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Understanding Your Emotions Is Key to Dealing With Anxiety

Author:NeuroGym Team

Understanding Emotion Regulation Will Help You Conquer Your Anxiety

When people tell you you’re being emotional it’s usually meant in a bad way, right? But that doesn’t really make sense; we all have emotions and we’re always experiencing at least one of them! It’s a shame there’s so much stigma around talking openly about emotions and anxiety. Unfortunately, expressing emotions and admitting to feeling anxious is seen as a weakness, but that’s just not true! Feeling emotional or anxious isn’t weak, and we can rid ourselves of the misconception that it is if we have a better understanding of emotions and anxiety.

Even if we don’t have a high degree of anxiety or we don’t deal with depression, we will still experience negative emotions from time to time, as well as feelings of anxiety. This is perfectly normal and is part of the ups and downs of life and the stress that comes with everyday activities.

Let’s explore the topics of emotions and anxiety, and look at where they come from and why we experience them. We can then examine how emotion regulation can help us deal with our anxiety. But in order to regulate our emotions, we have to understand them.

Just What Are Emotions?

Across scientific fields, and even in philosophy and sociology circles, many have pondered the question: what is an emotion? We know we all have them, but why? What are they for?

We know emotions originate in the limbic system of the brain. This system controls behavioral and emotional responses to events we experience. When it comes to behaviors, the limbic system prompts us to carry out behaviors that ensure our survival as an individual (things like eating and avoiding danger) and as a species (things like reproducing and caring for offspring).

When it comes to emotions, they’re our brain’s way of responding to something. Emotional reactions are complex, but are generally made up of three important factors:

  • A subjective experience of an individual
  • The individual’s physiological response
  • The individual’s behavioral response

When it comes to the first of these, the subjective experience, it’s important to note the word “subjective.” The same thing could happen to multiple people, but it would be experienced in different ways. For example, if you have two fans of rival sports teams watching a game, the fan of the team that loses and the fan of the team that wins will have different experiences despite watching the same game. The subjective experience comes down to how what has happened impacts each unique individual.

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The physiological response includes things like a faster heartbeat, tightness in the muscles, or even the butterflies in your stomach feeling—pretty much any kind of physical feeling. The behavioral response is basically how we express the emotion. This could be something as simple as smiling or frowning, or as complex as apologizing to someone. It’s unclear, however, in what order these processes occur.

There are debates over how many unique emotions we have. Generally, it’s accepted that there are seven distinct, universally recognized emotions, but beyond those there are arguments over what counts as a unique emotion on its own and what can be grouped with other emotions.

What Exactly Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is experienced as a feeling of uneasy tension. Physically, we can feel it in our stomachs and our heads, and emotionally it can feel like fear or nervousness. When we’re anxious, we often have intrusive thoughts that worry us, and various mental and physical health symptoms.

Some of the symptoms of anxiety include being irritable, problems sleeping, excessive worrying, restlessness, trouble concentrating, headaches and muscle aches, and fatigue. Experiencing feelings of anxiousness on occasion is normal.

Experiencing constant, unprompted anxiety can be a sign of generalized anxiety disorder. When most people feel anxious, it’s because there is a legitimate cause. For example, you could be worried about a sick loved one, stressed at work, or be experiencing grief. It’s normal for difficult circumstances to prompt anxiety. However, in people with generalized anxiety disorder, high levels of anxiety are experienced without just cause. They could be going through their daily routine with nothing notably stressful happening but will still feel high levels of anxiety. As well, people with generalized anxiety disorder will often feel anxious for longer periods of time.

But Where Does Anxiety Come From?

