Bob Van Oosterhout

Chapter 9 Emotional Sunburn
About Bob (...What about Bob?)
Anger and Impulse Control
Anxiety, Depression, PTSD
Behavioral Health Integration with Primary Care
Bring Truth to Fear: We CAN Work Together
Hard Times Cafe Model of Empowerment
Links to Videos for Online Stress Management at LCC
Managing Chronic Pain and Headaches
Mental Health
Moral Philosophy
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Practical Psychology: What Works and Makes Sense
Problem Solving - Responding Effectively to Problems
Slow Down and Lighten Up
Spiritual Writing
Stress Management
What Works
Resume/Curriculum Vitae
Comments, Suggestions, Discussion

Chapter Nine

What are emotions?
I have found emotions to be among the most misunderstood human experiences. Some of us have been told that emotions are something to be avoided - a sign of weakness. Others have heard that emotions are a way "to get in touch with ourselves," that somehow they define who we are. Some of us have been told to control our emotions, others to express them fully. A person who is "emotional" is often thought of as being unstable. Yet an "emotional experience" can imply something deep and meaningful. One who is "in touch" with his or her emotions is described as being more "real" and "down to earth." Yet if we make decisions based on emotions, we are thought to be irrational and irresponsible. We describe emotions as "feelings," yet they are thought to be mental experiences - we seek "mental health" services to get help in dealing with emotional problems.

My training and experience have led me to understand emotions as our body's response to our perceptions of the moment. There are three components: 1) Emotions are primarily physical events - they take place in the body. 2) Emotions are a response to certain perceptions - what we focus on and how we view it will determine our emotional response. 3) Emotions are temporary, momentary experiences.

When we experience an emotion, there is movement in our muscles. It is literally a "moving" experience. With training, it is possible to observe this movement. It is also possible to measure it with the appropriate equipment. We literally "feel" our emotions in our bodies. This relationship links emotions to the stress response. Since emotions affect our muscles, and the stress response activates the musculature, stress will have a tendency to amplify our emotional experiences. Experiencing an emotion when we are in balance may be pleasant or unpleasant, but it is not necessarily stressful. However, if we are under stress, the build up of tension gives more power to the emotion than our perception of the situation would normally arouse. We become more emotionally reactive under stress. The "slapped on the back when sunburned" metaphor accurately predicts our emotional reactions under stress.

Because emotions are perceptual events, and our perceptions become more intensely focused under stress, our emotional reactivity increases with increased stress. Emotions always have a context. There is something that we are perceiving in our situation or thoughts that stimulates an emotion. Emotions quickly change when our perceptions change.

The observation that emotions are momentary requires some explanation. You can say that it can take us months or years to "recover" from the loss of a loved one. Isn't this an ongoing emotional experience? Yes, but it is not one single emotion. This experience consists of hundreds or thousands of thoughts, memories, and experiences that stimulate similar emotions. I experienced deep sadness when my parents died. There were innumerable experiences that brought this loss to mind shortly after their death. Contact with friends and family, planning and participating in the funeral services, going to their house when they were no longer there. These and other experiences stimulated my sadness.

Shortly after each of them died there were hundreds of reminders that they were gone. They had been a regular part of my life and then suddenly were no longer there. As time went on, there were fewer reminders and therefore less sadness. But still, when I think of them, I miss them and feel sad at that moment.

Emotions move (e - motion). Experiencing emotions is a normal part of daily life. If we acknowledge the emotion and allow ourselves to fully experience it, it passes. Thinking about the situation that stimulated the emotion will precipitate a new emotion. The stressful pattern of recycling our thoughts described in Chapter Eight can create a series of emotional responses that keeps us in turmoil.

The problems start when we don't acknowledge and experience an emotion. We often try to stop feeling something because it is too unpleasant or because we have heard from someone that we're "not supposed to feel that way." Seeing emotions as a weakness creates the same problem. It has to do with how we try to stop feeling. Since emotions involve movements in the musculature, we can stop this movement by tensing our muscles. Think of a young child who has been told to "stop crying." She will tense her chest and neck, hold her breath, and shut her jaw. She stops crying - it works. The problem is that it also builds tension. If we do not release this tension it simply adds to the stress response.
Crying is simply a mechanism that helps the body release emotional tension. Trying to stop crying builds tension. I have often seen clients who cry even though they are trying to hold it back. This is like pouring water in a glass while you are emptying it. There can be a net gain of tension through this process. If we simply accept and experience emotions, they pass and are gone. To the extent that we hold them in, they create more tension, which intensifies both the stress response and our emotional reactivity.

There was a common belief in the ‘1960's and early 70's that we needed to express all of our emotions. This may or may not be helpful. There are many situations in which expressing our emotions will interfere with our effectiveness in dealing with the problems at hand. There are situations in which expressing our emotions can be inappropriate and lead to increased stress. Chapter Fourteen will focus on how to deal with emotions in a healthy way. For now, I will simply say that we can experience an emotion without expressing it outwardly. The key is to let ourselves feel whatever emotion we are experiencing and then let it pass.