What A Trout Can Teach Us About Emotion: Part Two of Two

Heidi S. Lepper, Ph.D. © 2012

We humans want to live happy, healthy lives. We all want a sense a purpose and meaning. We would prefer to be useful and connected. We want to be liked and to be right. We want to be physically healthy, free from illness and disease. No one wakes up in the morning and says: “I want to have a crappy day! I want to be thoroughly disliked and wrong all day! I want to be sick and tired morning, noon and night!” Of course not! Instead, we all wake up wanting a good day. And, we also want to feel our emotions. None of us wants to feel robotic.

And yet nearly day in and day out for most of us our emotions and moods get the better of us. We are mad at one person but take it out on another, we are feeling unhappy in one relationship and so make a mess of another, we don't get up and strap on those running shoes no matter how many times we promised ourselves the night before we would, we don't know how to handle the emotions in our kids, we get caught up time and again keeping up those dang Joneses! Shall I go on?

Or perhaps instead you may be one who is doing well feeling successful and blessed and appreciating what you have. You may be largely happy with your spouse and kids and lot in life but at times you may be thinking, “Gosh why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?! Why cannot I not get passed ‘x’?! How can I be okay one moment and then the next become totally anxious/angry/sad/disgusted?”

Now, as far as our emotions and feelings are concerned many of us get stuck either over reacting to people or events or stuffing it and then having it explode later. We are living in a contemporary world with contemporary problems but with a brain and physiology that often reacts as though we are still cavemen, cavewomen, and cavechildren! No tigers in the jungle lurk and yet we somehow react to the frustrating people around us as though there is!

In Part One of this two-part series I use the analogy of  trout to help you understand the concept of refraction -- the physiological response in ALL humans that when strong emotion is felt we become rigid, self-righteous and unable to take in new information but that this response diminishes over time naturally and later on we can see things more clearly. Depending on our life situation, we may feel angry, sad, nervous or overwhelmed and stressed. We may be unmotivated or highly controlling. We may complain ad nauseam about life. We may be detached from those we are meant to love. We may blame our dissatisfactions on our relationships, job, or even the weather patterns. Or perhaps we just feel totally overwhelmed. Despite our best early morning intentions, something triggers us along the way and we end up having a stressful, crappy day and feeling sick and tired by the end. We may not understand why we are feeling something on one occasion or ‘acting emotionally’ in another. And yet we all wake up wishing for and hoping for a good day.

You know what? You can! Every single day. By keeping the analogy of the trout close to your heart you will come to see your emotions, feelings, moods in a brand new way! This is only a good thing for you and your loved ones and all the others you meet up with!

First and foremost, you are not alone! In all humans, research of the last several decades shows, that our brains work more from the primitive emotional core to the higher level thinking center (largely right behind your forehead!) than the reverse. That means emotions highjack thought more often than thoughts highjack emotions...this is why it is so hard to talk yourself or anyone else out of FEELING some way. But this does not mean there are NOT pathways that go from thinking to feeling! So this means with awareness and practice you can start to eliminate and tone down your emotional reactions that you know to be harmful, unhelpful, and so forth and learn more quickly to be temperate in your responses and therefore more joyful, motivated, and simply put, fun and nice to be around! 

FIX 1. Sleep. Sorry folks, you all need 8-9 hours of sleep every night, night after night, week after week to feel and react the way you ideally want to. First things first, if you are flying off the handle, feel overwhelmed, blue, disgusted by humanity, you need to make certain you are not sleep deprived (and most of you are!). I can go on ad nauseam about the role sleep plays in this but for now I will leave the topic to the above. Trust me I will come back to it in future blogs. :)  

FIX 2. Float your tongue. I do hope you read my blog about this a few weeks back (Just Chill, Be Still) and have already begun the daily practice. If not, please take a moment to go back and read it and then float your tongue! Again, what this serves to do is tone down overall your errant, overactive, negative thinking. You are going to have a hard time with all your emotions, feeling, and moods when your inner self talk is incessant! Floating your tongue will slowly over time build within you mindfulness. And it is that that you need to respond in the ways you so want.

FIX 3. Grab a mirror! The refractory period (again in all humans this is a period of time while in strong emotion) reduces our sense of ourselves, it takes away our self-awareness, our guiding moral forces as such. We can all practice having our thinking brain, the part that tells us it is not okay to scream and yell (I am assuming you all agree that it is indeed largely harmful to go on a verbal rampage), come to the forefront more quickly by invoking our self-awareness. We know that two things can immediately bring forth our self-awareness: our name being said and a reflection of ourself. So unless you want to talk around calling out your own name when you are mad at your kids, or at the kid who beat your kid at basketball, or at your boss because of he's making you work the holiday...keep a mirror handy at least for a while (hang an extra one in your house -- near the kitchen is good, keep one in your purse at basketball games, or duck out to the restroom). This will work! You will go to that mirror and immediately come to your senses and remind yourself what exactly your goal in the situation is.

In fact, if you have an adventurous spirit, try this (I did this one for years with my college students and they'd always come back amazed!): Go in the bathroom and stand with your back to the mirror and put on your angriest expression. Get yourself really angry over something and imprint that emotion on your face. Imagine how your face feels when you’re enraged then wear it! Now turn around and look!

Ooh! That is the face others see! Pretty? Not at all if it looks anything like my angry face! I go back to the first time I saw my own angry face and can call upon it when I am trying to not respond with vicious anger even when feeling viciously angry!

Some of us have a naturally high level of self-awareness. It starts very young. By the age of 2 all human beings have the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror. But from that point on, we start to diverge a bit from each other in terms of our ability to understand who we are. We begin to differ in our level of awareness about our inner thoughts and feelings (part of emotional intelligence). We are taught different things as young children (I live in Moscow, Russia right now so I can speak directly to what we are taught as children does impact how we relate facially as adults!). We relate in emotional ways to our parents and that gives us insight, or lack of insight, into our own awareness. But I believe strongly that, while some of us come to self-awareness naturally, the rest of us can learn it whatever our age. But learning self-awareness will require time, commitment and practice just like anything else we are trying to learn. The more we do it, the better we get at it. Ultimately you choose to become aware.

Finally, understanding the purpose, power, and outcomes of your emotions, feelings, and moods will help you achieve a happier daily life as well as a physically healthier body.  Ultimately that means you will feel more at ease and less worried. You will have more loving relationships or be more effective with your kids.  You will hear your spouse better and make yourself heard better. You will be able to tackle your work and activities in more balanced and yet motivated way. And, this will work for you no matter where you live, no matter the weather patterns, no matter what the neighbor next door is doing.

From all of this you will learn to slow down your own emotional responses through understanding the analogy of a trout – or so I lay my bets. This does not mean at all that the goal is to become unemotional. We humans need emotional connection. Feelings and emotions allow us to bond with our babies, love our partners year after year, have motivation to help others, show compassion and ideally promote good mood in others. The goal is to become temperate! Your emotional life will then be expressed in the right amount, at the right time and done without harm. You will experience emotion but in a constructive, balanced and healthy way.

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