One of the difficulties we experience most often is being overwhelmed by certain emotions. Almost always negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, fear, jealousy, sadness. We feel them strong within us and we want to remove them as soon as possible, in order to feel better immediately. The truth is that every emotion has its own lifespan and purpose, so trying to suppress them too early is usually useless. This is the spirit of emotional intelligence: knowing how to experience the emotions we feel while remaining lucid and balanced, maintaining self-control. A practice that must be trained day by day and on which you work through your whole life.
While working on it, however, it is very useful to understand what an emotion is and how much it remains in our mind. Knowing these two things can give us a decisive help in learning how to manage them better. Emotions are mental states that change the feelings we experience, both psychologically and physiologically. They have a natural beginning, a lifespan and an end. And if we let them release their charge without feeding them or allowing them to get in touch with our thoughts, they could theoretically go away by themselves, without leaving a mark.
So how long does an emotion last, normally? How long is the period of time in which (always theoretically) we should “resist” before the emotion goes away?
According to modern neurology, the average duration of an emotion in the human brain is 90 seconds.
Confused? I almost hear you: “90 seconds? So the love I feel for my husband, or the pain I’m living after the end of my last relationship, that lasts only 90 seconds? “. No, those last longer, because they are not emotions. They were moods, which originate from emotions and the way we feed them through our thoughts.
Let’s take it slowly. Let’s try to better understand the difference between emotions, feelings and moods and how things evolve in the various stages:
- Emotions are immediate sensations that arise from external inputs (something we see or experience) or internal ones (thoughts that emerge naturally). They last about 90 seconds, after which, if we don’t feed them, they just go away. Why then do the effects persist? Because it is inevitable that emotions capture thoughts. And when we start thinking about the emotion we are experiencing, we feed it, we let it evolve, we pass it into the most aware part, and by doing all this we continue to produce new inputs that make the emotion more stable, transforming it into something else: the feeling.
- Feelings are the natural evolution of emotions once thoughts are aware of them. If we know we are experiencing an emotion, if we are aware of it in the different parts of us, then it is no longer an emotion, it has already become a feeling, which has a longer duration. For example: if someone knocks violently at our front door in the middle of the night while we sleep, we have an immediate agitate reaction, we jump out of bed and immediately look for an action to protect ourselves. That is the emotion of fear. A few minutes later, we will begin to feel worried, to think about what may have happened and to decide what to do to manage it and prevent it from happening again, to avoid again that fear. This is the stage where we are aware of the fear we felt. That’s the feeling. If feelings continue to be fueled by our thoughts, and perhaps by new emotions or events that go in that direction, it may be natural that they become moods.
- Moods are stable emotional conditions, which penetrate our personality, last over time and blend with our psychic structure. For example, if you break up with your partner after a relationship that lasted years, it is natural to have a mood of sadness that lasts weeks or even months. You get to that state of mind because you keep thinking about what happened, and every thought becomes a new input that generates an emotion, all emotions that keep coming and add up to the already existing state of mind. It depends on how introspective we are and how much we like to mull over things. The more we think about it, the more we will be aware of being sad, so the mood becomes stronger. This is once again natural and should not be fought at all costs.
What do we need to know all this for? First of all, let’s get rid of an important doubt: knowing that an emotion lasts 90 seconds is not useful in preventing it from involving our conscious system. There is no possibility in our mind that we “turn off the thoughts” for 90 seconds and wait for the emotion to go away without a trace. It’s not the way we work. Emotion is an experience that we live and we cannot help but observe it and activate our thoughts on it. Therefore the long lasting effect caused by emotions is inevitable.
What helps is to be aware of how the emotion evolves. Because being aware of it helps you to not have the feeling of being helpless victims. This is the concept of “observing our emotions”, experiencing them as observers. The moment we know what they are and how they evolve, we have the possibility to not identify ourselves them. Instead, we can watch them invade our body and mind almost as if we were external observers. In this way we can avoid to say “I am sad”, “I am depressed”, “I am angry”, and instead we can say “I feel sad”, “I feel anger”. It is a decisive difference. If we do not identify with a given emotion and instead we see it as something we feel, we are automatically saying that we are something else than that emotion. More complex beings that – in addition to that emotion – experience many other things, along with thoughts and instincts, and each element is a piece of the mosaic of our person. A person at that point able to experience every emotion effectively.
The advice therefore is: when you feel a strong negative emotion, do not rush to activate your thoughts in order to find an immediate solution. Let the emotion flow and be patient. In a natural way your thoughts will act, and if you do not persist in feeding it, in an equally natural way the emotion could be reduced, simply by observing the way in which life proceeds and avoiding worrying excessively about things that have not yet happened, or about permanent consequences that do not always occur.
Managing emotions is the ability that more than any other can directly contribute to improve the quality of our life. And it is something that you learn over time, training every day, working on yourself and comparing yourself with others.