by Christine Peace, Behavior Coach
Consider this: a high school student slams their book down and storms out of the classroom. Just prior, they had been raising their hand for quite some time but had not been called upon by the teacher. What do you think they experienced first? Anger at the teacher’s glancing them over? Perhaps, sadness of being unheard, yet again?
Often, we do not give sufficient time to our emotions. Instead of truly giving them our attention and reflection to allow them to process, we simply allow them to take control of our behavior. This can be problematic as it prevents us from being able to fully process how we are feeling, and potentially influences us to act irrationally in the heat of the moment. Thus, to enhance the emotional experience and foster healthy emotional functioning, let’s explore a four-step approach to emotional wellness. Keep in mind that this is not a linear approach, but a set of skills to use in conjunction with each another.
1. Identify Your Emotions
In the above example, your first reaction may be to attend to the immediate, reactionary emotion. However, while these may be powerful, influential emotions, they may not tell the entire story of the person’s experience. Consider then what emotions may have occurred leading up to incident. This can paint a more detailed and colorful image of the person’s emotional experience, and better explain then their behavioral response.
One practice that can aid in our emotional identification is exploring the physiological responses to the event; that is, the physical sensations and reactionary behaviors in our body as we encounter stimuli. A few examples include clenching of the fists associated with anger, butterflies in the stomach when nervous, or a smile on your face when joyful. These physiological responses serve as clues into the array of emotions an individual can experience during one single event.
2. Understand Your Emotions
We may have already identified the initial emotion, but what about the initial thought? What was our line of thinking that led to this emotion? Furthermore, what purpose is the emotion attempting to serve? These are questions to explore as we attempt to take a deeper dive into the contributing factors to our emotions. As feelings influence how we think about our world, so too do our thoughts influence how we experience and express our feelings.
For instance, in our initial example the student wasn’t able to achieve the desired result, attention and being heard through expected behavior, and thus reverted to a behavior that seemingly had successfully garnered attention in the past. It is quite likely that the student’s thought process in this circumstance was dictated by the idea that, due to perceiving that they were being ignored, the need for a more bombastic approach was completely necessary. Undoubtedly, this thought was fueled by the emotions that the student was experiencing, without giving them appropriate understanding prior to reacting.
3. Respect Your Emotions
To respect your emotions, you must express them instead of repress them. However, to do this in a healthy way, it is crucial to identify safe and appropriate methods of expressing challenging emotions before it is vital. To start, consider which emotions are most challenging for you, either in their influence or your avoidance of them. Carefully identifying and understanding these emotions provides you the opportunity to respect them as part of your emotional experience, and to prepare for when they inevitably occur.
In some cases, you may have to manage your emotions (described in more detail in Step 4), before you feel capable of expressing your emotions in a healthy way. For instance, say our student from before took time to manage how they were feeling, then returned to express this to the teacher. At this time, they could share, “I feel hurt/sad/upset when I do not get called on because I am afraid that I will not be heard.” This allows for the teacher to be aware of the student’s needs, and the student to receive appropriate attention and the sense of being heard that they initially desired.
4. Manage Your Emotions
Managing your emotions should not be confused with suppression or ignoring of them. Unless you are in an extreme case where the emotion needs to be contained until you are in a safe and appropriate setting, such as a therapy session, it is much more effective to find healthy ways to manage your emotions in-the-moment. It is under these circumstances that your coping skills come into play. Consider what skills you could use in times of distress and in times of stability. Further, writing these skills down, even if you never look at the paper again, can help solidify them in your mind for easier access when needed.
For our student, one coping skill they could have implemented would have been to quietly step out of the room, instead of storming out raucously. From there, they could have used several other appropriate skills such as going to the bathroom and splashing cold water on their face, practicing mindful walking, or listening to a song. Although there may have been a consequence for leaving the classroom without permission, the likelihood that the situation escalated and the student further acted out emotionally or aggressively would be diminished. Additionally, when the student communicated how they were feeling, they could also express their attempts to self-regulate their behavior.
In conclusion, these four steps are to be utilized in the order that is most accessible, effective, and conducive to emotional wellness. This is not limited to yourself, as these steps can easily be applied to others with whom you interact as well. So, with the steps now in hand, consider something difficult that happened this week and ponder, had you applied these skills, what could have been different?