On Sunday I spoke at HCC about how to MOT Your Emotional Life. I was aiming to give a bit of food for thought about the way our emotions work – about some of the assumptions we make and errors we can slip into, both as humans and as Christians.
One of the things I touched on in the talk was the way our emotions are designed to work. Most often when people come to see me about their emotions, they are thinking about them because something is going wrong, or causing them problems. We rarely think about the way our emotions are supposed to work when things are going well. But they are part of an incredibly well designed system in our brains – part of the deliberate design of God.
A bit more detail …
In the talk I explained my own model of our emotions. I like to think of them as a bit like striking a match. Your brain triggers an emotion when it detects something going on in the world or circumstances around us that might be significant or important to us in some way. In our everyday life we make loads of decisions based on mental ‘short cuts’ rather than some kind of formal ‘analysis’ of what is the ‘right’ thing to do. Very few things get our ‘full’ attention – the full focus of our analytical brain. Emotions mean that our brain can grab our attention and make sure we focus on the right things, paying lots of attention to the things that need it, and making quicker instinctive decisions on the things that don’t.
When your brain detects something that you need to pay attention to therefore, it triggers an emotion – which includes very real physiological changes in your body. These are particularly noticeable for the negative emotions – things like anxiety or anger. They get your attention – and they also set you up to respond to the situation should you need to – we often call this the FIGHT OR FLIGHT response.
At the same time your brain triggers its thinking centres to analyse the situation and come to a conclusion about what you need to do. Very often though, the answer is – nothing. Your emotions warn you that something might need action – not that it definitely does. Sometimes a quick analysis or a quick action to check something – a second glance, quick question or checking something in your memory – solves the problem. Once this is finished the emotion, just like a flame that has travelled the length of the match – dies out.
Too many matches?
One cause of these can be if our brain is triggering too much emotion. If you think of emotions as a bit like a smoke alarm – imagine what happens if they are too sensitive. What if your brain is using a rule system which means it is setting off emotional warnings all the time. Some people find that they are living their life according to rules or goals which are triggering emotions left, right and centre. Imagine, for example, if you aim to be 100% perfect. Any situation or event where you risk making even the tiniest mistake will trigger anxiety. Or if you expect other people to be 100% perfect, their small errors will trigger frustration in you. What if you believe yourself to be basically unlikeable? Every time you do something or experience something that might confirm that (even if you are wrong) you’ll experience sadness or emotional pain.
Another common problem with emotions happens when your brain detects something not just significant but that could be a potential emergency. When there is no time to lose for analysis, it can send a shorter faster message which bypasses your thinking brain and triggers a reaction before you have thought it through. Handy if you need to jump out of the path of a bus but not so useful if you had misunderstood something someone said. This phenomenon, called emotional hijack, means we act without thinking and then have to face the consequences with hindsight when we have calmed down.
The last common problem with emotions is the opposite of emotional hijack – this is when your thinking brain takes an emotion and overthinks it! Instead of the emotion triggering a helpful, rational analysis, it sets off a whole load of much less positive thoughts, worries and fears – many of which in turn trigger new emotions in a kind of cascade or negative spiral. Some of us are more prone to these kind of thoughts than others. I call them kindling thoughts because when an emotion match us struck instead of it dying out, it sets fire to them, resulting in a great big emotional bonfire. These kinds of emotion last much longer than normal, and can even smoulder at low level for days, never really going out. Smouldering emotions become quite detached from the thing that originally triggered them and may feel quite out of control and unpredictable. These kinds of emotion leave us feeling totally at the mercy of our emotional brains and can be a part of significant emotional ill health.
Want to MOT your emotional life?
We can all benefit from taking some time to think about our emotional life, and how to work on our emotional wellbeing. Don’t think it is just something for people who are unwell. But if you are experiencing issues with your emotions, be encouraged! No matter how out of control they feel, you are much more able to change your emotions than you think. Remember that most people make the mistake of trying to just ignore difficult or unwanted emotions, in the hope that they just go away. Emotions are designed to get your attention! If you try to suppress them they will just keep on popping back up again and again until you do give them some head space.
We often think that the things that make the biggest difference to our emotional wellbeing are the big things – the dramas, the catastrophes or the high points that life throws out now and then. But actually research tells us it is much more about the little things – habits and routines which we get into which gradually either build us up or push us down. So whatever your emotions are saying to you – here’s 5 simple but effective habits to practice, which have been shown to help improve and maintain emotional health.
