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How to find calm when you’re feeling crazy

Introducing emotion recognition!

Here in the West, we have a strange relationship with our emotions. We particularly try to avoid negative emotions: in fact, we’ll do just about anything to not feel those – drink, take drugs, shop, watch TV, gamble. Addiction is largely fueled by this desire to avoid our negative emotions.

So here’s a radical, revolutionary and somewhat scary concept – what if you were to actually lean in to your emotions, and pull them towards you, like weights in a gym? I call this practice emotion recognition, and it involves moving towards your emotions instead of trying to push them away. It’s a discipline, and you work it like a muscle.

What emotion recognition means, ultimately, is that your emotions are okay. It’s okay to have them, and it’s okay to feel them. In fact, you need to feel them, for the sake of your emotional well being.

To work with your depression and anxiety effectively, you need to actually feel the sadness, rather than push it away. Sounds crazy, but the quickest way is through! Feeling your feelings will help you get through them quicker, and out the other side.

The latest science demonstrates that emotion recognition can help you to become more resilient. When difficult things happen, you’ll still experience sadness, but your system will recover faster – just as an athlete’s cardiovascular system recovers more quickly than that of someone who sits on the couch all day.

Accepting your emotions

According to new research reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, embracing our darker emotions, rather than trying to escape them, is more likely to benefit our psychological health in the long term.

In a study of more than 1,300 adults, researchers found that subjects who reported trying to avoid negative emotions in response to bad experiences were more likely to have symptoms of mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, six months later, compared with those who embraced their negative emotions.1

Seems strange, right? But it turns out it’s all about acceptance. This is true whether the issue is embracing our good or bad attributes or accepting the way we look – or the way we feel.

In the study, the research team set out to determine how acceptance of negative emotions – such as sadness, disappointment and anger – might influence psychological health. The participants completed a survey in which they were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with certain statements, such as ‘I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way that I’m feeling.’

In three different experiments, researchers found that participants who had lower agreement with such statements as these – indicating a greater acceptance of negative feelings – showed higher levels of psychological wellbeing, compared with subjects who attempted to resist negative feelings. They also found that participants who tried to avoid feeling negativity about certain tasks were more likely to experience distress, compared with subjects who embraced any negative feelings.

‘We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health,’ says senior study author Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

‘Overall, the team believes that when bad things happen, it may be better to let negative emotions run their course rather than trying to avoid them. It turns out that how we approach our own negative emotional reactions is really important for our overall wellbeing. People who accept these emotions without judging or trying to change them are able to cope with their stress more successfully.’2

I know that leaning in to your feelings in this way may seem strange. And unfamiliar. And frightening. And it’s probably the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling anxious and depressed. But it is, in fact, what works. Our time-honoured, knee-jerk reaction of trying to avoid our feelings just doesn’t work to make us feel better. And if you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re just going to get the results you’ve always had.

Emotion recognition in action

So, are you willing to give emotion recognition a try? Here’s how you can start practising it right this minute.

  • Imagine that you’re turning directly towards whatever emotion you’re experiencing right now, until it’s immediately in front of you. Take a moment to perceive it. Does it have a colour, a weight, a shape, a texture? Is it sharp, or dull?
  • Now inhale that emotion straight into your heart, breathing in deeply through your nose. That’s right: it seems counterintuitive and crazy, but it won’t harm you. Just suck that feeling straight into you.
  • At the top of your in-held breath, pause for a moment and think of all the other people in the world who are feeling exactly the same thing as you are right now. There are millions of them out there! Then exhale slowly through your mouth, silently saying the word ‘peace’, with the intention of creating peace for yourself and for everyone else.
  • Complete the third step three times. The second time, breathe out ‘serenity’. And the third time, exhale ‘strength’ – for yourself and everyone else.
  • Continue with this practice until your perception of the emotion begins to shift. If you wish, you can continue the experience, working with this new perception. How has it shifted? What’s the colour, weight, shape, texture of the emotion now?
  • Inhale this new emotion into your heart. Pause to connect with all the millions of people out there who are feeling exactly the same thing as you are right this minute. Then exhale slowly through your mouth, silently saying peace, then serenity and then strength – for yourself and for everyone else.

This practice allows you to assimilate your emotions so that you can absorb them – just as you chew up food in order to digest it. Same process.

Emotion recognition with others

You can practise emotion recognition with those around you, as well. Instead of trying to ‘cheer up’ a person or fix their problem, try just agreeing with them: ‘Wow, that is really sad. I would feel sad too.’ Then just sit with them while they experience their emotion.

That’s it! Simple, but incredibly difficult at the same time – because it’s exactly the opposite of what we’re used to. And revolutionary: as you’ll find out if you start putting emotion recognition to work in your life.

