Emotions: Too close for comfort?

Does expressing emotions scare you, or make you feel somehow weak? As much as we over-communicate these days, we often keep our emotions in check or hide how we really feel. Perhaps cultivating greater emotional awareness can help us express our emotions more often and more constructively, and lead to more fulfilling relationships at home and at work.

Psychologist Paul Ekman has written that “Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.” He has studied how our facial expressions convey emotion, and written extensively about paths to a more balanced emotional life.

Interestingly, we might not be expressing emotions in writing as much as we used to. A group of British researchers analyzed a database of over 5 million books and found that words with emotional content have declined over the past 100 years. They looked at the frequency of mood words — those that expressed anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise. The one exception to the declining trend was the emotion of fear, which has actually increased. The use of different mood words also tracks closely with historical events such as World War II, when there was a notable increase of words expressing sadness and a decrease in words connected to joy.

While written works don’t necessarily reflect actual behavior, how we tell stories to our children is a behavior with important outcomes. Listening to how we express emotions helps children develop emotional skills. A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that mothers are better at this than fathers. The mothers in the study used more emotional words and elaborated more when reminiscing with their children about past emotional experiences, both good and bad. By doing so, they let the children know that their perspectives about a situation, and their feelings, were important.

Dads shouldn’t feel bad about these results, or leave the reminiscing to moms, though. Emotional awareness can be learned and enriched. The problem is that emotions, especially the negative ones like guilt or anger, sometimes make us uncomfortable, so we push them deep down inside us. In Japanese Morita therapy, people are taught to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable emotions; since the feelings can’t be controlled, opt to change your behavior instead. Go ahead and do what frightens you instead of letting fear hold you back.

Another way to become more aware of emotions is through writing. James Pennebaker, who developed the “writing to heal” program, had a group of people who were laid off write for 20 minutes a day, for 5 days, about their emotions and what they were feeling. After the study ended, 65% of the people who wrote about their emotions found new jobs, versus 26% in the group who didn’t write. The writing, a form of mindfulness practice, helped people clarify what they were looking for.

Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, imagining what they are feeling, is another way to build emotional awareness. Chade-Meng Tan, who developed Search Inside Yourself, has a practice called “Just Like Me” meditation. It serves as a reminder that most of us want the same basic things out of life, such as happiness, and that all of us suffer sometimes. It is a profound way to feel more connected to others.

Improving emotional intelligence isn’t a task with an end point though. Just as athletes and musicians continue to practice, even after reaching the big leagues, we shouldn’t stop refining our emotional abilities. Richard Davidson, who studies the neuroscience of emotions, says that “There are many sources of destructive emotions in our culture, and … constant barrage of stimuli…” We “need to keep practicing to effectively maintain the gains achieved.”

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Living with uncertainty

“Stress levels increased since 1983,” read the headline in USA Today last week. Not surprised? What’s interesting is why stress is higher for some people than others.

Sheldon Cohen and Denise Janicki-Deverts analyzed three national surveys (1983, 2006 and 2009) that used the same measure of stress. In all three, women’s stress was consistently higher than men’s, younger people had more stress than older people, people with less education reported higher stress than those with more, and people with lower incomes showed more stress than people with higher incomes.

What was different between 2006 and 2009 was that the increase in stress after the economic downturn was almost totally driven by middle-aged, college-educated, white men who were employed full-time. Cohen and Janicki-Deverts theorize that this finding could be related to the “threat of job loss, actual job loss, or loss of retirement funds.”

But what I see is that this could also be about loss of power and control. It’s not news that people who are lower in a hierarchy have more stress than those on top. And since it’s also still true that most of the power in our society is held by white middle-aged men with college degrees and full-time jobs, in some senses those people had the most to lose when the economy turned sour.

The stress levels of women, the young and the poor didn’t increase significantly because their position in the hierarchy didn’t change much. But for white, middle-aged men, the downturn may have been the first time they felt themselves to be on shaky ground. All of a sudden, there were no guarantees.

