Never before had I appreciated the subtle distinctions of what emotions are, until now. After attending the first Break the Silence, an Asian American mental health conference, I better understand my emotions to better stay calm and act according to my values, even if I’m upset or feeling down.
Here’s 17 lessons I learned after sitting in on the conference Breakout Session 2’s “DBT Workshop: Skills for Managing Distress Related to Invalidation,” presented by Paul Holmes, a Dialectical Behavior Therapy practitioner, founder of Emotion Management Program LLC, and lecturer at University of Chicago:
1. Emotions serve an evolutionary function. Every emotion has a purpose. They developed to help us take care of ourselves. Just as we feel physical pain when we touch a hot stove, emotional pain directs us to take our hand off the emotionally painful stovetop. If you feel hurt, do self-care. If you feel anger, don’t overextend yourself and instead observe your limitations.
2. Emotions are taught. You have “feels” even before you can talk with human language, but feels aren’t emotions. Emotions are reactions to events that exist in perpetual motion. Society and parents teach you to feel certain emotions in specific situations, like how anxiety is a rapid heartbeat, an unsettled stomach, and not knowing. Moreover, that’s why people react with different emotions to similar situations: when lurching on a roller coaster and your gut drops, some folks are exhilarated whereas others are terrified.
3. Emotion is the interplay of feedback loops between 7 different entities.First (roughly speaking), an event triggers a reaction in you. Second, your brain receives the data. Third, your mind interprets the data into information, expressing it in thoughts and ideas. Fourth, your mind and brain cause physiological changes in your body, including mood and affect. Fifth, you outwardly display a change like scrunching your face or adjusting your body language. Sixth, the after-effects of these changes occur, like feeling depleted after feeling really angry. Seventh (and most critically), you reflect on your emotion, and your acceptance, trust, or distrust of your experience can create another event that triggers a new emotional reaction.
4. If you grow up in an invalidating environment, then it’s likely that you distrust your emotions, which will trigger runaway emotions that beat you up emotionally. If parents and environment teach you to ignore or disregard your feelings, you develop distrust of what your emotions tell you because you never pay attention to them. Rather than address the fundamental causes of your irritation, you second-guess your emotions and continue to find additional reasons for irritation.
5. Mood is long-lasting whereas affect is 3–90 seconds long. If you’re walked into a classroom feeling dysphoric, you’ll likely walk out that way. But during a lecture, you might do all the following: laugh at a joke, feel offended by an off-comment, and have a small eureka moment of delight. These reactions are affect, and they are rapidly changing and short-lived. Surprisingly, affect and not mood is the foundation of runaway emotions.
6. Runaway emotions are caused by re-traumatization by thoughts & ideas, in a train of increasingly escalating affect. During the 90 seconds when an event triggers an affect, you can become more even more irritated if you keep thinking about it, “Why did I do that?” “I’m a terrible person,” “Every one knows I’m a terrible person,” “Nobody will ever like me.” But if you can tolerate severely negative affect for 90 seconds, then the ill feelings will pass, and you can stay present in the moment and do what you need to do.
7. Unfortunately, because humans have big brains, anything can trigger a thought or idea from the past that unleashes runaway emotions. Words are pavlovian. Our big brains respond to words like how the ringing of a bell can induce salivation in dogs. Just hearing certain word combinations automatically triggers emotions. So just going about in your everyday life can still be really upsetting.
8. There are 3 main ways of thinking yourself into an upset longer-lasting mood.
- Re-living negative past experiences over and over
- Preparing for or dreading an imagined terrible future
- Comparing your present negative state with how good things should be and feeling bad
What these thought patterns share in common is that they are not actionable. You can’t fix what’s in the past, and you can’t respond to a future that doesn’t exist. Dwelling on how much better things could be right now doesn’t involve taking action now to make things better.
9. Mindfulness (plus other things) defeat runaway emotions. Rather than being taken for a ride by your thoughts, mindfulness teaches you to witness your thoughts. You separate yourself from your thoughts. You are an observer who interacts with thoughts. Instead of doing what your thoughts tell you to do, you pick and choose which thoughts to engage with. By doing so, you can ignore the thoughts that lead to runaway emotions.
10. The first half of mindfulness is learning to see thoughts like objects in the sky. Imagine this. Your mind is the sky. Planes, clouds, and birds pass through the sky. You don’t control what flies through the sky. The sky contains but is not the same as the plane or clouds that pass through it. Just the same, your thoughts pass through your mind. Furthermore, if you can see your thoughts as objects, you can choose to interact with them.
11. The second half of mindfulness is choosing to interact with thoughts like chairs and tables in a room. When I’m an a room, I can grab a chair if I need to use it a step-ladder. However, I might just leave a bunch of other tables and chairs alone because I don’t need them. Based on what you need, you can can pick and choose which thoughts to engage with. Mindfulness is not relaxation. Mindfulness is the practice of putting your attention on and continuing to interact with a particular chair, rather than identifying with the newest thoughts that happen to pass. (Also, yes — there’s lots of different totally valid definitions of mindfulness, but this is the one put forward in the presentation).
12. To understand your emotions, validate them. Emotions are useful. They tell you what to do. If you feel hurt, do self-care. If you have a really intense emotion, then that means there’s something very important for you to take care of. Overactive minds ruminate to avoid emotion, but often we only need to grieve and feel sad. Validate your emotions when you have them, even if that means taking a break and really feeling your feelings. There’s no wrong emotion, only invalidating environments that make you believe that some emotions don’t matter.
13. After validating your emotions, act according to your values… even if you’re angry or sad. All too often, because we rarely validate our emotions, we actually reduce the amount of actions we can do successfully because we’re too upset or dysphoric. By embracing our emotional truth, we can ground ourselves to act according to our values, even if it’s scary or unpleasant. The more you act according to your values, the better you will understand your emotions because your emotions will begin to connect you to the life you want to live instead of more runaway emotions.
14. Good parenting is validating emotions while setting limits. Kids are increasingly anxious or emotionally blocked because parents either set limits without validating emotions, or they validate emotions without setting limits. In both cases, kids fail to learn how to connect their emotions to how they should interact with the world. You need both to be an adult who acts according to their values. When you act according to your values, you do so (ideally) even if you’re upset. As you grow up, you can feel your feelings while still doing what you decide to do.
15. Good emotional practice is about learning to observe your limitations. Some conventional wisdom recommends setting emotional boundaries that other people should observe. This approach inevitably leads to broken boundaries and trespasses. The fact of life is some folks will overstep your boundaries. Much like defensive driving, it’s better to observe your own limitations. What do you do to stay safe? At first, you can trust folks. But if they betray your trust, you can respond differently.
16. Bipolar and border personality disorder are often misdiagnosed when it is actually a type of affect disorder. Rather than take handfuls of pills for your various runaway emotions, which eventually damage your body in overmedication, many folks can take control of their affect using DBT, dialectical behavioral therapy or ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy. These practices use mindfulness plus other things to prevent runaway emotions.
17. To learn more, try these two books. The workshop giver Paul Holmes recommended me the Happiness Trap. In my brief research, the DBT Therapeutic Activity Ideas for Working with Teens has what Paul Holmes was lecturing about with exercises like STOP, TIP, and ACCEPTS. (And no I’m not being paid to recommend these books, and I haven’t read them).
Note that the topics covered here center around mindfulness, which is only 1 out of the 4 components of DBT. If you want to start with DBT, practice mindfulness i.e. meditate at the beginning or end of your day for 5 minutes using a timer. Doing so will help you gain clarity to see your thoughts and feel your emotions.