“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”
~ Oscar Wilde
I was under a lot of pressure.
Cash flow and sales were down at my company. The bank was rethinking their support of us and demanding an urgent meeting.
I was also feeling anxious and dreading my son’s impending travel to the UK. He was leaving our home in Ghana to study in England.
I was driving toward the bank for the meeting when I crossed a traffic light that was yellow—not red, but yellow. One hour later, after an ill-advised argument with two police officers, I was being led to the police station and asked to make a statement. Things were spiralling from bad to worse.
After apologizing, paying a fine for an offence that I didn’t commit and having most of my day wasted, I felt stressed and drained. I drove to my favourite spot overlooking the ocean to sit and reflect. I had been an emotional mess for the past few weeks, and this was the universe reminding me that I needed to relax, or things might just spiral from worse to disaster.
Having an emotional breakdown is quite different from a physical breakdown—the kind that comes from not eating well, lack of sleep or ignoring our need to exercise.
Our emotions rule our daily lives and influence our decisions. If we can’t understand them, we will be controlled by them.
So what are emotions?
“An emotion is a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological response, and a behavioural or expressive response.” (Hockenbury & Hockenbury, 2007)
The Subjective Experience:
Emotions are highly subjective. Something that enrages us, might cause only mild dissatisfaction for others.
The Physiological Response:
Emotions cause strong physiological reactions, from racing heartbeats of excitement when we finish running a race to feeling our stomach lurch when we are anxious about a job interview. Brain scans have shown that the amygdala, part of the limbic system, is responsible for the response and memory of emotions, especially fear.
The Behavioural Response:
Emotions we feel internally, we then express externally. We smile to indicate pleasure and frown to imply pain, at the most basic level.
Emotional wellbeing is more than just learning how to cope with stress, or developing a meditation practice.
We can influence our emotional wellbeing by making these five choices, and coming back to them, again and again, whenever we start to feel ourselves sliding:
1. Realizing that our emotions don’t define us:
We are not our thoughts. We are not our emotions. We are rather the observer who sits behind and watches these thoughts and emotions appear. As we grow and understand that we don’t have to identify with emotions, whether we perceive them to be negative or positive, we start to catch ourselves in the midst of expressing them.
After my unsavoury incident with the police, just watching the ocean from afar calmed me down enough to see that my reactions were not necessary and were actually rather stupid.
True, I was having a tough time, but expressing this senselessly was not the solution.
2. Facing our emotions:
Pain is part of life—the part that allows us to grow most. We need to be able to sit with our feelings and feel the sadness or anger when someone hurts us, or when we think life has dealt us a bad hand—we need to cry our eyes out if we have to.
We need to feel guilty when we hurt someone and it’s too late to do anything about it. We need to feel the regret of not getting what we wanted. We can’t run away and numb our feelings. The more we try to avoid those negative feelings, the stronger they come back to haunt us.
When my son left home, I would walk up the staircase to his room and feel its emptiness. I would sit with my feelings and cry for a while alone locked up in his room. I needed to express my sadness and feel how much I had missed him.
3. Remembering that we are enough:
When our self-esteem is high, it forms a base upon which our entire personality, behaviour and circumstances are built. As a result, our experiences validate and thereby strengthen our self-image.
When we feel enough and are content with what we have in our lives, then we stop judging, blaming and comparing ourselves. And when we actively remind ourselves with gratitude prayers or mantras, then we know that the effects of negative circumstances won’t last; our glowing self-image comes out to remind us that emotions are temporary but our true self is permanent
Every morning when I wake up, I journal the three to five things that I’m grateful for. That could mean being thankful for the state of my children’s health to the delicious croissant I had in the morning.
4. Refocusing on connection in our relationships:
We have an inner need to belong and connect. Relationships are the bedrock of our emotional wellbeing. No matter how strong we feel we are, we need to have relationships that nurture and sustain our strength throughout our lives.
Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, states in his famous TED talk that people with healthy relationships live much happier and longer lives. The study focuses on having fewer but deeper longstanding relationships.
5. Finding fun and laughter:
We need to have some time where we can have fun, let our hair down and just forget all about our everyday stresses. When we laugh regularly, it’s like emptying the “stress” garbage bag that we fill up in numerous ways each day.
Laughter is a way we connect to each other. We communicate and express our emotions through laughter. It’s a spiritual form of communing—a way we can tell each other, without words: “I get you.”
It’s common knowledge that children laugh much more than adults and as such live with less stress. An article by Psychology Today, states that the average four-year-old laughs 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old? Only four.
Emotional wellbeing is simply the state of our mental health—how we are feeling about ourselves and our lives.
We will all face setbacks, personal crisis and sometimes traumatic incidents that could spiral our lives downwards.
However, when we take stock of the things that are within our control, the choices we are able to make, we can influence our emotional wellbeing. We can maintain our inner harmony despite what may be going on outside and around us.
Author: Mo Issa
Image: The Awkward Yeti
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren