Hacking Your Executive Function: The Logic of Emotion Regulation

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One of the things that I hear often is that emotions and logic are opposites. If you would like to irritate me into a blind rage, say that to me a lot. What we’re going to be talking about today is how to use logic and emotions in tandem, specifically ways that you can use logic to regulate your emotions. Your mileage may vary on these skills (I personally don’t find it useful to try to think my way out of situations because I can argue myself into or out of anything), but for those that find it helpful these seem to be life changing skills.

The first thing that you can do to marry logic and emotions is to spend some time understanding emotions. Turns out that these feelings we’ve got actually tend to follow reasonably predictable patterns. On a very basic level, feelings are information. They tell you something about what is going on around you. Sadness indicates that you’ve lost something or someone. Fear tells you that you’re in danger. Anger tells you that someone has violated your boundaries or done something you find unacceptable. Taking the time to learn what each emotion has to offer you is important, because then in the moment you can respond to the emotion with curiosity: what does this emotion tell me? Can I do what that emotion is asking of me? Am I reacting in a way that matches the intensity of the situation? You can read more about the purposes of emotions in a bunch of places.

Once you’ve done that up front work of figuring out what your emotions do for you, you can do some work that will help you to actually identify individual feelings. Yes, that is work and yes sometimes it is hard, especially when your emotions are particularly strong or you’re having quite a few at once. But knowing what it is you’re feeling and why can give you some helpful information about how to respond.

One place to start is just by having a big ol’ list of emotions handy to help you name what you’re feeling. There are a LOT of feelings words out there and sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it until you see it in front of you. You may prefer to write about your emotions, or simply spend some quiet time thinking about your emotions. Some people I know like to assign a color to different emotions as it’s easier for them to think that way. You may want to have a professional therapist help you with the process of naming and identifying your emotions if you’re really feeling stuck. In tandem with identifying the emotion, some people like to identify its intensity with a number or color to help them see how to respond.

Another method is to look at what your body is actually doing in any given moment to help you figure out what you’re feeling. I try to notice my physical sensations: is there tightness in my chest? That usually means anxiety. I’ve noticed that when I’m hitting a really low depressive state I feel shooting pains down my right arm. If I’m clenching my fists I am probably angry. For us autistics, we can also look at our stims. If they’re getting super intense, you may be feeling some anxiety. If you’re flapping a lot, maybe you’re excited.

This is one of those places where data can be incredibly helpful, so I personally like to track my emotions each day. It gives me some practice with identifying what I’m feeling, can help me to see what I did when I felt each emotion, and gives me some data about long term patterns. It can also help me to see whether the things I’m doing to improve or change my moods are effective.

What do I mean by that?

Well, sometimes our feelings are out of synch with what’s happening around us or they’re just not helpful. Sometimes I get overwhelmingly angry because someone is chewing loudly in the same room as me. They have not actually violated any boundaries, but because I have sensory sensitivities, the sound is overwhelming and I’m angry. When I stop for a minute and think about it I realize that it’s on me to deal with this situation because they are not doing anything wrong.

I have a few options here: I can continue to be upset, I can try to change the situation, or I can try to accept the situation and see if I can change the emotion.

I just want to stress that sentence because these are the options we have in any circumstance that we don’t like. Any time you are deciding what to do in a given situation you are looking at these three options. It can help to put them into a clear and consistent framework and realize that even if you don’t like “change the situation” or “change the emotion” you’re still making a choice, which is continuing to feel awful.

Ok so you’ve identified an emotion, you’re like “hey I’m pretty distressed about this” and you want to figure out what to do. My first step would be to check the facts: take some time to see if you can describe the situation without emotions and determine if the emotions you’re having make sense and fit in intensity. I often do this by writing things down, or talking through them with another person to see if my perception is reasonable and relatively objective. When you describe the situation try to do it in as neutral of terms as possible: they weren’t making an angry face. Their face was scrunched up, or their jaw was clenched.

This is where you’ll want to rely on your understanding of the purpose of emotions. Let’s say I ask a friend to go to a movie and they say they’re busy. Maybe I feel angry because I feel as if they’re blowing me off. Checking the facts, I don’t have any information about their motive or if they like me. I can ask them more to find out what’s up with them, or if we can go a different time. Maybe I check the facts and realize that they have said no every time I’ve asked them to do something for the last few months. I can probably draw the conclusion that they don’t want to be around me, and I might feel sad or angry.

One thing to note: this is the step where it’s easy to fall prey to cognitive distortions or include your own opinion as fact. Do your best to just describe exactly what happened: “I called my friend. I asked them to the movie. They said no.” Drawing conclusions is separate from the facts. Sometimes you have to do it because you don’t have all the information, but try to be aware when you’re adding in opinions or guesswork. The other person’s emotions, unless they have told you, are not facts.

So now that you have the basic information, you can make some decisions about which course of action to take. If your emotion doesn’t make any sense in the context, you may want to do some work to change the emotion (through self soothing, distraction, self care, etc.). If your emotion does make sense, you may want to try to change the situation in some fashion. There are some times where your emotion does make sense but there isn’t anything you can do about the situation. Those are the shitty times when you just have to accept the way the world is and do your best to manage the emotions.

When I’m choosing what to do to try to adjust an emotion or change a situation, I like to use pro/con lists. I’ll brainstorm a couple possible courses of action (confront my friend, stop asking my friend to go to things, ask a different friend to the movie), and then look at the pros and cons of each one. Write out what would happen if you did that action. Write out what would happen if you didn’t. Think it through to its conclusion!

This is another great place for that data I was talking about earlier! Let’s say you have a distressing situation and you go through all these steps then choose a course of action. If afterwards you continue to feel shitty, then that’s data for the next time you have a similar situation.

Last but not least, some people like to use logic to directly confront their brain’s clear lies. If you’re struggling with emotion regulation, chances are that you’ve got a few myths living in your brain, like “if I can’t please everyone I’m a bad person” or “being skinny reflects my goodness as a person”. Once you identify those myths you can start directly addressing them with facts and logic. If that doesn’t work, I sometimes will imagine them in Donald Trump’s voice because everything he says is trash.

You can check out some other tactics for fighting brain lies over at Captain Awkward, or you can be like me and get a tattoo whenever you feel like you’re forgetting what’s true. Anything to ground you in reality.

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