Let Your Emotions Live: Strategies and Tips for Emotional Regulation and Well-Being

2024-01-01 07:23:00

This means first of all stopping denying that we are all affected by negative emotions. Some people consider themselves immune and systematically reject them, others think that they are the only ones to suffer them. Letting your emotions live means accepting them and learning to recognize them in order to be able to do something with them and feel better afterwards.

How do you learn to recognize your emotions?

Emotions manifest in three ways: physiological changes in our body, changes in our thoughts, and a tendency to react. When emotions have been present for a longer time, they can also manifest themselves through rumination and intrusive thoughts.

For people who have repressed their emotions for a long time, it is even more complicated to accept them. What do you recommend ?

It is essential to learn, cultivate and transmit emotion education. Ideally, you should start very young, as early as possible. Teach children to recognize their emotions. Studies show that simply naming them correctly can already calm them down to some extent. The context of the experience of the emotion is also essential to take into account. Where I was, what I was doing, what happened when I started feeling bad. All these observations can be recorded daily in a notebook. We then give space to our emotions, and the regulation process is initiated.

How does emotional regulation work?

In the very short term, it’s not always pleasant to put your finger on your emotion, but in the longer term, it has a much more positive effect than repressing it. An emotion correctly felt, named and accepted is a maximum of 40 minutes of discomfort. So, yes, sometimes you have to take the time to cry, but it’s relieving. When the emotion is fully experienced, the parasympathetic nervous system is triggered: it is the system that regulates all of the individual’s bodily functions automatically. If left to work properly, it is much more effective than any antidepressant!

Stéphanie Hahusseau is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. © DR

In 2022, one in four Belgians have used psychotropic drugs, including many antidepressants. With what consequences on emotional regulation?

The problem with using antidepressants is that it pathologizes emotions, it sends the message “You don’t know how to regulate your emotions yourself, the medication will do it for you”. The patient becomes completely intolerant of emotions, and this leads to frustration when he still feels them – which is, we remind you, inevitable. So to the negative emotion is added a second negative emotion which makes the situation worse. The medication helps calm the emotion, but he doesn’t learn how to do it naturally. We become dependent on it.

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Beyond the individual, there is also a certain intolerance of emotions in our society. Where do you think it comes from?

I am not a sociologist, but I think that it is a residue of the period of wars, when people were mainly mobilized for vital things, like eating, having a roof, surviving. These shortcomings, coupled with deep trauma, impacted the next generation, that of the Baby Boomers, who saw the burial of trauma and emotions in their parents, and reproduced this pattern. The next generation, the Millennials, suffered from this and in response tried to overprotect their children, creating a significant intolerance to frustration among them.

“Live in the present moment”, “Decide to be happy”: the injunctions to positive emotions are numerous. Why is this a problem?

In reality, injunctions for positive emotions create negative emotions. If we feel a negative emotion and we receive the injunction to get better, we will not get better, because it doesn’t work like that, it’s not a choice. But in addition to continuing to feel this initial negative emotion, we will also feel guilty for not being able to get better! Result: we find ourselves with twice as much physical and mental discomfort. Nothing worse, when you’re angry, than hearing “Calm down”!

We observe significant differences in the management of emotions between men and women.

In the history of emotions, men have long been considered rational and women emotional. To be a man, you had to be strong, stoic, not cry. The only acceptable emotion was anger. Other emotions, such as sadness, shame, fear, were considered “weak” emotions, reserved for women. What remains today is that women communicate much more about their emotions, while men completely deny them. Of course, it’s a caricature: some men listen to their emotions, but not the majority.

Furthermore, work has shown that men often use women to regulate their own emotions: when they are frustrated, they can exhibit problematic behaviors, such as complaining excessively, demanding sex, or even being violent. What men consider to be an irrepressible sexual need is nothing other than emotional malregulation, which they will seek to calm by activating the famous parasympathetic nervous system through sexual relations. But we can activate this system differently, by listening to our emotions for example.

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So these emotional differences between men and women have no biological origin?

No not at all. It’s completely acquired. Depending on whether you are born a man or a woman, we will teach you to (not) manage your emotions differently. We talk more about emotions with little girls, we value action more in little boys: “He’s a boy, he’s turbulent”. But in therapy, I see it clearly: men who start working on emotions are as quick and gifted as women.

You have an interesting theory about the difference in life expectancy between men and women…

Men die earlier on average. For me, this is particularly linked to their tendency to neglect their emotions. They are less attentive to what they feel, take less care of themselves internally. Result: there is more repression of emotions, violent acts, taking substances, etc.

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You say “Having ups and downs is not being bipolar, it’s being normal”.

In many people’s minds, emotional normality is a flat line. However, the flat line, in medicine, is a sign that the patient is dead! It’s the same thing for emotions. Emotional normality is regular variability, even if it is not intense. We get pushed around in the street, we get upset: negative micro-emotion. The weather is nice: positive micro-emotion. These situations are very common, and the route is never flat. The person who really worries me is the one who doesn’t feel anything.

So who doesn’t express anything?

Those are two different things. People often say that to regulate, you have to express. Not necessarily. Regulating emotion means feeling it, naming it, accepting it. It is a personal process, which can only be done within oneself. Expression to others is not necessarily necessary.

There are clear links between poor emotion regulation and health problems.

Yes, we observe somatization (physical symptoms that reflect a psychological problem), gastrointestinal diseases, such as ulcers, or skin diseases, for example. At the psychological level, there is more isolation, more problematic social and emotional bonds, more substance consumption. In my practice, I see depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, obsessions, eating disorders, etc.

What place should we reserve for emotions in our society?

In my opinion, education on emotions should be integrated into schools and into medical and teaching programs, or even planned for future parents. We should all take the time for interoception (the perception of bodily sensations and the internal state of the body) to learn to recognize and regulate our emotions. Many people also have unresolved trauma buried within them. And it is urgent to change the norms: value people who listen to their emotions. Explain that true bravery is not never crying, but facing what you feel.

Let your emotions live, by Stéphanie Hahusseau © Editions Odile Jacob

Let your emotions live, by Stéphanie Hahusseau. Odile Jacob Editions. 2022. 208 pages. €18.90.

“Too many people still choose to have children out of conformity”
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