1 Why feelings
Feelings are innate with the purpose to be our best compass needles describing to us how we are doing and what we need/do not need. They can also be exaggerated when based on a somewhat distorted perspective of reality – such as fear in phobias. Many of us benefit from paying more attention to our feelings and connected thoughts.
Try this: add to your diary as of Thursday’s exercise and try to notice at the same 3 times a day: morning, midday and evening, maybe in connection to meals:
1. what feelings you are feeling, try to find at least three, and
2. how strong each feeling is on a scale 1 = barely noticeable to 10 = extremely strong. Common feelings to be aware of since they have strong impact on our well-being are: harmony/joy/love/happiness, sadness, irritation/anger, fear, shame, guilt, interest/curiosity/excitement.
2 The importance of feelings
Feelings are very important since they are central both to human identity and to the experience of self. Feelings are also important messengers and guides of needs and desires, both for the individual and for communication among humans.
Still, there is not a shared definition of feelings. The Tomkins Institute helps us with the following definitions:
A feeling is an awareness of an affect.
An affect is a biological response to neural firing which results in a particular feeling, facial and body expressions, as well as skin changes.
Thus, affects are the biological system that underlies emotion. An emotion is a feeling plus memory of prior similar feelings. The researcher Silvan Tomkins has had a great impact on the research field. He identified 9 innate affects which are either rewarding, punishing, or neutral with the purpose to create a sense of urgency: bringing things to our attention and motivating us to act in a certain way.
There are two inherently rewarding affects, i.e. we want more of this:
1. Interest-Excitement to strive toward mastery
2. Enjoyment-Joy to strengthen social bonds.
The neutral and brief
3. Surprise-Startle to stop and shift attention, and five inherently punishing affects motivating us to change the situation:
4. Distress-Anguish to get help
5. Anger-Rage to fight and alter the situation
6. Fear-Terror to flee or freeze
7. Shame-Humiliation for self-protection and social control
8. Disgust to get rid off and finally
9. Dissmell to pull away and keep distance.
Try this: Go back in your diary and see which feelings that are frequent and which feelings you would like to have more of/less of. Also, evaluate how quickly and strongly your feelings were triggered and how long it took for the feelings to dissolve. After this, pick 2-3 emotions that you would like to understand/change your response pattern to.
3 Adequate feelings are our compass needles…
If feelings are our compass needles we need to take them seriously as information sources. As an example: If someone knocks on your door, you will likely be interested and happy if you know it is a friend, but more surprised and scared, at least in the beginning, if it is a stranger, and even much more scared if the stranger has something that looks like a weapon. Or imagine you got this bouquet of roses from a friend, a loved one or a stalker, how would that change how you feel… Notice what happened right now in your body as you read the last word.
If you want to ‘get rid’ of a feeling, it first has to be heard by you, because that is the purpose of the feeling. The way a feeling can get heard is by:
1. Noticing/naming it
2. Identifying where you notice it in the body and how strong it is, e.g. on a scale 1 to 10, and
3. the reason why you are having the feeling as well as
4. what the feeling motivates you to do.
I feel really scared, level 8, my whole body is trembling, my pulse and heart is racing, my throat is tight and my gut is about to turn inside out because I got these roses from a person of whom I am unsure of the intentions. I have to make sure to lock the door and be apprehensive about/understand who sent them. (Later in the day she found out that it was her mother who sent them because she wanted to surprise her, but the card got lost in the transportation…).
The purpose of your feelings is that they help you focus attention and action so that your brain will work out and carry out a plan of how to deal with the situation as adaptive as possible. If feelings are not heard, they often get stored in the body and can also become psychosomatic symptoms, psychological symptoms or even disorders. But feelings can also be misinterpreted, as in this example – see next session of what to do then.
4 … but be aware when feelings are false alarms
There are many important dimensions with regard to feelings as sources of information. As with all information we have to evaluate the truth/probability and the quality of the information that triggered the feeling.
