How to Change the Way You Process Emotions


Everyone goes about their emotions in a different way. Richard Davidson, a leading researcher of emotions, and also a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, claims that we each have different emotional styles, which are comprised of six different components.

Emotional styles determine how we react to the experiences in our lives and how likely we are to have particular emotional moods. Davidson has mapped out these emotional differences in the brain. And in his new book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, he goes over many ways these emotional styles affect our lives and personalities, as well as how we can mold the brain to respond to emotions in different ways.

Your emotional style is based on:

    Resilience, which is how quickly or slowly you recover from negative emotions. For example, some people can hold onto fears or grudges for years, while others may let things go after only a day.

    Outlook, which is the duration of your positive emotions. For example, some people may experience positive feelings like joy to be very fleeting, while others tend to sustain these feelings much longer.

    Context, which is the degree to which you modulate your emotional responses in a context-appropriate way. For example, you probably won’t talk to your boss about the same things as you would when you talk to your spouse or child. In the same way, we often modulate our emotional responses differently depending on the person we are talking to and the setting we are in.

    Social Intuition, which is your sensitivity to social cues, including facial expressions and verbal expressions. This part of your emotional style refers to your ability to understand and empathize with other people’s emotional worlds.

    Self Awareness, which is the extent to which you are aware of emotional signals within your own body and mind. The more aware you aware of your own emotions, the better you’ll be able to manage them. Most people respond to their emotions without ever stopping to reflect on them.

    Attention, which is how focused or scattered your mind is. Are you able to focus your attention on one thing at a time, or do you find yourself being easily distracted? Davidson’s research shows attention plays a key role in emotional regulation.

The most important finding in Davidson’s research is that we also have the capacity to change our emotional styles.

New research has found that genes which are associated with our emotional temperament can gradually change their expression based on our environment, behaviors, and life experiences. And through mental training like mindfulness meditation and CBT, we can rewire our brains to respond to emotions in different ways.

In a recent interview, Davidson says:

    “I think that we’ve learned a lot about what can induce these plastic changes in the brain. It’s quite similar to engaging in physical exercise or learning to play a musical instrument or chess. All of these require regular practice in order to become more fluent in them, and it’s the same for happiness. Well-being can be thought of as a skill; you learn it better when you practice it over time. Many of my suggestions in that last chapter of the book come from different strands of research, but they all point to the idea that we can take responsibility for our own brain. Often, we leave our emotional patterns to happenstance and we don’t intentionally cultivate them. But we shouldn’t think of emotional style as any different than cognitive skills, or activities with a tradition of intentional training. Eastern contemplative tradition, and particularly meditation, is exactly this technology of mental exercise. It fosters better habits of mind, and our neuroscientific research has shown this.”

One example of this neuroscience research is Davidson’s findings on the role of the pre-frontal cortex in emotional regulation. Previously, neuroscientists believed that emotions were mostly associated with the amygdala. On the other hand, the pre-frontal cortex was associated with thinking, reason, and problem-solving. These brain regions were once seen as separate entities, but now neuroscientists know they are highly interconnected with one another.

Through brain imaging research, Davidson has found that the more connections there are between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex, the better we tend to be at managing emotions.

In one study, he used electrodes to measure brain activity and then showed participants videos and pictures that elicited feelings such as fear, sadness, or joy. They then measured how long it took for the participant to recover or “bounce back” from these emotionally charged states. Davidson discovered that activity in the left pre-frontal cortex was much higher in individuals who were more resilient to negative emotions. He infers that the left pre-frontal cortex sends inhibitory messages to the amygdala telling it to “quiet down.”

This interrelation between the pre-frontal cortex and amygdala play a big role in determining our “emotional styles.” People with fewer connections tend to be poorer emotional regulators, making them more irritable, quick-tempered, and impatient. They are also less aware of their own emotional states, which makes it more difficult for them to manage their emotions in a healthy way.

emotional life

The Emotional Life of Your Brain is a great book by neuroscientist Richard Davidson that provides practical information on how to better process your emotions.

Strategies for emotional regulation

Psychologists have come up with various strategies to help individuals better regulate their emotions by changing how the brain responds to emotional stimuli. These strategies include:

  • Find out what triggers your emotions to understand what they are caused by.
  • Be more mindful of your inner states by observing your emotions in the moment (both physical and mental components).
  • Describe what you are feeling in a non-judgmental way. State the facts without resorting to labels like “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong.”
  • Investigate emotions by asking yourself questions like, “Why do I feel this way?” or “What are my emotions trying to tell me?” Sometimes there is a logic behind our emotions than we can learn from and improve.
  • Practice responding to emotions in new and constructive ways (for example, exercising, writing, or painting).
  • If possible, try to avoid triggers (behaviors, people, situations, or environments) that may elicit strong negative emotions.
  • If possible, engage in positive activities to reverse negative patterns (such as watching a funny movie or reading an exciting book).
  • Meditate on your breath to help cultivate a more focused, calm, and non-reactive mind. This helps avoid what some psychologists call “emotion mind,” which is when our thoughts and behaviors are completely overrun by emotionally-charged states (like when someone acts out aggressively in the “heat of the moment.”) One resource I recommend is the 100 Breaths Meditation.

These are the most notable ways psychologists have found that we can change our emotional styles.

Please keep in mind however that changing the wiring in your brain is a long and gradual process. You have to make a conscious effort to become more aware of your emotions and how to manage them in different ways – you have to actively choose new ways to think, new ways to behave, and new environments that best suit your emotional style. It’s hard work, but Davidson’s research shows us that it’s possible.

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