Emotional control is a phrase that you see thrown around a lot, and it’s both a lot simpler and a lot more complex than we often understand it to be. The phrase itself is an interesting one because it implies that we have the conscious capacity to control our emotional life in the first place; that if we just work hard enough to control our thoughts, we can change how we experience things.
Being aware of your thoughts is an important element of actioning choice in what and how we experience the world but leaving the conversation there is wildly incomplete. It’s also a harmful narrative to spread because it relies on willpower and individual mental agency, that is naturally going to ebb and wane depending on our experience. Some days we might have it in us to stand guard at the edges of our mind. And others, it doesn’t even occur to us to do so; we’ve already been carried away by the emotion or are too tired or overwhelmed to try to resist it, leaving us feeling like a failure.
Where most people centre their focus is around controlling their thoughts and reactions, involving firstly, being aware of the reaction they are having or the emotional state they are in, and secondly, doing something to mediate or control that reaction.
We might seek to understand more about the triggers and then beyond that, look to control the mind and body by manipulating the breath in some way, or through dissociation or distraction (affirmations, listening to music etc.).
There are a couple of key elements that are almost always excluded from the conversation, and they are the physical and unconscious factors that are fundamental in the creation and experience of emotion. Without understanding or addressing these, you are always going to be chasing your tail. You are only ever be aware of the emotion after you’ve already experienced it. Working in this way means you are never going to be ahead of it.
My work has no goal or destination that we are looking to land at other than creating a nervous system that is adaptable and responsive. Within that, we aren’t looking to control or avoid any experience, but to ensure that the responses that we DO have are accurate for the circumstance. In most situations where we are looking to control our emotional reactions, it is because we believe our response to be inappropriate for or disproportionate for the situation we find ourselves in. Even that is not black and white; it can be that we ARE having an appropriate reaction but social niceties and conditioning cause us to stuff it down anyway.
Back to the physical and the unconscious. Within the stress response of the survival nervous system, there are several different motor reflexes that the body moves through depending on what nervous system response we are in. The fight response, for instance, has its own structural and motor reflex pattern, as does flight, freeze and collapse. They also have a corresponding list of emotional patterns specific to each phase.
If we are stuck in our survival nervous system, emotional control is always going to feel like hard work, because we are living from a nervous system foundation that is primed for reactivity. In fact, when you are in this place, your brain has an increasingly limited capacity to respond anything but reflexively. That’s what the survival nervous system is designed for, after all.
Working to change your emotional experience does involve conscious thought insofar as we make choices about what thoughts we invest in and what stories we perpetuate BUT it also involves shifting your system overall out of a place where it’s stuck in sympathetic, fight/flight programming and in order to do that, you have to look to your motor patterning. This is where movement becomes an integral part of any mindset or mental health work.
For as long as you are wired for your fight/flight nervous system to be the dominant system navigating you through the world, creating shifts in your emotional life is going to feel like tremendous and endless hard work.