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Control Knobs

To learn how to use our emotions, we need to learn to adjust our emotions - but what controls do we have?


As we have discussed above, emotions do not exist in an all or none state, although our instincts may operate this way. A range of emotions is possible for any of the basic emotions, so that, for example, anger can exist as a mild resistance, building up to an annoyance and frustration, and become a murderous rage. As it gets “louder", the anger becomes harder to utilise usefully and we are more act instinctually, yet not enough anger will lead to insufficient action, so we need to find a balance.

For Fear it is similar - some years ago a group of university students were studied before an important examination, to assess their level of anxiety and match this against their exam score. It was found that the result was bell shaped, where insufficient (ie didn’t care) or too much anxiety (ie avoidance / procrastination) led to poor results, and a certain amount of anxiety gave the best results.

This can be shown as a graph on a chart as follows:



So, our our anxiety works best when we are able to find that point in the middle. Below this point, increasing the anxiety improves our performance, and past this point it becomes less effective, and our responses become harder to control and more likely to be instinctual.

This pattern of response can also be seen in the performance of a motor vehicle with a petrol engine, where if the revs become too slow, the car will stall, or if too fast we run out of range, and to get around this problem, we have a gear box - which we will discuss later.

Even though the response may be small at the lower ranges of anxiety, they are also not obvious to outsiders - so we can act on our fear without seeming to be worrying or anxious. Indeed we may appear as calm as a cucumber, but still accepting and using our fear in a helpful and productive way.

These responses are also true for Pleasure, Pain, and especially Anger - which can be skilfully released without any notice.

However, how can we vary the level of any emotion - when we feel a strong emotion, it seems very hard to change, although it is easier to think of ways to work it up and increase its level.

Some ways our emotional level changes are:

1. Accumulation of small reactions to outside events

Emotions often increase by an accumulation of small reactions to outside events through repeated exposure to the same or similar event. This is often not noticed and the emotion just grows until it becomes to hard to handle by the time we re aware of any reactions - that is "The straw that broke the camels back". But if we realise the big feeling is built up of many little feelings, if we can divide them up and deal them out into their own areas, they are so much easier to handle

2.  An initial flood from sudden exposure

When first exposed to an external change, our emotion often become flooded and maybe even temporarily overwhelmed - for example when we first open the door and go outside on a bright day, or step out of a plane in the tropics.

3. Desensitization over time

The initial effect from the initial flood then starts to wear off as we adapt ~ through homeostasis as we previously discussed. This happens when we begin to acclimatise to our environment - but beware, this sometimes takes a long time.

4. Increase when ignored

Strangely enough, if we ignore an emotion, it may increase - just like ignoring little children who continually demand the attention of their parents. This happens externally if we fail to adapt to our new environment - some never adjust to the tropical heat, and some people constantly wear sunglasses.

5. Influence from other people

Other people often have a connection with us and can change how we feel. Parents readily do this with their children, but it happens with any human connection. When playing a game of Poker, we often keep increasing our bets displaying a "poker face" hoping the other person will fold. But we do this with emotions too - hoping the other person with given in to us - but the problem is that if we go too far, we merely fall for the trap of our emotions becoming more instinctual. Advertisements in any media are also designed to increase our desire for particular objects or services, and even politics is designed to change the way we think about things.

But this influence is two ways. 

6. Conscious focus can change

Mental focus on any emotion can change its level. This may not be our expected response - often the emotion increases? Have you ever tried to slow your own pulse - most often it only seems to increase! But with patience and time we can find a way. 

These give us many possibilities in finding the most useful level of an emotion for any given situation. 


We all know about being too "sensitive" at times when we least want it, but how is this connected to the "volume" of our emotions. I guess the best way to think about this is to think about a public address sound system - where we have two knobs to control the volume of some music or someone talking - one which controls the input to the amplifier from the microphone or player, and one that controls the output to the speakers. The last one is the volume control which we all know, but the first is the microphone sensitivity control. When too loud, sound reflects back from the speakers to the microphone giving the characteristic shrill of feedback - and so the needs to be a balance between these two to get the volume and the sound best for the audience.

Sensitivity is much harder to control internally than volume, and in some way much of it is set as part of our personality. The most important thing is to learn to understand where we are sensitive, and where we are not as sensitive, so we can learn to understand better what our emotional responses and reactions may be. 

But we can also learn to desensitise over time - if we allow ourselves. Most often we have inbuilt mechanisms that cause us to return to our more "natural state" but with time it is possible. Perhaps the most common way we see this is in our trade or profession - where over time and with strong focus, we can learn to accept new conditions that may be impossible to others - for example with a surgeon conducting and operation, or construction worker working at great heights. If there is a strong need, it is possible to find a way.

For our graph, changing the sensitivity shifts the top "sweet" spot one way or another, shifting the response of our emotions to the world around us. Thus:



Changing gears

We have already mentioned that cars run get over the trouble of running out of power when they speed up by changing gears. Strangely electric engines don't have this problem, but have a different pattern and so electric or even steam trains don't need gears. But back to emotions.

It seems so easy to talk about it, but moving from our instincts, to just finding someone to give us some help is not simple. Then to move into the social world, or even the academic world, the shift becomes even harder. This shift requires a change of worlds and ideas, which we so often want to avoid.

Please note, changing gears goes in two directions - when we start to fail we need to move down a level, which we also hate to do, but in reality, any journey requires us to be moving up and down all the time.

Also, you can only move one level at a time - and this is even more true if you are trying to support someone who wants to grow. It is first necessary to discover where they function well, and then move just one step at a time - even if you are wanting them to move higher more quickly.


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