One of the most common strategies (and more useful) for controlling an emotion is to avoid paying attention to the feelings and the situation associated with the unwanted feelings. People resist temptations in a very simple way: by avoiding thinking about or attending to the temptations. Anger and depression are reduced by thinking about something else: read a good book, watch an interesting movie, etc. Keep in mind, this doesn't "cure" the problem, it just avoids it. That may be all you need to do.
Even eating and drinking (college favorites) can help you get out of a bad mood. Exercise, playing with the kids, doing nice things for yourself, and trying some self-improvement are all effective mood-changers.
The evidence grows that physical exercise is good for you. Primitive living conditions and evolution have produced a human body designed to walk, run, lift, throw, breathe hard, etc, etc. This isn't just some PE teacher's opinion; sound physiological/medical research at Duke, Texas A&M; and other places concludes: "if you are over-worked, stressed out and discouraged, take a walk, jog, swim, go rock climbing or canoeing..." In fact, researchers have found that aerobic exercises reduce stress better than relaxation techniques (Anshel, 1996). Not only is exercise recommended for stress but also for depression, anger, low self-esteem and, in general, for better mental health. Naturally, it is important for heart and general physical health too. So, get started!
That is the rub--getting started. Mentally decide on a specific time to start--select a convenient time, preferably a time that is almost always open on your schedule. The idea is to make exercising a regular habit, something you do at the same time of day at least three times a week--or better, every day. One of the crucial moments is starting the first day, i.e. do everything you can to make sure that moment is carried out...think about it the previous night, set an alarm if it is in the morning or put reminders around if it is during the day. It would be best if you got a friend to go with you or to call and remind you...if nothing else you can make a public commitment to other people announcing that you will start exercising at this specific time. Afterwards be sure to tell them you actually started, just like you planned to do. This is such an important time because most failures to establish a habit result from never starting or only exercising a few times and then letting it slide.
If you can attend carefully to being sure you exercise at the same time every day for the first two or three weeks, you are well on your way to creating a good, reliable habit. After a month or two of doing exercises you like to do at the same time every day, the urge to carry out the habit becomes stronger and stronger--that is, it is easier and easier. Indeed, a need to exercise is established and you find yourself doing really weird things--like jogging at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning or going to swim at the YMCA after work at 4:00. There will also be mental/psychological changes too, such things as feeling better about your body, some pride in your self-discipline, a little more self-esteem.
There are lots of exercise books that you can find at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Three worth mentioning are Gavin (1991) and Hays (1999, 2002). The 1999 Hays book was written by a psychologist for therapists who want to incorporate exercise into the life of their clients. The author gives suggestions for getting started, for overcoming inertia, for using exercise to reduce stress, depression, traumatic reactions, and mental illness. Her 2002 book helps readers select the most fun and effective activities for their specific symptoms. Exercise can also increase self-esteem, help you stay fit, and provide a way to interact.
Several governmental agencies and universities offer Websites about exercise. Here is a sample: Healthy People 2010, Medline Plus, John Hopkins, and Georgia State.
Change the environment and use reinforcement
Depressed people focus on the negative happenings in their lives; they focus on immediate outcomes and lose their perspective of the future. They also blame themselves for failures and set difficult standards for themselves. They give themselves little praise and rewards but lots of self-criticism (see methods 1-9 in chapter 6; Rehm, 1981). This creation of depression involves biased self-observation, negative self-evaluation and self-punishment. Like depression, anxiety involves an expectation of helplessness and doom. Anger involves seeing someone else as intentionally causing you pain. Passive-dependency reflects self-putdowns relative to others. All these emotions involve a complex interaction between the environment and our own cognitive processes.
The environment can change feelings as well as behavior. Some situations make us happy, other situations stress us. We can change our environment, getting into a happier situation, or change our emotional reaction to the environment. Suppose you hate to study. By reinforcing studying with rewards, self-encouragement, self-praise, and reduced anxiety about exams and class participation, the self-helping student will enjoy studying more and more. His/her reaction to the learning environment becomes more pleasant. An environment containing reinforcement can change emotions and behaviors.
Practice, practice, practice
We get better with practice. We feel better with practice (Leitenberg, et al, 1970). Example: we overcome stage fright by speaking. We overcome shyness by socializing. We come to like to study by studying successfully. This is essentially in vivo desensitization. William James said to feel a certain way, e.g. happy, act that way. It is called the "as if" technique. Virgil Thomson recommended practicing some desired trait over and over, at first to "get over the fear" of doing it, later to really "learn how to do it" well, and, finally, to "figure out if you like it."
Pleasant activities help us enjoy ourselves
People plan fun activities to spice up their life. Therapists cheer up depressed patients by increasing their pleasant activities, especially being with other people but avoiding dwelling on their problems (see chapter 6).
Massage is one of the more relaxing activities two people can do together. It takes no special skills, only gentleness, affection and time. Several books are helpful (e.g. Downing, 1972, 1992 ). Relaxing in a warm bath while reading a good book is another wonderful method. Field, T., et al, (1992) found that depressed and behavior-disordered adolescents benefited more from 10-minute massages each day for five days than from relaxing videotapes. It may be that relaxation and touching together are especially soothing.