If we are scared of spiders and we see one we will get highly aroused by fear and move briskly away from it even if it is a harmless spider that is not dangerous. If we think that spiders are interesting animals we might feel curious and move closer to the spider to see the coloring and fine details of the spiderweb.
The intensity of feelings is sometimes labelled ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ depending on how much arousal they generate in the nervous system. Hot feelings create high arousal combined with a strong impulse to act and cold emotions low level of arousal.
The term hot mirrors the warm sensations we get from cortisol and adrenaline as well as the sensation when the blood flows out towards the large muscle groups in the limbs preparing the body for movement. On the scale 1 to 10 lower ratings of the emotions are colder and higher ratings hotter.
For example low level of anger is cold irritation while fury is hot. Happiness ranges from cold satisfaction to hot joy and ecstasy, fear from cold concern to hot terror, sadness from cold sorrow/blues to hot despair, surprise from cold curiosity to hot chock and disgust from cold offense to hot revulsion.
Hence, how we evaluate the situation affects both what we feel and how strongly, which will trigger a physical reaction. Even if we know our fear is disproportionately strong, the feeling first has to be acknowledged as described in last week’s post, which per se calms the body. Thereafter you can talk to yourself about the realism in your fear to regulate down the emotion even more.
If you are high in the intensity of the feeling so that you are in fight-flight mode, you first might have to regulate down the intensity of the feeling by physiological techniques to be able to reappraise the situation. If so, use the techniques I described in the post from Tuesday about how to decrease high stress/cortisol levels.
5 Feelings to boost you mental and physical health
Feelings need to be heard or they can turn into physical or psychological symptoms. In fact, many studies indicate that over 75 % of mental health problems and physical illnesses comes from our thought life. Stress plays a large part of this.
Unheard/unprocessed emotions are stressful for the body. One way of hearing your emotions is by writing about them.
Of course, we can never write painful events out of our lives, even if that sometimes would be preferable. But writing about difficult events can start the healing by helping get emotional closure and lessen their emotional charge, gaining some distance and making the event and associated feelings more graspable.
This can be done among other thing by going through the time line of the event as in the exercise, see life goals, logging all events and moments you remember and at the same time writing about the feelings and associated needs and reactions that emerge, including what you would like to happen.
It is important to accept all feelings that emerge without shame or judgement. Instead, acknowledge the reason for every emotion that occur, if understandable, or otherwise just accept the feelings as they are.
One method for this is the psychologist Pennebaker’s exercise, a way to help people deal with difficult events their lives that in repeated studies has been shown to help improve health and well-being in various studies.
Remember, if you know that you are suffering from a serious trauma or feeling very resistant to this exercise you should not do this by yourself but together with a licensed therapist:
Think of an event or worry that has been most on your mind recently. Set aside at least 15 minutes at the end of the day for 4 days in a row to write about your thoughts and feelings about that specific problem. As you write, don’t pause or second-guess yourself, just write without stopping.
Unheard emotions can lead to both physical and psychological symptoms. There are several emotions that we who work with psychological treatment often encounter problems with. One of the most prominent is anger. Maybe this partly depends on cultural norms and thoughts of proper adult behavior, that anger is only for children until old enough to control oneself. Displays of anger in a threatening way and angry actions are also regulated in the law. No wonder it is avoided.
But there is a huge difference between hearing and feeling an emotion and acting out an emotion. It is not ok to act out anger in a frightening way – that can be traumatizing to see for both children and adults.
It can also be lethal for the angry person. Research has found a connection between rage and heart attacks. Rage often precedes a heart attack and may even be the trigger, with a dangerous period of up to 2 hours after an outburst.
The urge to act out anger is less needed when older since we then have the mental capacity, not necessarily the ability – that has to be developed, to moderate feelings. Hearing the emotion in itself moderates its intensity.
One important anger management strategy, in addition to the stress reduction techniques already posted, is to refrain from reacting for 8 seconds according to research so that the brain has a chance to make a more intentional response where consequences briefly have been processed.
