Are You Hooked on a Feeling?

Lyrics from an old song keep running through my brain, reminding me how easy it is to get hooked by an emotion.  What’s the song?  “Hooked on a Feeling,” sung by B.J. Thomas (and later by a group called Blue Swede. Check out their video on youtube.  It made me laugh.)

The words of the chorus are on a recurring loop in my mind.  What’s the chorus?  “I’m hooked on a feeling, high on believing that you’re in love with me.”  That line reminds me how easy it is to get hooked by our emotions and repetitive thought patterns.  We so easily get swept away by the spirals of explanations that perpetuate our emotions.

Earlier this week I watched a webinar by Dr. Erika Rosenberg.  An expert in FACS (Facial Action Coding System), she is known for her research on the facial expression of emotions.  Facial actions are universal, consistent, and signal the internal experience of emotions.

I was struck by the clarity with which she described what to many of us is an unconscious process.  How many times have you been hooked by a feeling that seemed to come from nowhere?  If it is an emotion like joy, compassion, trust, or love, it is a wondrous life experience.

However, when we get caught in the downward spiral of anger, frustration, sadness, mistrust or other negative emotions, it can be difficult to pull ourselves out of the morass. Why?  Because once an emotion is triggered, there are changes in multiple systems of the mind and body.

When we experience an emotion, cognitive thoughts and memories are activated, physiological changes take place, expressive behavior changes such as facial expressions and vocal intonations are activated.  We then take action related to the emotion.

For example, anger might trigger a thought  “he always does this……,” which generates a physiological response, perhaps shallow breathing and tightening of certain muscle groups.  The muscles around the mouth and eyes may become constricted as our expression changes.

Emotions are relational.  Emotions emerge when we encounter something that is important to us.  They are related to what things mean to us, a thought, a memory, dream, a goal, a person.  However, the event that triggers the emotion is unique to each of us.  It depends upon our life experience.

Emotions are universal, but what triggers our emotions is unique and idiosyncratic.   It’s the thoughts we think, the memories we recall, and the physiological responses they invoke that allow us to get hooked.

An emotion lasts only seconds, but we re-trigger it over and over again by our thoughts, our physiology and our expressive action.    It is easy for us to react with an emotion and step onto the wild ride of our negative inner dialogue or memories.  This happens in seconds.

What if you don’t want to be “hooked by a feeling?”  First, recognize this is a natural process, we all do this.  So give yourself some grace for being human.

Second, become aware of the physiological changes you experience.  Many of my clients aren’t aware of the changes in their body when they experience an emotion.  Catch yourself, take time, and explore what happens in your body when you feel frustrated or angry. Contrast those sensations to when you feel happy or perhaps relaxed.

Where is there tension in your body?  Does your stomach feel like it’s full of acid or does it feel uncomfortably full as if you’ve overeaten?   What’s happening with your shoulders?  Are you gritting your teeth?

The more you can become aware of the physiological changes, the easier it is to recognize that you have experienced an emotion that you might want to let pass by rather than reinforce.  (Yes, it is difficult initially.)   If we don’t reactivate the emotion by thoughts or memories, it will dissipate.

Third, pay attention to your thoughts.  If you can’t notice the change in your physiology, attend to your internal dialogue.  When you find yourself in the grip of an emotion, ask: “What am I thinking now?  How are my thoughts contributing to this feeling?”

Curiosity is the go-to emotion I use to help me shift when I’m hooked.  I intentionally get curious about why I’m experiencing the emotion.  And I get curious about what triggered the emotion.   Was it someone’s comment, an incident, a thought, a shoe I tripped over in the living room, etc.?

When I remember to get curious about my emotions, I don’t get hooked so easily.  It’s not easy, but I’d rather be singing “I’m hooked on a feeling, I’m high on believing that you’re in love with me,” than grousing about some small irritation.  What about you?