Out of control emotions and unhealthy reactions to them are often at the core of a person’s suffering. Commonly, people don’t feel they have any control over what they feel or how they react to such feelings. That is why it can be very helpful to recognize emotions for what they truly are: Messengers. What I mean by this is that when you are having a feeling, and particularly a strong one (of any kind) it is simply trying to TELL you something about your environment. For example, when a friend or loved-one gives you a gift, you will likely experience a good feeling or emotional response that is telling you this is a SAFE thing. Likewise, a difficult co-worker may take credit for something you did and you will feel an uncomfortable wave of emotions telling you that this is an UNSAFE thing. Emotions don’t exist without some kind of trigger or circumstance to cause them to arise and do their job of informing you as to what is happening. This is also called your gut instinct, that first feeling you experience about something is your psyche’s way of alerting you to your environment.
Additionally, emotions are often categorized as “good” or “bad” which is somewhat descriptive of the sensations that one experiences and gives tangibility to the emotion but if we are going to use a simple binary language for emotions then if you really drive down what the “messages” are trying to convey to you it is that something is either safe or unsafe. This also helps reduce stigmatizing language of good and bad and puts a more evolutionary perspective on emotions as they have played such a significant role in our survival as a species. Ultimately, fear, or lack of it, is the driving force beneath all emotions and our survival depends on the ability to distinguish what is safe from what is not. This is known as the flight, fight or freeze response and historically if you didn’t REACT to the immediate unsafe stimuli then bye bye. However, in today’s world, sans wildebeests, those reactions to stimuli are the precise catalyst for so much emotional suffering. Once it is determined that there is no immediate risk to life then one is left with the visceral experience of whatever emotion is at play and the sensation of fight/flight/freeze. Jealousy, for example, is a message that something is unsafe but not in the immediate and to react immediately will likely cause further suffering down the road (i.e. regret, embarrassment). The key is to NOT react but to LISTEN to the message and consult with your executive function (your mind) so that the two systems (head and heart) are working together to allow you to RESPOND according to your values and interests. Practicing mindfulness is key to accomplish this and can be learned with patience and focus. A practical tool is the 24-hour rule, where you wait 24 hours before responding to an unsafe emotion, giving you sufficient time to slow down the reactionary process, to consult with your mind and decide on an appropriate, and beneficial response.
To summarize, think of emotions as messengers with critical information about your environment. The essence of that information is whether or not you are safe. To avoid reacting to the visceral sensations, take the time necessary to listen to the message and consult with your mind, and maybe some otheres! to determine the best response that will move you in the direction desired.