1 – Emotional gardening
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a tool designed to help people understand the link between their thinking and their emotions. It helps you identify thoughts and thinking patterns which might be fanning the flames of your emotional bonfires rather than helping to dampen them down. CBT teaches you how to challenge unhelpful thinking and replace it with something more positive. Think of it a bit like gardening – the aim is to help you remove the weeds and replace them with flowers.
If you’d like to learn more about CBT and even work through a course, there’s a free online resource you can try out at llttf.com.We’ll be running a version of this course at HCC in the autumn so watch this space for more about that.
2 – Positive thinking
One of the awkward things about the way your brain is set up is that it has to pay more attention to negative things than positive. If you think about it, it is more important that you remember or pay attention to things that have a negative outcome than positive – so you learn from them and don’t make the same mistakes again. But this does mean that we can become prone to getting stuck in negative thinking patterns, or remembering only the bad things from our days, weeks or lives and missing or forgetting the positive.
One very simple thing that has been demonstrated to improve emotional health is trying to improve this balance by deliberately thinking about positive things. At the end of each day, take a moment to write down three good or positive things from your day. Over time an action this simple has been demonstrated to improve people’s happiness and boost their mood! For more on how and why this works, check out psychologist Martin Seligman talking about this exercise.
Of course this isn’t just a clever idea from psychologist. Hundreds of years ago the exact same advice was written in the Bible! Look at Paul’s advice in Philipians 4:8: Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. (From the Message translation).
3 – Get your emotional 5 a day!
We’re often very good at thinking about our spiritual health, and we’re getting better at thinking about our physical health – but when did you last plan to do something regularly for your emotional health? Just like it is important to build in things that are good for other parts of our life, we need to plan things into our schedule that are good for our emotions. What kind of things build your emotional health? It might be things you do for yourself like taking time to relax or get head space and calm thinking time. Or you might think about doing something for someone else – studies have shown that doing positive things for other people improve our happiness. Or check out some more ideas – can you guess any of the ten habits most often shown to make people happier?
When you’re thinking about your emotional 5 a day, don’t forget about prayer! Turning our thoughts, worries and feelings over to God is a great way to manage them. And spending regular time in prayer has been demonstrated to make people feel more calm, less stressed and less anxious. Here’s some more from Paul on how prayer can help calm our minds:
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philipians 4:6-7, NLT).
Another thing that can help lift our spirits is praise. Praising God, whether that is in words or through songs helps to move our focus from the everyday things that might be getting us down onto something much better! Whatever it is that is stressing you out today, God is a constant, never failing source of strength and energy. As it says in Ephesians 5:18-20 … Don’t drink too much wine. That cheapens your life. Drink the Spirit of God, huge draughts of him. Sing hymns instead of drinking songs! Sing songs from your heart to Christ. Sing praises over everything, any excuse for a song to God the Father in the name of our Master, Jesus Christ.
4 – Let’s talk!
Did you know that as a human you were never designed to do this life thing alone? Right at the start, when God made humans, He commented that it wasn’t good for them to be on their own (Genesis 2:18). So if you’re feeling down, maybe you need to make contact with some other humans. Sometimes difficult emotions can make us withdraw from other people – but in this case going with our instincts only makes things worse. So why not pick up the phone, send a text or arrange to meet someone for coffee?
5 – Practice self acceptance
Of all the things you can practice that have been shown to improve emotional health, this is the one with the strongest effect. People who score highly on measures of self acceptance also show good emotional resilience (that is their ability to bounce back from set backs etc) and experience more positive emotion. However, it also comes bottom in lists of things people are actually likely to practice, and tends to be something people rate as hardest to do.
So what is self acceptance? It is about valuing yourself, accepting who you are, and avoiding the temptation to be too self critical. It doesn’t mean that you think you are all perfect, or that there’s nothing you can do to improve yourself – instead it is about having a realistic understanding of your good and bad points, but accepting that you are basically an ok person.
So how on earth do you practice this? The authors of a study looking at this trait made three suggestions: The first is about being kind to yourself. Next time you do something wrong and beat yourself up over it, ask yourself ‘how would I react if someone else had made this mistake?’ We’re often much harder on ourselves than we would be on others, so cut yourself a bit of slack and practice self nurturing. Had a hard day? Why not suggest the same things for yourself as you would for a friend to help you feel better! The second suggestion is to ask someone you trust to tell you what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Getting an honest opinion from someone who knows you well might surprise you. And finally, self acceptance is about spending time with yourself – and learning to enjoy it. Learn to enjoy your own company, and schedule regular quiet ‘me’ time into your schedule.