To maintain well-being, it is important to have contact with all emotions, even anger. Hearing anger is necessary to get ones needs satisfied and borders protected, some of the biological functions of anger. Unheard or unacknowledged anger is behind many problems with anxiety and stress.
Not hearing anger can create problems with boundaries, health and possibly anxiety. Not maintaining boundaries is a common cause behind stress and exhaustion.
Hence, next time you hear your anger try this: name it, feel it in the body, listen to the desired impulse, say it to yourself in the head, not necessarily aloud, and the feeling will likely disappear with a healthier result.
Imagine giving a speech in front of your colleagues? Do not worry if your stomach cringes, giving a speech is one of the things the majority of people fear the most.
Fear is an extremely important feeling since it has a huge survival value. It makes us instantly react to perceived threats by avoiding the danger and instead seeking safety/shelter. Therefore, it also has an important learning value since it conditions us to avoid similar threats in the future.
Being fearless is potentially dangerous since that puts one at risk. This is one reason why young men have higher car insurance fees – they are over-represented in car accident statistics.
Fear can also cover over other emotions. Then it is used as a defense mechanism to divert attention to the real issue like the human desire to be close to someone or to excel in performance.
Some think the feelings fear and anxiety are versions of the same state/phenomena. But many disagree since fear usually is aimed at a specific stimuli and situation. But they are interrelated and overlap partially. For example, fear is a component aimed at a specific topic in many of the anxiety disorders.
Although many of the sensations when experiencing anxiety or fear overlap, anxiety is not a feeling but symptoms, patterns of physiological arousal in the body that many can relate to, and that also are diagnostic in different anxiety disorders. Fear often leads to strong reactions – the fight/flight or freeze mode discussed in earlier posts.
The problem is that fear can be connected to stimuli that are not per se dangerous – i.e. the reaction is disproportionate to the stimuli, like in the case of phobias. We all can feel apprehensive when passing a bridge or flying, but for people with phobias this is unthinkable and create such strong avoidance reactions that they eventually often and hopefully seek professional help.
To conquer your fears, try this: List the top 5 things that scares you the most, how strong that fear is respectively as well as how likely it is and your degree of control over the feared object/situation.
7.1 Fear as in Phobias
As mentioned above, fear is a powerful, primitive and lifesaving emotion. Fear makes us aware of danger and entails important learning mechanisms. We avoid things we fear based on what we have been through and experienced.
Phobias entails having an avoidant behavior toward specific situations and items. Usually phobias are developed towards things/situations where there is an evolutionary reason to be apprehensive: spiders when living in a cave can be dangerous, something our ancestors did.
There is research showing that even babies are more aroused/anxious when seeing images of spiders than other animals, indicating that we are biologically pre-wired to fear spiders.
Other examples of feared objects that have a survival value are insects, predators, narrow and open spaces, large crowds, heights, water, germs/diseases, being ridiculed or rejected by the preferred group, illogical constructions like airplanes etc. In fact, this learning mechanism is so strong that there have been identified many different kinds of phobias.
Oxforddictionaries.com lists over 200 types. www.fearof.net lists the 10 most common phobias in 2018:
1 Arachnophobia – Fear of spiders
2 Ophidiophobia – Fear of snakes
3 Acrophobia – Fear of heights
4 Agoraphobia – Fear of open or crowded spaces
5 Cynophobia – Fear of dogs
6 Astraphobia – Fear of thunder and lightning
7 Claustrophobia – The fear of small spaces – often elevators
8 Mysophobia – Fear of germs
9 Aerophobia – Fear of flying
10 Trypophobia – Fear of holes
Due to the important survival value of fear, research has shown that fear can never be unlearned. It is burnt into the brain/amygdala forever. The aim should instead to be to manage fears, knowing one’s vulnerability and not letting the fear impact how you live your life and where you want to go.
The most common treatment form is CBT using the technique exposure, which entails relearning that the feared situation, even if uncomfortable, is manageable, see last post under anxiety.
7.2 Exposure – Handling Fear
Exposure is the main technique to constructively handle fears, i.e. with the aim to living the life you would like and not avoiding doing the things you would like to be able to do.
