When we’re upset or under stress, we often do things that we later regret.
Mari (not her real name) had a stressful day at work. During a staff meeting, her boss criticized a report she’d written and gave her two assignments with impossible deadlines. In a tennis game with a friend after work, Mari couldn’t concentrate and missed several shots. She was so frustrated that she shouted an obscenity and slammed her racket on the ground. Driving home, Mari became irritated with a slow driver. She honked several times and then passed the other car so fast that a police officer pulled her over and gave her a warning.
Once home, Mari didn’t feel like cooking dinner. She drank several beers while watching TV and fell asleep on the couch. She woke up at 3:00 a.m. and went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. Embarrassing images replayed in her mind: slamming her racket, speeding past the slow driver and drinking all evening in front of the TV. She got up at 6:30 and went to work feeling exhausted and angry with herself.
Psychologists call this emotion-driven behavior.
We usually know that we’re behaving unwisely, but we lose control and follow our urges because it relieves the intensity of our feelings. Unfortunately, the relief is temporary and the behavior is usually inconsistent with our long-term goals.
Emotions have three components: (1) sensations in the body, such as heart racing or stomach churning; (2) thoughts in the mind, such as, I need to get out of here or This is going to be terrible, and; (3) urges to do something, like run away, hide or attack.
If we act on the urge, that’s emotion-driven behavior.
Most researchers believe that emotions evolved because they’re useful. They provide important information and motivate us to take action. For example, fear alerts us to danger. If we’re worried about giving a talk, the fear may motivate us to prepare carefully. Anger is a message that we’ve been wronged. It can energize us to change an unfair situation or stand up for our rights. Guilt is a signal that we may have wronged someone else. It can push us to apologize and make amends.
However, emotion-driven behavior often causes trouble.
Emotions evolved a long time ago, and the bodily reactions are not always helpful in modern life. For example, fear causes blood to flow to the legs, making it easier to run away. Hormones are released into the bloodstream to prepare the body for physical action. This is great if we’re being chased by an assailant. It’s less useful if we’re about to give a speech, interview for a job or ask someone for a date. The body perceives a threat and it prepares to fight or flee, even when we wish it would stay calm.
Anger presents similar problems. The body is flooded with hormones that create energy. Our faces may take on a threatening expression. We may feel urges to speak loudly and behave aggressively. This is helpful if we need to fight an attacker but less useful when we’re angered by a coworker during a staff meeting or a driver on a crowded highway.
Mindfulness helps with emotion-driven behavior. It keeps us from being too judgmental about our own emotions.
When strong emotions arise, we often tell ourselves that we’re overreacting. But, I’m overreacting is a judgmental thought. When we tell ourselves we’re overreacting, we’re implying that the intensity of our emotion doesn’t make sense or isn’t justified.
In reality, intense emotions occur for legitimate reasons even if we don’t see how they make sense, they do. The tendency to have strong emotions may be inherited. We may naturally have intense emotions because of our brains and body chemistry. Or, a strong emotional reaction to a seemingly minor event may be related to previous experiences. Normal conditioning processes can provoke strong emotions in situations that seem neutral on the surface. Also, if we’re hungry, tired, sick or stressed, minor events can trigger surprisingly intense feelings. This is normal.