With an uncertain timeline for shelter-in-place and higher baseline anxiety levels across populations, it’s become harder than ever to find a straightforward answer to the simple question: “how are you?”
While many of us tend to respond with an all-encompassing, “Things are crazy right now,” or “I’m doing okay,” psychologists recommend being as honest as possible — at least for our own sake if not for others’.
According to Mark Miller — a Mindful USC coordinator, clinical psychologist and avid meditator of 25 years — accurately identifying our emotions can help us understand what we’re experiencing.
“When we're able to label and know what we're experiencing, then we objectify the experience a little bit,” said Miller. “It's still our experience, right? We're still feeling it, but it gives us some perspective being able to name what's happening.”
But how, exactly, do we pinpoint an emotion in the messy mix of physical sensations and thoughts that compose a feeling?
First, it’s essential that we are aware and focused enough to do so. The state of focused awareness —accepting the present moment without judgement — is known as mindfulness. When we engage in mindfulness practices such as meditation, we get better at recognizing the way our body physically responds to our feelings and the kinds of thoughts that accompany them.
Miller says that mindfulness helps us better understand that negative feelings — such as the anxiety and fear that many of us might feel right now — may not be as threatening as they seem.
For instance, someone with a fear of heights looking out the window of a tall building might be safe from falling, but still feel afraid from seeing themselves so high up.
“The emotion is real, but not true,” Miller explains.
Nonetheless, Miller notes that emotions are inherently signals for attention and care, so it’s up to us to deal with them appropriately when they arise— not simply ignore them. He likens it to when children fall and scrape their knees. They cry until they're nearly hiccuping out of breath— completely exhausting themselves.
“As an adult, when was the last time you went all the way to the end of an emotion? We don’t do that. We actually stop our emotions. We stop them before we know what they are, before they have a name,” Miller said.
Miller explains that if we feel fear, for example, and we pretend that we’re not afraid, we’ll still feel the racing heart and closed-up throat. But that’s not the same as managing the emotion. Rather, if we familiarize ourselves with the feeling of fear and experience it all the way through, it’s not so scary.
That way we can identify it the next time we feel those sensations and apply this strategy to the worry that might be consuming us now.
While a bit of perspective can go a long way, framing intense emotions is actually a very challenging task according to Kristen Lindquist, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. To identify and categorize our emotions during periods of high stress like a global pandemic, Lindquist recommends following these three steps:
- “Accept the fact that you’re feeling something very strongly and be OK with that.”
- “Reflect on what is causing you to feel that way. It’s easy in the current crisis to feel like the total sum of everything that’s happening in the world is causing your emotions, but try to focus in on what you’re feeling right now and what specific situations are causing those particular feelings.”
- “Recognize that this feeling — as strong as it is — is temporary and to problem solve about how you can feel better”
By labeling our emotions with specificity, we can figure out where the feeling came from and what to do about it.
Oswaldo Morales, a second-year communication major at USC, has observed the benefits of pinpointing onto specific frustrations as it keeps him from projecting his mood onto others.
“Thoughts are super cheap, but we let it have such a big impact on who we are,” Morales said.
Since returning home to Colorado for quarantine, Morales has started a gratitude journal to help frame his thoughts in a positive light. Writing just three things that he’s grateful for each day has helped him step back and reframe the current situation.
“Being grateful and being thankful for what you have, it can really change your day,” Morales said. “And like, you know, days change into weeks, and then it doesn’t seem so bad. At the end of the day, you start looking at the good things.”
Roddur Dasgupta, a second-year student studying computer science at USC, believes that language is not only helpful for framing emotions, but necessary in order for us to form and articulate our thoughts in the first place.
“When people say, ‘Oh, this is crazy,’ that’s like the fuzziest but best encapsulating word that they have in their vocabulary— because they’re just not used to or haven’t had exposure to anything that’s more specific,” he said.
Dasgupta believes that one of the most significant roles language plays in our well-being is its ability to help us connect with others as we communicate our emotions in hopes of having them understood and received with kindness.
Miller likens the importance of language in processing emotions to something called attachment theory — the idea that small children develop either secure, anxious, or avoidant attachments with their caregivers.
“We learn about ourselves and the world through our caretakers, partially through the language of our caretakers,” Miller said. “You might be feeling something and your parent might say, ‘Oh, that's angry.’ So you're angry. You’re mad. When the parents are right, that— more often than not— leads to mental health. And when they’re wrong, it can lead to a lifetime of misunderstanding our own emotional states.”
That’s why one of the most helpful things we can do for ourselves is to foster a kinder internal monologue whenever we think about and describe the way we feel.
“When you’re in distress, what would you tell a friend? What language would you use? And then can you apply that language to yourself,” Miller said.
Regardless of the role that our parents or society has played in our formative experiences, we still have the agency to understand ourselves and find clarity through mindfulness, gratitude and precise language.
In our current world of stark uncertainty, we must not let ourselves be overwhelmed by its twists and turns, but learn to live in harmony with our emotions — as turbulent as they may appear.
So, with all that being said, how are you?