How to Better Control Emotions

BKBG Business Blog,

How many times have you immediately reacted to a stressful or threatening situation and immediately regretted what you did? Sending an email when you are angry is often the most regrettable action you can ever take. Controlling adverse emotional responses may be easier than you think thanks to research by Lisa Feldman Barrett a psychologist and neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Northwestern University who has performed ground-breaking research on understanding emotions.   

Barrett explains that emotions are real because the brain creates them.  The brain actively attempts to make meaning all the time and part of meaning making involves emotions.  That’s why Barrett has found that everyone can have better control over their emotions by learning to train their brain to learn different emotional words and concepts that build emotional expertise. 

Becoming an emotion expert requires the ability to identify and differentiate between various specific emotions accurately referred to as emotional granularity.  Emotional granularity allows individuals to pinpoint their feelings with greater precision.  Instead of feeling badly, someone who develops high emotional granularity will identify the “bad” feeling with specific emotions such as anxiety, irritation or grief, which requires different coping and response strategies.   

Barrett differentiates specific emotions from moods.  Moods are not emotions. Being stressed, feeling sad, excitement are all moods caused by different emotions. The ability to identify different emotions that cause moods and process them makes you better equipped to cope with stress, setbacks, and challenges. 

Another key to controlling emotions is having the flexibility to recognize that instances of anger, sadness, fear or other emotions are rarely similar and often require different types of responses. 

Emotional granularity can also enhance cognitive flexibility, enabling individuals to adapt their responses to different situations more effectively. Instead of reacting impulsively based on broad emotional cues, being flexible enables individuals to consider a wider range of options and choose the most appropriate course of action.  Barrett’s example is that when she encounters a situation that makes her angry, she tells herself that, “This is just electrical activity in my head,” and that statement helps to diffuse her negative feelings.   

Barrett’s work shows that recognizing and controlling emotional responses is a skill that can be learned and honed.  The more specific – granular – you can get about what you are feeling, the better positioned you will be to control your experience.  Remember, when you encounter an unwanted emotion, remind yourself that it is simply an electrical signal in your brain.