Getting Off the Emotional Carousel
We all have strong emotions from time to time. We have all had that experience of feeling “emotionally hijacked” in which we feel powerless against the influence our emotions have on our behavior, mood, and general perspective. Strong emotions can prompt powerful thoughts, and sometimes, repetitive thoughts. If we are struggling with a persistent emotion, it can be difficult to put the feeling down or let it go. We carry the worry with us day and night.
But if we can remove ourselves from the subjective experience of any given emotion, we might be able to size up its impact on our lives a little more realistically. What is it that really drives our emotions, anyway? How much power do they really hold over our lives and our decisions?
When I feel like I am trapped on an emotional carousel, I remember this information about the physiological lifespan of emotions within our bodies. It comes from Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist that suffered a stroke and chronicled her recovery from neuro trauma in her book, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey:
When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.
Something happens in the external world and chemicals are flushed through your body, which puts it on full alert. For those chemicals to totally flush out of the body it takes less than 90 seconds.
This means that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away.
After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.
Ninety seconds. That’s one and a half minutes.
Have you ever spent ONLY one and a half minutes with any given emotion?
Probably not! Emotions, both positive and negative, we all spend more time with than that. So, what kind of fuel do these emotions run on? What perpetuates their presence beyond their physiological lifespan?
We do. We perpetuate their presence.
Of course, it should be said, that patterns of behavior over time reinforce emotional responses and behaviors, which can become very difficult to be aware of, much less overturn. But understanding the chemical process of emotions helps to empower us that at any given point — we can stop, take a deep breath, and examine how our thoughts are contributing to the continued circuitry of an emotion.
When I’m giving a presentation at work and I make a mistake that embarrasses me, once I’m back in the cozy confines of my office, I’m replaying the moment mentally, which sends the emotional response around again.
When I’m making a big decision for my family, and I’m feeling torn between the pros and cons, every rollercoaster loop the emotion makes around my body, it seems like more passengers are piling on every time: What if that plan fails? What if this is the wrong decision? What if you negatively impact the other members of your family?
Round and round the carousel goes, gaining momentum with each completed cycle. But there is a quick way to reverse this phenomenon and regain control of emotions that seem to run rampant. However, it takes practice.
Consider yourself an investigator, allow yourself time to turn over the emotion for a while, how it feels, what it means, what it impacts, and then?
Put it away. Let it go.
This is different from suppression of emotions. Emotions are healthy for us to have and they help us navigate our experiences. They need attention, expression, and evaluation. But they need not run away with us. We have control over how many times we revisit worry and concern that does not help us move forward. When the emotional circuitry is running on autopilot and we’ve tuned out of our own ability to manage our emotions that is when we put ourselves at risk.
This practice is more about allowing your emotions to play out without judgment. We can feel embarrassed about making a mistake in front of a crowd of people and then move on. We can feel stressed about an important decision we need to make for our family and then move on. But when we attach to these emotions judgmental thoughts of anxiety, grief, worry, concern, or anger, and we revisit those thoughts over and over, we only continue to fuel the impact of our emotions long after their initial purpose.
So, next time you catch yourself watching reruns of an emotional response, try allowing yourself ninety seconds to complete the emotional circuit and then let it go.
McClure, B. (2019). Getting Off the Emotional Carousel. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/getting-off-the-emotional-carousel/