Hello everyone, and welcome back to the Therapy Spot! My long time friend and colleague Susan Reyland joined me once more to discuss the nature of emotions. Susan is a clinical and developmental psychologist who works in Denver, Colorado.

On her previous visits to my podcast, Susan shared her knowledge on a variety of subjects.

Today, we’re going to talk about the ways we experience our emotions, and how to navigate them. Listen in!

Your Snaggable Brain

Emotions play a significant role in all of our lives, for all of our lives. The more you learn about your emotions, the better off you’ll be. When you know more about your emotions, you can use the information to:

  • Regulate your thoughts
  • Manage your behaviors
  • Feel better in your life

So what are emotions, really? Simply put, emotions are your brain’s reaction to information from the physical environment. Susan refers to these reactions as the brain getting “snagged.” For example, let’s say you’re out shopping at the grocery store. You turn down an aisle and see an adorable baby sitting in a cart. This visual information in the environment “snags” your brain.

Suddenly, you’re flooded with dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. You smile, and feel warmth and happiness. You reach over to your friend to point out the cute baby, because humans are social creatures. We like sharing these positive emotional experiences.

Your Emotional Continuum

Think of your emotions as falling somewhere on a line. At one end of the line, you have the most positive feelings: extreme joy, or intense love. Meanwhile, at the other end of that line, you have the negative emotions: grief and despair.

Now, on the middle of that line, you’ll find calm. We spend most of our time in that neutral, middle space. Nothing snags our brains. I’m sure you’ve had the experience of someone asking “How are you?” and you responded, almost without thinking, “I’m fine.” That’s because you’re in the neutral space.

When you get “snagged,” you get pulled along in the line, in a positive or negative direction. Your brain was built to be “snagged.” Otherwise, you wouldn’t respond to your environment, and you might overlook a threat (or miss an opportunity).

Your Emotions as Waves

Let’s return to our imaginary grocery store trip. You smile at the cute baby, and feel a wave of happiness when the baby smiles and laughs. I call it a “wave” because our emotions rise up, hit a peak, and then move downwards.

These waves can be positive (the baby) or negative (say, your favorite hot sauce is out of stock). They can also be large or small, which determines how long the emotion will last. The size of the wave also determines how intensely you feel it. For instance, you probably won’t plunge into weeks of despair just because you couldn’t buy your hot sauce.

Remember: no wave lasts forever. This goes for positive emotions as well as negative ones! Even people who win the lottery only feel amazing for a period of time. Alternatively, if you’ve suffered a loss, you will not grieve forever. Over time, the waves of grief will come up less, and be shorter and shorter as time goes on. I’m sure you’re familiar with the old saying: “this, too, shall pass.”

Riding the Waves of Emotions

A lot of clients struggling with grief or depression want to know, “How long am I going to feel this way?” Unfortunately, no one can tell you that for sure. What we can say with certainty is that you will feel better. One day, you will notice the waves come farther and farther apart, and they are not as high.

Remind yourself: “This emotion is a wave, and I will ride it until it changes.” Because it will change. In the meantime, as you ride this wave, don’t make any huge changes in your life. Don’t let grief or depression dictate big life decisions. Wait until you can return to the neutral place. Yes, this applies to positive emotions as well! Have you ever caught yourself daydreaming about wedding bells after a romantic first date?

To ride the waves, you need to practice something called “response prevention.”In Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, people experience tsunami-like waves of anxiety. These folks are experts in response prevention. Take a page from their treatment playbook. Understand that your emotion is a wave, and don’t act until the wave has passed. Create a list of things to do to take your mind off of the wave:

  • Call a friend
  • Read a book
  • Play a game

Be kind to yourself until the wave passes.

“An Image of You, Happy and Free”

I’d like to close with one of Susan’s stories.

“In one of my training experiences, I was very depressed. A good friend of mine said something wonderful to me during this time. She said, ‘I am going to hold an image of you as happy and free in my mind until you can get there. Because I know you will get there.’ She was reminding me that this was a wave — a long and high wave, but still a wave. She was reminding me that I would ride it out, and be able to move along the continuum towards positive emotions.”

For all of you riding the waves of your emotions, I encourage you to continue practicing Self-Compassion. How else can you support yourself in your journey?

Thank you so much for joining me again this week. Until next time!

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Image Credit

Surfer” by Flickr user j.lau88, licensed under CC BY 2.0.