By James W. Cartwright, Ph.D., U.S. Army Public Health CommandSeptember 1, 2011
Sgt. Smith allowed his negative emotions to direct his life. One evening while tackling the mounting bills, he was hit by the reality that his wife had maxed out their credit cards. He was frustrated and confronted her about her spending habits. As she struggled to explain, Smith became angrier with each excuse she offered and demeaned her with hateful names. His wife was outraged and fought back with a tirade about the sergeant's personal shortcomings. Smith did not like his wife's angry retaliation. He became even more angry, lost control in an instant and hit her.
Rather than calm himself, the fictional Sgt. Smith acted on his negative emotions, and this led him to a destructive outcome. Emotions are legitimate and valid when they are pleasurable and even when they are painful. However, acting on emotions can often create destructive outcomes. Acting on angry impulses can lead to hostility and even failed relationships. Acting on your emotions often intensifies your negative feelings and does not provide relief from distress.
Emotions are simply signals in your body that tell you what's happening in your environment. They can be good or bad, pleasurable or distressing. Sometimes they are strong feelings that come on quickly as a reaction to a situation without much thought or consideration for what's going on. Our initial reactions to what's happening are referred to as primary emotions. However, we may also experience secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are reactions to your primary emotions. For example, Smith's primary emotion was anger in response to his wife's overspending. He expressed his anger in harsh words aimed at his wife and then escalated his anger to the point that he ended the episode by hitting his wife. Later, he felt guilt and shame about his actions. These were secondary emotions. To make matters worse, a primary emotion can set off a whole chain of secondary distressing emotions.
For example, Pfc. Jones received a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend. At first he felt angry and betrayed. He thought, "How could she break up with me?" Later, as he thought about the loss of his girlfriend he felt abandoned, lonely and even worthless. He began to have self-critical thoughts: "I'm such a loser." Soon he began to think, "I can't live without her." As his thoughts became more irrational, he began to feel overwhelmed by his emotions. At this point he is placing himself in danger. He may engage in destructive activities like binge drinking, or even think that life isn't worth living.
It is easy for emotional reactions to escalate out of control. Often, an individual in emotional pain blames someone or something else for the pain in the first place. Generally, the angrier you get, the more pain you will experience. Getting angry or upset over a situation also stops you from accurately perceiving what's really going on. When you get angry and think that a situation should have never happened in the first place, it frequently means that you're missing the point: it did happen, and you have to deal with it. Regulating your emotions is the way to deal with it. When feeling overwhelmed emotionally, one way to regulate your emotions is to accept the moment or event for what it is. The troublesome moment may have been due to a long chain of events and decisions made by you and others. You can't really fight it, get angry at it, or try to change it into something that it is not. The events leading to the moment have already occurred. For Smith, his debts are debts no matter how he reacts. For Jones, the letter is what it is, in the moment. This doesn't mean that you have to give in to every bad thing that happens to you, but it frees you to accept the moment for what it is and choose to respond differently.
In order to get started with regulating your emotions, remind yourself of a few coping statements like, "This situation won't last forever," or, "The present moment is the only moment I have control over." Other coping statements include "I'm strong and I can handle anything," or "I've survived other bad situations before, and I'll survive this one too."
Accepting the present moment allows you to be objective about the part you have played in the situation. Most importantly, it gives you the well deserved opportunity to respond to the situation in a new way that's less painful for yourself and others. It opens the door for you to change things for the better.