Anxiety is a defense mechanism. It’s part of our fight-or-flight response, triggered by the part of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala controls intense emotions like fear. Sometimes, when we’re overcome by stress, we can experience amygdala hijack. Research indicates that the amygdala can sense dangerous things before we’re consciously aware of them

When we’re in a stressful situation, our body releases adrenaline into our bloodstream. This was actually a really important survival mechanism for early humans. When humans were hunter-gatherers (or cavemen as we might think of them), they didn’t exactly live safe, comfortable lifestyles to the extent many of us in the Western world do now. Primitive humans would have faced off with predators every day, which is something we as modern humans don’t deal with. Imagine you were trying desperately to find food and were confronted by a huge snarling grizzly bear; that’s the kind of thing you would want your brain to draw attention to. It was crucial that our ancestors were able to make quick decisions on whether to stay and fight or run away when they were facing a predator. So, feelings of anxiety come from a place of survival.

It’s perfectly normal to feel anxiety in situations that call for anxiety; it’s a natural response to a stressful and scary situation. However, when our brains start responding to fairly mundane things by telling us we have to run, we have a problem.

In short, anxiety is normal in certain contexts, but when it gets out of control it becomes a big problem.

Understanding Your Emotions and Emotion Regulation

It’s important to remember that we can’t always get rid of stress in our lives, we can’t tell ourselves to stop feeling anxious, and we can’t turn off our emotions. But we can manage the intensity of our anxiety through emotion regulation.

Understanding your emotions

First off, we have to understand our emotions and that they’re not there to cause us harm. Our emotions exist to help us make sense of the world. Similarly, anxiety isn’t there to make our lives harder; it exists to alert us to danger. So, the concepts of emotions and anxiety in and of themselves aren’t inherently bad, it’s just that sometimes they get out of control. When it comes to emotional regulation, psychologists talk about 5 techniques:

  • situation selection
  • situation modification
  • attention deployment
  • cognitive change
  • response modulation

Situation selection involves avoiding a situation that will make you anxious. Of course, this isn’t always possible or helpful. For example, you can’t avoid going to work for fear of anxiety, but it may be useful when you find spending time with certain people causes you stress. If someone is toxic, you can choose not to spend time with them.

Situation modification is useful if you can’t avoid a situation. In such cases, you’ll make adjustments to situations that cause you anxiety so that the anxiety is tolerable. An example of this could be if you find busy public transport stressful but still have to commute that way. A modification would be to commute at a time when it’s not as busy.

Attention deployment is sort of like distracting yourself. When you’re in a stressful situation, you can focus on something else to distract yourself from the anxiety. Mental exercises can help you distract yourself from stressful situations.

Cognitive change is a more complex technique that takes practice. This is a technique of rephrasing your thoughts around or about something. For instance, instead of telling yourself something is a problem, tell yourself it’s an opportunity.

Response modulation comes into play when you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. When you’re anxious, you can do something to suppress it like breathing exercises.

The right technique to use will depend on the situation you find yourself in, so practice these techniques and find what works for you.

Dealing with Anxiety

When dealing with anxiety, it’s easy to spiral into negative thoughts. But studies have shown that speaking to yourself in a positive way is good for your mental health. Instead of telling yourself “I did bad,” try telling yourself “I did my best and I can do better tomorrow.”

It can be helpful to practice mindfulness to ground yourself in the present when you’re feeling anxious about things that might happen, or have happened in the past. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that involves being present and aware of yourself in your current state. Remember to breathe, as when we control our breathing it goes a long way to controlling our stress.

Above all, remember to always talk to someone. There’s no need to suffer in silence. Whether it’s with a trusted friend or loved one, or a professional therapist, it’s always worth sharing what’s causing you stress.


Final Thoughts

Anxiety and emotions are our body’s way of responding to things that happen around us. We can’t stop them, but we can deal with them through emotion regulation. By using emotion regulation techniques and gaining an understanding of our emotions, we can help ourselves to avoid becoming overwhelmed with anxiety.

About The Author

NeuroGym Team

NeuroGym Team: NeuroGym’s Team of experts consists of neuroscientists, researchers, and staff who are enthusiasts in their fields. The team is committed to making a difference in the lives of others by sharing the latest scientific findings to help you change your life by understanding and using the mindset, skill set and action set to change your brain.

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