In every situation, our brain is always trying to predict what will happen next. One of the things that it does to accomplish this task is a search of our memory banks for similar experiences that might lead to insight. When such a search yields a hit on memory – or memories – the emotions, body sensations, and sometimes memories and insights, come from the past into the present. If someone offers you a warm chocolate chip cookie at a hotel desk, the hope is that it will unconsciously bring up warm feelings of home from your past as you check in and feel good about the hotel you’re staying in.
But what determines what comes up? Well, if the memory was recent, it may feel like you’re recalling an event from the recent past. You may get a picture and a conversation. When you get a letter and see that it came from the IRS, your mind may go back to your last nightmare audit, or it may go back to your initial reading of George Orwell’s 1984, or it might go back to your father’s stern accusations when you were a child, or, in my case, it might go back to the time the manager of our local IRS office made the auditor drive a check to my door because he had made so many blunders when he audited me (Now, I’m not saying, by the way, that every time I see a letter from the IRS, I think they’re going to give me money, but I did have a positive experience.), or – and here’s the part I want to elaborate on today – it might go to a time before you can remember. That’s called discreet memory – to a time before you can think that you’re remembering something.
That kind of memory was put there so early that it doesn’t have a sense of recall because you didn’t have a sense of time when it was created. There’s no story, because you had no logic or language – just body sensations and emotions. And, while it is a memory from the past, and it does relate in some way to what’s going on in the present, it’s not recognized as a memory, but just experienced as a body sensation and an emotion. So that would be when we become outraged and our shoulders tense up when our child doesn’t pick up his toys. Most of the rage and tension that we’re feeling in the present is actually a memory of what it was like to live in a house at two years of age, because our father, for example, was a mean drunk. To make matters even worse, children whose parents are not able to attune themselves to their children – for example, alcoholics, who can’t do that very well – often, do not receive enough soothing to learn how to regulate their emotions, making emotional regulation a battle for the rest of their lives. So, when that happens, it’s really stacked against a person, because they have an uphill battle to fight to regulate their emotions. Nevertheless, it can be done.
Here are four ways to deal with triggered emotion. We do live in an imperfect world, so we all need to control our emotions to some extent. And here are four ways to do just that:
The first thing that we can do…I’m going to call this, managing emotions. In the first installment of this series, we talked about a way to breathe that reduces anxiety and the resultant fear and anger. That’s one part of what we can call emotional management – controlling the body’s tendencies to hyperventilate and to think catastrophically. If you’re counting your breaths – or breathing in and thinking, “In,” and breathing out, and thinking, “Out,” you are not thinking fearful or angry thoughts any longer. Nor are you hyperventilating, which makes things worse, because it intensifies that flight or fight response. So, if you’re now controlling your breathing, and you’re not thinking about what’s upsetting – because you’re thinking about in, out, or counting your breath, that calms you down. You know, is your child passively/aggressively being forgetful or driving you crazy? Just breathe for a while. Calm down. Let the frustration – now under control then – propel you to discover why your child is angry with you, and work on the relationship, and build effective boundaries to help you stay calm and your child to know what’s expected of them.