Emotion Training: What is it and How Does it Work?by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Emotion training may seem odd to some people: “But it's what I feel! How can I make myself feel different?” It also seems contrary to the idea that all emotions are valid and okay.
On the surface, the method of emotion training seems to be no different from the demands of others:
“Get ahold of yourself!”
“You're so emotional!”
“You're too sensitive.”
“Can't you control yourself?”
The difference, however, is that emotion training is not focused on blaming the individual. Instead, it teaches methods of evaluating and managing emotions. Several basic principles make it different from the demand to control emotions:
1) Emotions are not a weakness. Emotions are a necessary and important part of the human condition. Sometimes emotions are more intense than a situation usually stirs up but that doesn't mean the person is weak. Some people are more emotionally sensitive but that is often a good thing because usually they are more empathetic and compassionate as well. But sometimes people may need to contain the emotions and emotion training helps to do so.
2) Emotions are for the benefit of the individual. Most of the time, containment of emotions is not for other people and making them feel more comfortable. I say “most of the time” because sometimes it may be necessary when involved with vulnerable others such as children. However, generally, expression of emotions and emotion management are for your own purposes.
3) Emotions have a purpose. The method of emotion training values and validates emotions. By recognizing the importance of emotions it helps to put them into perspective and to use them for a purpose. Sometimes the purpose is a message such as “Something about this situation makes me uncomfortable and I need to evaluate it.” Other times it may be for a release such as when a person is grieving.
4) Emotional mastery can be taught. Emotion training teaches rather than demands. Emotional mastery is the ability to understand and interpret emotions accurately as well as to regulate emotions when they interfere with a person's goals. Most people already do this at times. For instance, have you ever been angry with someone and in the middle of an argument receive a phone call? Most likely, you don't answer angrily “What do you want?!” but with a pleasant tone “Hi, how are you?” So emotion training teaches a person how to use this skill when it benefits them.
Emotion training is a CBT method that teaches emotional mastery. It requires several steps that all build on one another. For instance, it is not possible to regulate emotions without being able to understand and evaluate the emotions. So, for a person to fully benefit from the emotion training exercises, it is best to learn the following steps in order.
Also, notice that none of the following steps indicate that a person should ignore emotions. Instead, the idea is to use emotions to manage life situations in the best possible way. Ignoring emotions is just the flip side of being ruled by emotions. Emotions help us to evaluate situations, make decisions, and problem-solve. But they are meant to be used in partnership with our reasoning ability.
So, emotion training involves learning to understand and decipher emotions, evaluating emotions for evidence and accuracy, and regulating emotions when desired.
Step 1: Understanding emotions
When people have had their emotions invalidated all their lives they often don't have a good understanding of their emotions. They often don't know how to recognize the subtle variations in intensity levels such as indifference, frustration and rage can all be manifestations of anger whereas boredom, homesickness and despair can all be aspects of sadness. The more a person understands emotions, the more s/he can put them into perspective.
It is best to identify emotions more specifically. This is helpful to yourself as well as when communicating with others. “I am disappointed” is more specific than “I am sad.” The Cognitive Diary app has a feature that helps a person determine emotions based on the general category of emotion as well as the intensity level. If a person isn't certain about an emotion, it can be helpful to ask trusted others.
Step 2: Evaluating emotions
When a person accepts an emotion without evaluating it, they are engaging in emotional reasoning: “If I feel it, it must be true.” Emotional reasoning is the cognitive style that is most often the culprit when emotions take over. It is manifested in many ways with the different emotional disorders:
1) Panic Disorder: “If I feel like I'm dying, it must be true.” Many of the symptoms of panic can feel awful but it doesn't mean the person is suffering a fatal malady.
2) Depressive Disorders: “If I feel that nothing will be pleasurable, it must be true.” Research has shown that when people who are depressed engage in activities that have been pleasurable in the past, they are likely to feel better. However, due to emotional reasoning, a person who is depressed doesn't believe this can be true and it is difficult to get them to do things they usually have enjoyed.
3) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: “If something feels dangerous, it must be true.” Many people with OCD are fearful of various dangers. For instance, not washing their hands may lead to serious illness or not checking the lights and electrical appliances when they leave the house may lead to a fire. Danger for them is due to an over-estimation of probability which leads to anxiety. The feeling of anxiety convinces them that their belief is accurate.
4) Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: “If I feel out-of-control, I must be.” When a person is overwhelmed by the emotions of a trauma, they often feel they can not gain control of these emotions.
5) Borderline Personality Disorder: “If I feel rejected and abandoned, it must be true.” When conflict occurs, a person with BPD may not recognize the signs of acceptance or overtures of friendship or attempts at conflict resolution. As a result, they continue to feel rejected and abandoned even when the other person may not intend to.
Although all emotions are important and have a purpose, emotions aren't always accurate. For instance, an emotion may be a reflection of a past experience, so the purpose could be a warning to evaluate a similar situation in the present. It doesn't mean the situation is the same but that it requires investigation.
Evaluating the emotion allows a person to:
1) Determine what the purpose of the emotion is. Although the purpose of emotions may not always be clear, they have a purpose. However, the surface reaction may not always be the most accurate interpretation of the purpose. By sitting with the emotion and examining it, the purpose can become more apparent.
2) Determine if there is evidence. Not all emotional reactions are accurate. For instance, the feeling of rejection is notorious for being out of proportion to the situation. So it is necessary to look for tangible evidence, not just the feeling.
3) Determine if the emotion is based on the present situation. Sometimes emotions may be displaced from a similar situation in the past which causes a person to react as if it were the same. It is important to be aware of your triggers and recognize when the present is different.
4) Determine if the emotion is the most specific and accurate interpretation. Understanding the nuances of emotion and being more precise about the description of the emotion can help contain emotional reactions. Not all anger is the same: frustration is different than rage.
5) Determine if the intensity of the emotion is appropriate to the situation. Although the emotion may be accurate, sometimes the intensity may be influenced by other things such as physically feeling out of sorts.
Other cognitive styles can also lead to emotional reactions. To learn more about your cognitive styles, take the Cognitive Styles Test.
Step 3: Regulating emotions
Emotional mastery is different than controlling emotions because it is based on a decision regarding the emotion. Sometimes the experience and/or expression of emotion is beneficial to the individual and sometimes it is not. However, the person with the emotion is the one who determines this.
Through the process of understanding and evaluating the emotion, the individual can then decide what needs to be done to mange the emotion. For instance, if anxiety is causing the person to avoid situations that interfere with life functioning, s/he may decide to focus on calming the anxiety. However, if a person is grieving, s/he may decide to fully feel and release the emotions.
Yet, there are times when a person may recognize that the emotion is not consistent with the evidence of the situation but it may be difficult to reduce or change the emotional reaction. The emotion training audios help to teach this ability:
1) Mindful Grounding for Anxiety/Trauma audio. Grounding is an important skill when emotions are intense. The purpose of grounding is to get in touch with the here and now primarily in a physical way. For instance, touching the furniture in the room.
2) Building Blocks and Rainbow Emotion Training audios. These are are associational audios that are based on Pavlov's concept of classical conditioning: when two things are paired together one can trigger the other. For instance, Pavlov noticed that the preparation of food triggered the involuntary reflex of salivation in dogs. In other words, what seems to be a response not under conscious control (salivating) can be elicited by pairing it with something else (the sound of food being prepared).
If a reflex such as salivation can be conditioned so can emotions. These audios pair colors or images with certain emotional states. By listening to them repeatedly those colors or images can trigger the desired emotion. For instance, the Building Blocks audio allows you to create images of rooms that affect emotional states such as allowing you to feel in control or find comfort when you are sad. Once you have created these images you can use them to access these emotional states when you need to.
3) Mindfulness audios. Mindfulness methods also help with emotional mastery. Again, instead of getting rid of emotions, mindfulness allows you to just be with the emotions. By doing so, it helps create greater understanding and tolerance of the emotions.