Controlling Those Nasty Emotions

By David Ryback, Ph.D.

Over 150 years ago, Charles Darwin satisfied his curiosity about emotions by examining how they were expressed in animals.  Being human, he was somewhat limited in his ability to distinguish the intricacies and subtleties of animal emotional expression.  He settled for two: smiling approval and frowning disapproval.  If you think of your own pets’ emotional expression, that’s not bad for starters.  If not for wagging tails, dogs would be even more discrete about their happiness.  But a fierce growl with bared teeth leaves little doubt about feelings.  Cats are a bit more demure about their inner selves.  But, even absent purring or quick swipes of their claws, we can still sense whether they’re happy or not by their “facial” expression.

More recently, scientists specializing in emotions have expanded the number of basic emotions to six:  happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise.

Jaak Panksepp, in his book, Affective Neuroscience, describing his research on brain stimulation, found seven “semi-independent emotional command circuits,” as he calls them:  Seeking—focusing with intensity, as in Net research, creative writing, etc.; Caring—nurturing with warmth and tenderness; Play and Lust on the positive side; and Rage, Fear, and Sorrow on the negative side.

According to Panksepp, any of these “emotional packages” can persevere until they’re “turned off” by a decisive action.  In other words, we can get lost in Rage or Lust as these emotions are known to overwhelm more thoughtful considerations.  But more surprisingly, we can also get lost in Seeking, as when time “disappears” as we focus on the Internet or a great book or research.  We often see professional athletes or Olympians play through a broken limb, seemingly unaware of the pain, as they get lost in the “neural package” of Play.

Sorrow can go on and on without abatement when depression stakes its claim in our ongoing lives.  What about the combination of Lust and Caring, when we fall into romantic love and obsess with our fantasies!

So, to the extent that Panksepp’s theory of emotions holds water, it is clearly not easy to regulate some of our emotions, particularly when they take hold and we don’t manage such emotions.  On the other hand, if we can make use of our Emotional Awareness of Self, perhaps using the skills of mindfulness, and then use our Adaptability Skills to focus on an emotion of our choice before they become intense and too absorbing, then we have greater control over our emotions.

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