Here’s another example of the practice in action. Imagine that a child has lost a treasured teddy bear: maybe it’s been left on the train, and is now gone for good. Tears and panic! Can you feel an impulse rising in you to distract, to diminish, to try to buy the child off with something? What are the things we normally say, in a situation like that?

‘Come on now, don’t cry.’ (Just deny your feelings.)

‘If you’re a good girl, I’ll buy you another teddy.’ (Hello, online shopping habit.)

‘Cheer up: have a cookie!’ (Learn to squash your feelings by consuming sugar.)

‘What a big fuss about nothing. That teddy was old anyway.’ (Your feelings aren’t valid. It’s wrong to be sad.)

Imagine that, instead of saying these things, you just sit with the child and agree with her feelings: acknowledging the rightness of them. What if you even help her put words to her feelings? She’ll still feel sad, but at least she won’t feel alone. Feeling isolated is one of the worst things about experiencing pain.

What if you say, ‘I can see that you feel sad. I would feel sad too. It’s really hard, when you lose something you love.’ And then imagine that you just sit there, offering your support while the child works her way through and processes her feelings.

I’ve done this with my own children, and I can tell you that it produces startling results. They are now more emotionally resilient. Like an athlete in training whose heart rate rapidly returns to normal after exercise, children trained in emotion recognition recover more quickly. Sure, they still feel sad when bad things happen – but they bounce.

Emotion recognition in business

You can take this knowledge to work with you, as well. I use emotion recognition in every aspect of my business, Chuckling Goat. We don’t ask our employees to leave their feelings at the door: we instruct them to bring them in. We’re all about authenticity, and we believe that gold star leadership involves being courageous enough to let your team see your emotions.

Why does this work? Well, imagine a typical CEO of a Fortune 500 business. Which emotions would you imagine he would express, or permit, in the workplace? When I asked my team this question, they suggested aggression, anger, power, dominance, intimidation and irritation.

That’s hardly the full, rich spectrum of human emotion, is it? In fact, most of them aren’t emotions at all: they’re just strategies for controlling people. We’ve long associated emotions with being weak, unprofessional, hysterical and feminine. As a young reporter, I was upset after receiving some hate mail, and I went to ask my female boss for advice. Her response? ‘Get a thicker skin.’

The adjective businesslike is commonly used as the antithesis of emotional. It’s just business is a phrase that’s often used to justify some horrific betrayal.

And yet…and yet…

At Chuckling Goat, emotion recognition has played a big part in our success. Why?

Because until now, the traditional business world has gotten it all wrong when it comes to emotion. Literally 180 degree, upside-down wrong. There’s a pivotal piece of information that’s been missing from the equation, and it’s why we should be embracing emotion in business rather that leaving it at the door: emotion is the major driver of human decision-making.

This is the dirty secret of the human brain: you make your decisions not on the logical side of your brain, but on the emotional side. The logical side of your brain can build up arguments all day long, but the actual moment of decision comes from the emotional side: the side that deals with humour, colour, narrative.

Scientists know this because of the groundbreaking work of Antonio Damasio. This Portuguese-American neurologist worked with a successful lawyer called ‘Elliot’ who underwent surgery on the right side of his brain to remove a tumour.

After the surgery, Elliot was able to function normally in many ways, but he could no longer make even the simplest decisions. The arguments would stack up endlessly, but the magical moment of choosing would never occur. It couldn’t: because the emotional side of his brain had been damaged.3

You can use logic and reason and make pro-con lists all day long, but at the end of the day, it’s the emotional side of your brain that drives you to actual action – including the decision to purchase a product. That’s just how decisions are made.

Customers buy from companies that they know, like and trust, because they decide to purchase something based on emotion. Fail to connect with your customers, and your business will fail. Connect successfully using narrative and emotion, and your business will explode – as ours has done.

And when a manager is brave enough to bring his or her emotions into the workplace – in a vulnerable, authentic way – it creates a sense of loyalty among the team that makes them unbreakable. Alignment is the Holy Grail of management, and employees don’t align to a robotic, aggressive, controlling leader. They align with a real human being whom they trust.

Emotion recognition in a nutshell

So here’s a summary of the practice:

Myth It’s best to avoid or deny your negative emotions, and keep a ‘stiff upper lip’.

Fact People who accept their negative emotions actually experience fewer negative emotions, and recover from them faster.

Myth Emotion has no place in business.

Fact Decisions are made on the emotional side of the brain. Customers buy from brands they know, like and trust. Team members align to leaders who authentically show their emotions, and demonstrate that they’re trustworthy.

It’s all about emotion. So, validate those emotions at home and at work – for yourself, for your family, for your team and for your customers!

This is an excerpt from Shann’s new book The Kefir Solution: Natural Healing for IBS, Depression and Anxiety. Click here to find out more.

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