While our emotions have evolved to help us, there are times when our emotional responses no longer serve us for a variety of reasons. Unwanted emotional triggers can range from being a minor nuisance to, in some instances, leading us towards regrettable behavior. Rather than turning off our emotions completely, most of us would like the ability to turn off our emotional reactions and manage specific emotional triggers selectively. The way our brains and bodies are wired, it is difficult, though not impossible, to begin unlearning connections we’ve formed between specific triggers and emotional responses.
Six different factors are likely to determine how successful anyone can be in reducing the heat, the salience, and the power of an emotion trigger as well as the length of the refractory period (the period when we are only able to use information that supports the emotion we are feeling).
The 6 Factors that Determine How Well We Can “Cool Off” from Emotional Triggers
- The first factor is closeness to the evolved theme. Emotions have both universal themes, and individual learned variations. The closer the learned trigger is to the unlearned theme, the harder it will be to decrease its power. An example is someone who experiences road rage. While getting angry at cars cutting us off is not a universal theme (not everyone gets upset by rude driving, and cars have only relatively recently become a staple in human life), being thwarted in our pursuit of a goal is a universal theme for anger.
- A second matter to consider is how closely the current instance resembles the original situation in which the trigger was first learned. For example, consider a boy who was teased by his father- a strong, dominant man. Teasing by a woman, a peer, or a subordinate is not as close as teasing by a man who has some authority over him. So, it should be easier for the boy to weaken the emotion trigger when he is teased by someone other than a male authority figure.
- A third issue is how early in a person’s life the trigger was learned. Presumably, the earlier the trigger was learned, the harder it will be to weaken it. In part, that is because the ability to control emotional reactions to any emotion trigger is not as well developed in early life. Thus, there will be a stronger emotional reaction associated with triggers learned early in life compared to those learned in adulthood, all of the things being equal. In part, it is also because of the possibility (suggested by some developmental psychologists and all psychoanalysts, and now supported by growing evidence from studies of the brain and emotion) that early childhood is critical in forming personality and emotional life. What is learned then is stronger and more resistant to change, and triggers learned in such a critical time may produce a longer refractory period.
- The initial emotional charge is the fourth key factor of influence. The stronger the emotions that were experienced when the trigger was first learned, the harder it will be to weaken its impact. Consider the teasing example from above. If the teasing episode was a mild or moderate one, rather than a strong one, if the feelings of humiliation, worthlessness, and resentment over loss of power were mild rather than strong, then it would be easier to cool the trigger.
- The fifth factor contributing to the strength and indelibility of any particular trigger is the density of the experience. Here, density refers to repeated episodes of highly emotionally-charged experiences occurring within a short period of time, effectively overwhelming a person’s ability to cope. When there is a very strong, highly dense initial emotional charge, I expect that the refractory period, and later reaction to that trigger, will be long, making it difficult for people to realize in the first second or two that they are responding inappropriately.
- The sixth factor is affective style. We each differ in the speed of our emotional responses and the strength of our responses, and in how long it takes for us to recover from an emotional episode. Those individuals who generally have faster and stronger emotional responses will have a much harder time cooling off a hot trigger.
Learn to Manage Your Emotional Responses and Increase Happiness
If you’re looking for a greater understanding of your emotions and greater choice about emotional responses, then the first step is becoming more familiar and aware of your emotional experiences. Cultivating Emotional Balance is a holistic emotions training program that puts emotional awareness at its core to help you move closer to a life of choice.