Turn that frown upside down

Through fascinating research, we’re learning that we don’t have to be stuck with our negative feelings – we can change them!

Can’t change a feeling?

Do you ever wish your feelings would go away?

Perhaps someone or something triggered you and in the blink of an eye, you were flooded by a strong emotion.

Or perhaps you simply felt an emotion like sadness or disgust that you really wished you didn’t feel.

We’ve all been there, and probably felt stuck with our negative feelings. After all, there’s nothing we can do about our emotions, right?

Historically, the answer was yes. Your emotions are your emotions, and you can’t change them. But some ground-breaking research on emotions and the brain now says otherwise!

Feelings in the body

The longtime theory about emotions has been that we all have certain basic emotions that we experience, universally and objectively (e.g., fear or sadness).

With this theory comes the idea that these emotions are simply part of our shared human experience – that they are, in essence, innate. And if they are innate, then trying to change them would be like trying to change our DNA.

But a more recent and exciting theory has another take.

Psychology Professor Lisa Barrett Feldman at Northeastern University and her colleagues have published new findings that essentially say that our emotions are what our brains make of them.

But it begins with the body.

Our brains have two networks that work together to regulate all of our bodies’ systems and keep them in balance as we respond to external and internal stimuli. However, the brain filters out most of the stimuli from the body’s internal systems, otherwise we’d be completely overwhelmed and unable to focus on anything in the outside world – imagine if we had to pay attention to things like our metabolic rate and digestive system?

Instead, we simply notice certain generalized feeling states from sensations inside the body (through a process called interoception). These feeling states fall into only four categories: pleasant or unpleasant, aroused or calm. (For more on this and Feldman’s theory, listen to Feldman’s interview on NPR’s podcast Invisibilia.)

Feelings in the brain

How then do we move from generalized feelings to more specific emotions like fear, sadness or anger? Feldman’s one-word answer: concept.

Essentially, the brain scans for its pre-existing ideas or concepts to give meaning to the generalized feelings. Feldman uses the term “concept” which I liken to a pre-existing belief, perspective or mindset.

This theory, which essentially merges the brain and emotions, explains why two people can respond very differently to the same event or experience. Haven’t we all seen this? I know I have, both in my own life and with my clients.

Same trigger, different emotion

Let’s consider how this plays out in real life.

Both Susan and Anna are asked by their bosses to speak at an upcoming professional conference.

Susan had a bad experience speaking at an assembly when she was in grade school. She forgot her lines, and children laughed at her. Susan decides that she does not speak well in crowds and vows to never do it again. Susan’s mother, who has a fear of public speaking, reinforces this belief.

Anna, on the other hand, was seen as a leader by her peers growing up and enjoyed being the center of attention. She has received positive feedback on her public speaking and prides herself on leading groups.

Upon hearing the request to speak, both Susan and Anna experience heightened sensations in the body such as a rapid heart beat and increased sweat (i.e., a general state of arousal). But different emotions arise from them.

In trying to understand the sensations, Susan’s brain attaches her old story, and interprets them as fear. Susan freezes and her thoughts race. She expresses her hesitation, saying that she’s not a great public speaker.

In contrast, Anne’s brain attaches her different story, interprets the same sensations as excitement, and immediately jumps at the opportunity.

Same present-day scenario, same generalized feelings in the body, but two very different emotional responses. The only difference was the concept the brains attached to the feelings, and that concept can be changed.

Changing the emotion

The bottom line? You can change your emotions by changing the concept or meaning you attach to the general feelings that arise.

Create a new concept, and you create a new emotion.

Susan can absolutely change her fear of public speaking – that’s the good news.

As her coach, I would ask Susan to get to the heart of why she wants to change this about herself. She can change her patterns and emotions, but she’s got to be motivated for the challenge.

Then, adopt a new concept.

Susan can decide that it in order to grow professionally and advance in her career, she must take this on. She can decide that it was an honor to be asked, and an exciting opportunity. And she can practice this and her speech as well.

Will she ace it? Maybe not. But if she commits to the new mindset – even if she fails – she will absolutely be growing and changing her brain and her beliefs about herself.

With practice and commitment, and some support, Susan can come to recognize the feeling as one of nervous excitement rather than dread.

This is what my clients do, and you can too. (Don’t deny the research ;).)

Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com.

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