The Company Men”, a film about the economic downturn, portrays this theme convincingly. The main characters, who thought they had it made, suddenly were experiencing the uncertainty that other groups have traditionally lived with. Depending on their access to coping strategies, they either weathered the storm or were destroyed by it.

Our new reality is that many of us will be living with uncertainty for a long time. So how do we inhabit that reality in a way that doesn’t wear us down and make us sick?

  • Recognize what you can control and what you cannot. The stock market is out of our control. So are the actions of other people. But we can control how we react to events. Focus on what’s present right now instead of worrying about what can’t be predicted or controlled.
  • Be careful of how you talk to yourself. Too often, we limit ourselves by having a negative narrative going on in our minds (I’m not good enough, I’m too old, I’ll be next to lose my job). Practice replacing those negative thoughts with positive statements.
  • Believe in yourself. Easier said than done, right? It takes practice to change how you think of yourself. But if you remind yourself of the way you’ve handled situations in the past, and all the things that you are capable of, your ability to believe and trust in yourself will increase.
  • Write about it. James Pennebaker and others have shown that people who write about their feelings every day for several days can improve their moods and feel better emotionally.
  • Have a sense of humor. It helps us change our perspective on life events and sometimes even turns a potential stressor into something less threatening. Know what kinds of jokes, movies or comics are sure to make you laugh, so that you can turn to them when necessary.
  • Consider the idea of change as opportunity. As Claude Bernard once said, “Man can learn nothing unless he proceeds from the known to the unknown.”

 

What do you have to say?

There are times when writing is a struggle as I search for ideas and the right words to convey them.  Other times, when I have a compelling story I want to tell, the words just flow and the entire process seems so easy. Having a chance to tell our stories can be incredibly cathartic, even if we don’t share them with anyone else.

I thought of this when I read a story by Chris Richards in the Washington Post this week about a program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan write songs. The veterans work with professional songwriters in a workshop setting. They tell their stories, pulling together images and memories of their experiences, and the songwriters create a melody and work it into a song. The veterans find the experience to be very healing, giving them an outlet for expression that is hard to find anywhere else.

About 20 years ago, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston started a similar project in California for Vietnam War veterans (see her book, The Fifth Book of Peace). Theirs was strictly a writing workshop, not music, but the purpose was the same – giving the vets an opportunity to tell their stories, in a safe place, without judgment. Kingston began the process as a way of working out a loss of her own, and together with the veterans, found some peace along the way.

Some people keep diaries throughout their lives. Many of us had them as teenagers – an outlet for our angst, emotional ups and downs, and rants against our parents. But a journal devoted to a specific topic or purpose can be a helpful tool in dealing with stress, whether it’s everyday stress or the more intense stress caused by wartime experiences.

James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas, is a leading researcher and proponent of the idea of “writing to heal”. He believes that expressing our emotions makes us healthier and helps prevent many of the chronic diseases that befall so many people in modern society. For a lot of people, writing is the best (maybe the only) way that they can do that. Dr. Pennebaker has written a book about this process (Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval) and conducts workshops (one will be held at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center in March).

Gratitude journals are another, somewhat more indirect, way to help relieve stress. I’ve written before about the research showing that people who regularly remind themselves of what they are grateful for tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to experience less stress. Gratitude journals have also been used with veterans and others who experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, with promising results.

Whether or not you have had a traumatic experience, writing can still benefit you. In this age of truncated communications like email, Twitter and Facebook, it can be quite satisfying to sit down and express your thoughts and feelings without anyone cutting you off or limiting your characters. A journal can be a place to try out ideas, explore emotions and practice that difficult conversation you need to have with someone. Often, writing can be as mood-lightening as talking with a close friend. I suspect this is the reason why the memoir has become such a popular genre in recent years. Everyone has a story to tell, and wants to tell it if given an opportunity. But we are not very good at remembering emotions accurately after time has gone by, so it’s important to write down how you feel now. Start telling your story  – your audience can be as wide as the Internet or as small as a little notebook sitting by your bed.