3 Ways To Master Emotions Before They Spiral Out Of Control

New Research Offers Insights Into Managing Stress Before Exploding Into Anger

Tony Fischer (CC-BY)

It’s a common experience — you’re running late, zipping through traffic, when another driver unexpectedly and aggressively cuts you off. Your blood starts boiling, expletives fly, and you lean in on the horn as if to blast the driver away.

Research and conventional wisdom suggest those feelings of intense anger aren’t healthy. So what can be done to control those emotions before they escalate into Incredible Hulk levels of rage?

Many approaches to managing intense emotional outbursts focus on actions that can be taken in the moment — deep breathing or guided meditation — but psychologist Lisa Barrett Feldman said she believes actions should be taken well in advance.

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In her book “How Emotions Are Made,” Barrett offers a revolutionary new way of thinking about our feelings. She makes the case that emotions — rather than automatic reactions to the world — are mental constructs shaped largely by context and prior experience.

According to her theory of “constructed emotion,” when someone cuts you off, your brain is not automatically reacting to a reckless driver. Instead, multiple neural networks are working in tandem to offer a prediction on how best to respond, perhaps by increasing heart rate or dilating your pupils. Those biological signals, in turn, get interpreted as an emotional state. The logic follows that by changing your mental model of the world, you can affect how those emotional states get interpreted.

“If your past experience is one ingredient in making your emotions in the present, then what you experience today will be the seeds for new predictions in the future,” she said.

Barrett offered three suggestions to start sowing those seeds now to stay calm in the future.

Be open to new experiences and ideas

Feelings of anger can often be rooted in a sense of perceived danger, even if there’s no imminent threat present. For instance, research shows when our political views are challenged, there’s increased brain activity in regions relating to identity, threat response and emotion.

By exposing yourself to different ideas and perspectives, Barrett believes you can drain the potential threat they pose, much in the same way that exposure therapy can reduce anxiety disorders.

Develop a rich emotional vocabulary

While it may sound unrelated on first glance, crafting a sophisticated emotional lexicon can, in fact, help manage emotions.

“Words are linked to concepts that your brain uses effortlessly as the guesses that are the basis for your emotions,” Barrett said. “Having the ability to construct emotions with fine grain distinctions really helps your brain control your actions.”

By becoming a “sommelier of your emotions,” she said people can better equip their brains to respond in a given situation. And the benefits aren’t solely limited to emotional control. Young children who were trained in emotion words for 20-30 minutes per week performed better in school and showed improved social behavior.

Take care of yourself

While hardly groundbreaking, Barrett said age-old self-care advice still holds true: get enough sleep, eat properly and exercise.

Barrett likened the brain to a finance department that’s responsible for managing a company’s deposits and withdrawals. Much in the same way, our brains have to balance the body’s energy needs against available resources.

“It’s very hard to have the energy to (proactively manage stress) when your body budget is already in the red because you haven’t slept enough or exercised properly,” she said. “I know it sounds like I’m being a mother here, but I’m actually being a neuroscientist.”