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How to manage emotions?

Our emotions may sometimes make our lives difficult. Anger throws us off balance and prevents us from concentrating on work or play. Sadness deprives us of the energy to act. Falling in love prevents us from preparing for exams. Feeling lonely makes us lose trust in people. At such moments, we would like to control our feelings and moods so that they can help us instead of hurting us. Should we do this and if yes, how?

Start with a correct diagnosis

Before you start managing emotions, you should consider whether this is what you really need. Emotions are not random weather phenomena and they do not fall on you for no reason. Each emotion has a meaning and conveys some important information. If you are sad, you have probably lost something important. If you are angry, it is quite likely that someone has crossed your boundaries or violated your rights. Emotions provide you with information on what is happening or, more precisely, how you interpret what is happening around you. Thanks to them, you know whether you are safe and whether you are achieving your goals. Therefore, before you start changing them, it is worth analysing them to understand what they mean.

Change the emotion by changing the situation

When you manage to find the source of the emotion you are experiencing, you should first decide whether you want to deal with it or with the problem that caused it. Can you change the situation you are in or can you only change the way you react to what has happened? In many cases, changing the situation is difficult but possible. If your salary is unsatisfactory and your skills are high, it is better to change your job than to vent your anger and frustration at the gym. If you have been bored in class for months, it is better to change your major than to suppress your growing frustration by going to all-night parties. If a close friend keeps criticising and humiliating you, it makes more sense to end the relationship than to deny the pain and disappointment by justifying the violent behaviour. Resolving the problem effectively and for a long term changes the emotions caused by the problem. However, it is not always possible. When the situation cannot be changed or when you do not want to change it, you can focus on managing the emotions related to it. Out of a variety of strategies for emotion management, the two most effective ones include taking a different perspective and employing distraction.

Approach the problem from a different perspective

In one of his experiments, the renowned American psychologist James Gross asked participants to watch a film depicting a certain surgical procedure in detail. As expected by the researchers, most of the viewers felt revulsion during the screening. However, one of the experimental groups was asked to watch the film from the perspective of a student of medicine. It turned out that the intensity of revulsion was significantly lower in this group. The change of the perspective, the adoption of a role, i.e. treating the film as a training film rather than a feature film in this particular case, effectively inhibited the development of the negative emotion. This strategy is effective because our emotional responses are based on how we interpret the world around us.

Giving a different meaning to what is happening changes the emotion, e.g. an annoying and intrusive stranger becomes a frightened travelling companion seeking support or a frightening medical procedure becomes a hopeful chance of recovery.

Focus on another activity

One of the most common strategies for managing emotions is to focus on an activity that alters your emotional state. A walk in the woods, cuddling a pet, your favourite music, reading a book or watching a TV series are just some of the many ways to improve your mood. A well-chosen distraction can indeed be effective, but it is important to remember that it only works temporarily and does not solve the problem.

When you focus on relaxation instead of talking about a raise, or run through the woods instead of discussing a conflict in a close relationship, in the long run your problems and the feelings they cause will remain with you. It is also important that this substitute activity does not pose a threat to your health or well-being. Enhancing your mood with alcohol, compulsive eating, casual sex or gambling can get you into more trouble than the initial predicament. Research shows that the most effective mood elevators are physical activity and contact with friendly people - so it is a good idea to take advantage of them as often as possible.

Find what suits you best

Although some strategies for managing emotions are more effective than others, their ultimate impact on our lives is determined by how well they fit our personality, temperament and lifestyle. What works for one person may be completely ineffective for another. Your friend may relax perfectly at a yoga class, but for you, zumba or running might be a better option. Russian literature may be the best way for someone to get away from thinking about their troubles, but a person who does not like reading will achieve a similar effect as a result of watching American thrillers. Finding your own way, or preferably several ways, of managing your moods is very useful in life. You may discover that one strategy helps you to manage one type of an emotion (e.g. a walk in the woods reduces anger but not sadness), while others may have a wider spectrum of applications. It is worth experimenting to see what works best for you.

Emotional intelligence can help

Dealing with emotions is not easy. Emotional intelligence, a set of abilities to recognise, understand and regulate emotions, is helpful in this process. People who are emotionally intelligent accurately recognise their affective states and know their sources, which is why they are more effective at managing or enhancing their emotions. Fortunately, 

the ability to recognise and understand emotions can be developed. To do this, take time every day to reflect on your feelings and their sources. You can expand your knowledge of emotions by learning new words to describe subtle affective states or by learning a new language, as each culture has a slightly different way of describing emotions (e.g. Mandarin has five terms for anger, while Greek has two terms for guilt, one describing minor and the other serious offences).

The heart or the mind?

The conflict between the heart and the mind described for hundreds of years in both fiction and science is fundamentally false. The two spheres do not exist separately. Cognitive processes are strongly linked to affective processes, and the relationship between the two is bidirectional. On the one hand, the influence of emotions on cognition is evident: feelings direct our attention and influence our decisions and judgments. Moods affect how we learn and what we remember. On the other hand, the nature and intensity of emotions depends to a large extent on cognitive processes, i.e. the way we perceive a situation and how we interpret and remember it determines the emotions that this situation evokes. You cannot separate emotions from cognition and you cannot remove them from your life. Therefore, it is worth dealing with them well: learning to understand them, analysing them, accepting them and using them to achieve your goals. And if necessary, it is worth knowing how to play down the emotions that bring pain and arouse the ones that make your life more beautiful.


Reference literature

Feldman Barrett Lisa (2020). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books. 2017

Gross, J. J. (2013). Emotion Regulation: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. EMOTION

Szczygieł D. (2014). Regulacja emocji a dobrostan. Konsekwencje wyprzedzającej i korygującej regulacji emocji. In: Oblicza jakości życia. Wydawnictwo Akademii im. Jana Długosza w Częstochowie. (chapter available online)

About the author

Magdalena Śmieja, PhD, Jagiellonian University Professor, works at the Laboratory of Emotions and Motivation of the Jagiellonian University Institute of Psychology. Her research interests focus on emotional intelligence. She is a co-author of the Emotional Intelligence Test as well as the author of the monograph W związku z inteligencją emocjonalną and many other publications in this field. She is also interested in the psychology of close relationships, in particular from the perspective of social cognition.