Karen Laing creates innovative programs to bring mindful caregiving to family members and health professionals, is a Certified MBSR instructor, and is the Founder of Birthways and WisdomWay™ Institute. ​

“Emotions are brief, involuntary, full-system, patterned responses to internal and external stimuli”- Marsha Linehan

If you’ve cared for a child, you have likely had many opportunities to help them through big emotions. What is the nature of emotions? What is true about emotions?  Do we even have the answers to explain them?

We have a lifetime of conditioned responses of how to ‘deal’ with emotions.  We want to hold on to positive emotion, and often seek to make negative emotion go away.  We struggle with moods and emotions that are persistent, and we talk about ‘mood swings’ in connection with the hormones of puberty, pregnancy, as symptoms of menopause or changes in testosterone.

 What is ‘sad’? Can we define ‘joy’?  Is there a science behind emotions?

1. Emotions are brief.

The nature of emotions is pulsatile and transient.  

If you’ve gone through a stressful experience, ever grieved, or gone through a time of tension, say during a divorce, it’s hard to believe that your emotions aren’t permanently lodged in the ‘on’ position.

What keeps us fired up?

When our body is activated with anger, for instance, because we’ve reacted to something someone has said that feels threatening or hurtful to us, we will have an immediate physical cascade of an elevated heartrate, and cardiovascular changes.  We may experience tension perhaps accumulating in our muscles, a lurch in our stomach.  This surge of cortisol that triggers all of this physical change comes through in pulses and our parasympathetic system will immediately start to balance it.  But often what happens is that we rehash the story.  We have a thought that relives the words that we heard- we hear them in our head again.  

Without this ‘reactivation’ the duration of the emotional response is 90 seconds. –Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist

Another surge goes through our body. We add some storyline to it and another surge goes off.  Every time, our system will try to calm it, (because our bodies seek out homeostasis) but our thoughts have hijacked the system and continue to whip it into continually pulsing with stress hormones, keeping, in essence, the sensation going.   The same is true of romantic or loving feelings towards someone.  We conjure up a memory of them, and we feel a surge of oxytocin!  Day dreaming about your beloved?  Imagining yourself on a vacation you’re planning? Or, as marketers and app designers know, hear a certain cheerful bing notification on your phone? You get a zing of positive emotion.

2. Emotions are involuntary.

While we can find ways to work with emotions that arise and develop skillful ways of relating to them, we cannot control their arising.  Like stubbing our toe, external situations or internal thoughts will trigger emotional responses. Even if we don’t know how to name them, even if we try to ignore them or find them inconvenient, the nature of emotions is to arise.

nature of emotion photo side view photo of two women looking at each other laughing

3. Emotions are full-body.

This work we do with mindful awareness in relationship to health is built on an understanding that our thoughts and emotions affect our bodies.  The nature of emotions is such that In the moment, strong negative emotion changes our heart rate, our cardiovascular system and blood pressure, and changes our ability to skillfully make optimal choices for our wellbeing.  Over time, chronic stress, anxiety or depression will impact our wellbeing in ways that lead to many health challenges, like reduced immunity, increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and other preventable diseases.  

On the flip side, we can use body-based practices to settle our emotions!  Putting our bodies into yoga poses that calm the central nervous system, or doing deep diaphragmatic breathing, regular exercise and optimal nutrition, can all support our mood and wellbeing and calm the storms whipped up by stimuli!  See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on how powerfully we can change our minds when we change our posture!

4. Emotions can arise out of habitual responses.

Working with mindfulness allows us greater flexibility to respond to situations.  We often know that ‘stress’ cannot be avoided. We still have life events that will be stressful.  Responsibilities, deadlines, events that don’t go as we hope, losses and getting pushed to physical and mental limits all will happen in every life.  

It’s how we relate to our stressors that determines our overall happiness and wellbeing.  

A mindfulness practice can train the mind to pause as old patterns (memories stored in our implicit memory) start to form.  Once we begin noticing the sometimes subtle habitual patterns, with non-judgment and compassion, and over time, we can practice inviting new possibilities to greet the circumstances that life puts forth for us.

It takes patience and persistence to take pauses and to choose responses.  The nature of emotions means we are wired to let emotions drive us!  Changes start with a deep acceptance and curiosity. If we treat ourselves with aggression when we do fall into an old pattern, we are simply adding another (internal) enemy who will cause us even more stress!

We start with gradually building awareness of what our experience actually is, moment to moment.  We can start to have an ever refined radar to notice and to name what we are actually feeling.  It’s then that we can bring on board more skillful ways to respond.

5. Emotions arise from external or internal stimuli.

The nature of emotions means we can experience as strong a reaction from a thought as we can from an actual event.  In Birthing from Within, Pam England uses the imagery of the ‘paper tiger’ that can chase us, sometimes in the direction away from our greatest wishes.  Our thoughts can be powerful! But we can also see that they are simply arising and passing and that we needn’t always react to them.

6. Emotions cloud our perceptions.

We’ve all had the experience of feeling that “all is lost” despair because we were caught in a cascade of an emotion/thought/and more emotion.  The job we didn’t get was simply an opportunity that wasn’t given to us, but when we add emotions, and then whip up memories and thoughts, we can start to perceive things like “I’ll never get find the right job” or even “What if I won’t be able to support my family?”  The emotion ‘disappointment’ grows into a set of perceptions and what are called automatic negative thoughts. Once triggered, our minds are wired to take us down some rabbit holes that include distorted thoughts.

A sleepless night, and emotions of “overwhelm” or “frustration”  leads a parent to tell a story (“there must be something I’m doing wrong that causes my baby to wake so often”)  … and that leads to feeling inadequate, to becoming worried that something is wrong, or concerned that they will never sleep through the night again. The nature of emotions is to cloud our perception. When we work with seeing the impermanence of emotions, and being with the emotion and sensation that arises, and when we practice noticing thoughts as just thoughts… and see that our perceptions are also just thoughts, we can start to see more possibilities. 

If you are interested in learning more about Mindfulness Meditation and ways to practice new ways of responding to life, ask for more information on our MBSR programs or mindful caregiving offerings