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What is an Emotion?

And five ways to regulate them.

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An essay in my 6th grade Hindi textbook was titled “Shok Sabha” and narrated the scene during a Hindu bereavement ritual. In it was described the life of a “Rudaali” (“one who cries”) or a professional mourner from Rajasthan. She was a peasant woman who wore black and was hired to mourn at the untimely death of a young aristocratic man from a wealthy family. She cried aloud and thumped her chest while tears rolled down her cheek and her disheveled hair gave the reader the appearance of someone angst-ridden, inconsolable, and overcome with sorrow.

For the first time in my life, I remember asking myself “How is it possible that she could grieve for someone she didn’t know? What is a real feeling and what is manufactured? Can you choreograph a feeling?” It also led me to forming my own personal reaction to intense pain. I started fearing public displays of emotion because of the meta-thought “What if they think I’m like herthe one who fake-cries for money?” This often led to my pretending to be okay, when In fact I wasn’t.

It was only after I was introduced to these lines from Lord Alfred Tennysons poem:

Home they bought her warrior dead:

She nor swoon’d nor utter’d cry:

All her maidens, watching, said,

“She must weep or she will die.”

that I started working on “allowing myself” to feel sad when the situation warranted it, although I still greatly struggle with displaying any negative emotions outside of my inner circle. We each have our own reasons for reacting or responding to pain in our lives. There is no right or wrong, good or bad. Luckily for me, my undergraduate degree was in psychology, which allowed me access to books and readings on the psychology of emotion. Here are some of the answers that I am happy with, alongside the questions that I constantly struggle with.

1] What is an emotion?

Psychologists look at an emotion as both a state of strong feelings and a physical sensation, although we can’t pinpoint its exact location in the body. Modern technology allows us to see emotions as brain activity, but we only still know very little and have a long way to go.

2] What do emotions do for us?

What emotions do is allow us to see life in colour and sound. They play a very important role in highlighting major life events – positive and negative, and they can be very transformative. They may motivate a person to behave in certain ways and they facilitate your taking certain decisions in your life apart from allowing you to remember important life events.

3] Is the way I feel an emotion the same as another person?

Each of us experiences an emotion differently. We experience it in our body and our mind. Our age matters. Our experience matters. Our context matters. Our emotional experiences evolve with time. No one is spared from the entire gamut of emotions.

4] Is there a magical way to escape feeling sorrow?

The Buddhist story of Kisa Gautami answers this question. This was a young wealthy woman who lost her only son and was struck with grief. She took her baby to the Buddha and asked him to help bring the child back to life. The buddha listened with compassion and asked her to find him four or five mustard seeds from any family that has never seen such grief. Kisa Gautami felt hopeful and went from door-to-door looking for a family that was spared from death and grief. She saw what the Buddha had wanted her to see for herself and was finally able to come to terms with her pain.

5] Can I experience an emotion cerebrally without my body “feeling” it?

The famous psychologist William James said

…the intellectual emotion, if such it can be called, pure and undefiled. And the dryness of it, the paleness, the absence of all glows, as it may exist in a thoroughly expert critics mind, not only shows us what an altogether different thing it is from the “standard” emotions we considered first, but makes us suspect that almost the entire difference lies in the fact that the bodily sounding board, vibrating in the one case is in the other mute.

6] Is there a right or wrong way to emote?

No. It is subjective. What is more important is emotional regulation. Overindulging an emotion is equally harmful as denying an emotion.

7] What helps in regulating intense emotional pain?

In individuals who are not suffering from any neurological or psychiatric condition emotions can be regulated in magnitude and emotional trajectories can be influenced in any one of the following five ways

  1. by avoiding or engaging with situations that have the potential to cause unwanted emotions, whenever possible.
  2. by modifying or changing the properties of the situation that may cause these emotions, if at all possible
  3. by modifying your attention towards and away from the situation that is causing an unwanted emotion (distraction), at least temporarily – allowing you to buy time to adjust.
  4. sitting with the thoughts, evaluations, and appraisals that lead to this emotion and actively reorganising and adjusting to them, trying to look at the bigger picture, and working on your thoughts.
  5. directly working with and influencing emotional responses – by modifying bodily responses including breathwork and modifying facial expressions of emotions.
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