There is research showing that the brain never erases things or situations that it has been afraid of, but instead keeps watching for similar events as a part of learning what to be attentive and apprehensive to.
Hence, the main focus to overcome fears has to be on relearning, which can be obtained through repeated experiences of more positive outcomes/reaction patterns, both emotionally and cognitive towards the feared object/situation. The brain has to repeatedly re-experience that the situation is not dangerous and also consciously recording this for fear to diminish and become more manageable.
Emotional exposure aims to create strong emotional reactions, which often lies behind fear and anxiety.
Emotional exposure can be both towards: – Internal situations, such as thoughts, memories or bodily sensations, like in trauma, emotional relationships etc. – External situations that evoke feelings such as places or situations where one feels uncomfortable or avoids completely.
Hence, in exposure it is important NOT to avoid the feelings that arise, or any other kind of psychological discomforts, to achieve the most benefits, being able to eventually live life without avoiding doing the things that one would like to be able to do or to participate in.
More about how to design an exposure session and important reflections to be made before and after exposure below.
7.3 Important Reflections before and after Exposure
Important strategies to handle possible strong reactions during exposure are:
– Regulate stress-level through mindful breathing and relaxation techniques, see earlier posts under stress
– Feel the feelings: which feelings, how strong, where do you feel the feeling in the body, what is the motivational impulse = what you would like to do if you would act on that feeling
– Re-evaluate the probability of the threat, identify misinterpretations and create alternative thoughts that are more nuanced, i.e. that takes in both pros and cons.
Exposures have to be repeated several times during the week until the level of discomfort is maximum 3. It is important to log both your expectations of potential reactions before the exposure as well as the actual outcome to identify and consolidate learnings into your spontaneous reaction patterns.
Before the exposure:
What is your level of discomfort and feelings on scale 1-10?
What do you think will happen?
What is your feared scenario and what are the worst dimensions of that?
What will be your likely feelings and bodily sensations?
What will be your alternative and supportive thought/mantra?
What techniques will you use to calm yourself to ensure you stay within 3 to 8 on a scale 1 to 10 on feelings and level of discomforts?
After the exposure:
Which were the highest actual types and levels of feelings as well as how long did they last?
Which was the level of discomfort during and after the exercise?
Were the bodily sensations as intensive and as difficult to manage as you imagined?
Did you do any strategies to avoid emotions by distracting yourself or avoiding certain parts that should have been in the exercise?
Did what you feared happen and if so, how did you handle that?
What did you learn from the exercise?
The emotion shame, humiliation for self-protection and social control, is an important innate emotion. There are different types of shame which correspond to activating different levels of helpful/not helpful behaviors which in turn impact our wellbeing:
1 Shame as a primary innate emotion
Shame as in the primary emotion that is sound in the sense that it is adaptable making us attentive to the risk of being outcasted from our preferred group/network by making us being apprehensive to the reactions from others with regard to our behavior. This is important for us as an information source to be able to evaluate our behaviour while considering others’ reactions, which can make our behaviour less egocentric, more adjusted considering the impact of our actions on others, repairing mistakes and unfortunate outcomes by asking for forgiveness – hence more adaptive to the group we want to belong to.
2 Shame as a defence mechanism
But shame can also be a defense mechanism used when we irrationally fear the complete and eternal rejection from important others pushing our true emotions away, out of consciousness, which often instead produce psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety, but also augmented compensatory drives such as exaggerated performance drive, exaggerated drive to do good etc. far beyond sound levels.
3 Shame as part of personal identify and value
Also, there is another often discussed dimension of shame in the meaning of interpreting an unfortunate outcome as shame when the personal identity is not separated from a single action/incident. In this perspective shame equals “I am wrong, I do not deserve to be a part of this at all” instead of the more adapted cousin guilt which equals “I did something wrong, I have to repair/fix it/apologize, but that is not all that I am, everybody makes mistakes sometimes and I am just one of them.