For many people, emotions are a scary thing. Part of the problem is that we just don’t know what to do with them, according to Darlene Mininni, Ph.D, MPH, author of The Emotional Toolkit.
So we turn to the only strategies we do know. If you’re a man, you might distract yourself by playing video games, tinkering with your tools or drinking alcohol, she said. If you’re a woman, you might shop or eat.
Turning to these tools occasionally is OK, Mininni said. Making them part of your regular coping repertoire, however, is problematic.
Emotions are valuable, and offer a bounty of benefits. Once we’re able to process and cope with them effectively, we can learn a lot about ourselves and our needs, Mininni said. Emotions send us important messages and help us connect with others and accomplish great things, she said.
Using unhealthy strategies can sabotage our relationships, job and even our health, Mininni said. In fact, people who handle stress effectively have healthier immune systems, don’t get sick as often and age up to 16 years more slowly than people who don’t.1
What is an Emotion?
There’s actually no consensus on what an emotion is, Mininni said. She defines emotions as a “full-body experience,” an interplay between our thoughts and physical sensations.
As an illustration, Mininni created the following simple formula:
Thoughts + Body Sensations = Emotion
For instance, a kind of giddy happiness and anxiety have the same sensations, such as tight muscles and a pounding heart. What determines whether we feel happy or anxious are our thoughts.
Mininni created a valuable step-by-step process to help people identify and manage their emotions. The first step is to figure out what you’re feeling – and you just need to choose from four main emotions.
Mininni said that all emotions fall into these categories: anxiety, sadness, anger and happiness. With anxiety, she said, your mind lights up with “What ifs?” What if I lose my job? What if I don’t meet someone? What if I fail my test?
You have thoughts of the future and everything that can go wrong, she said. Your physical sensations include a racing heart, tight muscles and clenched jaw.
With sadness, you have negative thoughts about the past. You feel tired and heavy; you might cry and have trouble concentrating, she said.
With anger, your thoughts are focused on how you or your values have been attacked, she said. The physical sensations are similar to anxiety, including a racing heart and tightness in the body.
With happiness, your thoughts are focused on what you’ve gained. Maybe you landed a great job, found a nice apartment or received a compliment. Physically, you feel light or calm, and you might laugh and smile, she said.
The next step is to identify the message of your emotion. To do so, ask yourself these questions, according to Mininni:
Anxiety: What am I afraid of?
Sadness: What have I lost?
Anger: How have I or my values been attacked?
Happiness: What have I gained?
Coping with Emotions
Once you’ve identified the emotion and its message, the last step is to take action. Ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to solve the situation, Mininni said. If there is, consider what you can do.
For instance, if you’re upset that you can’t find a good job, maybe you can have friends review your resume or hire a professional resume writer. Maybe you can sharpen your interview skills or extend your search a few zip codes.
If there’s nothing you can do, determine how you can cope with the emotion, she said. Mininni suggested meditating, getting social support,writing, receiving therapy.
Think of these strategies as an emotional toolkit. You simply reach into your kit, and pick out the healthy tool you need, Mininni said. In fact, you can create an actual tote, and pack it with comforting items such as sneakers, your journal, funny films, favorite books and a list of people you’d like to call when you’re upset.
The strategies that work best will vary with each person, depending on your personality, physiology and other individual factors, Mininni said. For some people, running works wonders in alleviating anxiety. For others, meditation is better.
Emotions may seem confusing and threatening but applying the above practical and clear-cut approach reveals emotions for what they really are: useful, informative and far from murky.