themselves emotionally. 
 
If this is the case for you, please, please remember to be gentle with yourself. Life can be tough and doesn’t always treat us with the care that we deserve so, to start with, it might be hard to trust that you can do this, it might be even harder to trust that the world really does still have some lovely things to offer you, and to keep yourself open to those opportunities. 
 
You really do deserve an emotionally rich and fulfilling life but, we’re not going to lie, pursuing such a life doesn’t come without risks. But the risks of not trying and of never knowing are usually significantly greater. There will of course be setbacks, but they won’t reflect how capable you are and how far you’ll go in the longer term.  
 
So, take a break from time to time, and take it slow when you need to, but don’t quit.  
 
It does get easier, and it will be worth it... * 
 
*If you find yourself consistently struggling with your emotions please don't hesitate to seek professional advice from your GP or health professional. And, if you need immediate support, the Samaritans provide a friendly ear 24/7 and you can find their contact details on their website HERE
 
 
For an introduction to Strive’s philosophy and framework please see our Founder and CEO Linda’s introduction video on our website HERE
 
And to find out more about how Strive can help you and your team to understand and manage emotions in order to live their best life, please consider visiting our website: www.strive-online.co.uk, connecting with us on LinkedIn, following us on Facebook, or Spotify, dropping us an email at info@strive-online.co.uk, or giving us a call on 0116 340 0630
 
- We really would love to hear from you! 
 
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