There are several mood-altering drugs: tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, tranquilizers, anti-depressive medicine, cocaine, mood-elevators, speed, etc. There is always some "new" illegal drug, e.g. ecstasy and LSD (Adler, 1985). Drugs--prescribed and street--are used in enormous quantities in our culture, and probably to some extent by more than half of the adult population. I haven't included drugs in psychological self-help because they aren't psychological--and because I have no expertise in that area. Furthermore, while drugs, legal and illegal, alter our emotions, the drugs do nothing to change the conditions that cause the unwanted feelings. Marijuana, cocaine, anti-depressants and speed will lift your depression momentarily but the drugs will not remove the causes of the depression. Thus, one might come to depend on drugs to cope with unwanted emotions. Removing the causes, if possible, would be a better solution. Many writers have suggested that there are a variety of better alternatives to the use of mood-altering drugs, e.g. travel, sports, fitness, relaxing, reading, movies, eating, good conversation, education, friendships, helping others, a social cause, etc.
Implosive and Rational-Emotive imagery therapy
Implosion was described in the last section of chapter 5 (method #7). The method is like flooding (method #6 in this chapter) except implosion only uses fantasy. You should know about this therapeutic approach, but it will be difficult for most people to apply implosion to themselves. For instance, surprising and shocking fantasies are needed (it is hard to surprise yourself); also, scenes of special significance to your unconscious are supposedly helpful. For example, Stampfl treated a man with a fear of driving by describing many scary driving and accident scenes. Naturally, the man became very frightened. Then he had the patient imagine driving a sports car down a highway faster and faster. The big engine roars and surges with power. The long, shiny hood of the powerful sports car grows longer and longer. Gradually the hood turns into a huge, throbbing penis, which crashes into a semi-truck and is completely crushed. A Freudian, of course, would assume that the fear of driving involves more fundamental fears, like fears of death and mutilation (castration anxiety), which also need to be reduced. In implosive treatment, the idea is to keep on imagining horrifying scenes for hours until the panic responses diminish; thus, breaking the stimulus (driving)-fear connection.
If a person had a fear of heights, an unconscious fear might be of death or there might be an unconscious wish for death. A few people could make up their own terrifying fantasies, but most of us would need help from a therapist. If you try this method, remember that at first you become more afraid and only after a few hours of terror do you start to overcome the fear. So be sure to continue imagining the horror stories until you have become used to them and are not responding with intense fear. Then you should be able to confront the real situation without serious emotional trauma.
Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavioral therapists use a technique similar to implosion. First, the worrying client imagines the awful things that could happen. Example: a person facing divorce could imagine being alone, missing his/her children, having money problems, being unable to find another partner, etc. Then, the client imagines how each of those awful situations could be realistically dealt with and, thus, gains confidence that he/she can cope with divorce. A similar approach is taken by Wanderer & Ingram (1991). They explain the technique to the phobic person and then ask them to describe his/her most frightening situations and wildest fantasies about the feared situation. This description is recorded on a 3-minute endless loop tape and then played by the client over and over for 20 or 30 minutes until the fears subside. Several such scenes are taped and repeated over and over. Eventually, the person can face the real situation. You could do implosion therapy this way yourself.
The gradual toleration method
Classic example: giving a small puppy to a child who is afraid of big dogs. If a person is afraid of approaching beautiful people of the opposite sex, he/she could start with average-looking persons and work up. If some activity is unpleasant, e.g. studying physics or looking at sexual parts, think about doing the activity increasingly while eating or doing something else enjoyable.
We have more potential control over many bodily functions than we realized two decades ago. We can alter our own blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature, acid secretion in the stomach, muscle tension, brain waves, etc. While equipment is not necessary, biofeedback instruments are the only way of knowing the results with any certainty. Good equipment is expensive; it is probably not worth buying but a local Mental Health Center may have equipment you could borrow. Some clinics specialize in pain, headaches, stress, burnout, etc. See the annual reader, Biofeedback and Self-control, published by Aldine-Atherton or Plain Talk About Biofeedback published by NIMH.
Obviously, learning better skills for handling stressful situations is a good way to cope with many emotions. Being assertive overcomes submissiveness. Describing your anger in "I feel _____ when ____" statements seems to reduce subsequent aggression and increase empathy from others (Gaines, Kirwin, & Gentry, 1977). See method #4 in chapter 13.
Since many emotions are created by our thoughts and views or attitudes (see chapters 5, 6, 7 & 8), the reduction of those emotions depend on cognitive changes (see chapter 14). We can learn to tolerate unpleasant conditions and to accept not getting what we want. To be less depressed and hopeless, we can learn to see external but changeable factors as causing bad events and internal (we're responsible) and lasting factors as causing our successes. We can also correct our irrational ideas and errors in logic. Smith (1990) has described the cognitive-behavioral methods most thoroughly. Also see the other references below.
Note: trying to think through what caused us to be depressed or upset doesn't help relieve the emotions. Also, trying to suppress ("don't think about it") the thoughts and feelings often doesn't work well either. Mentally you have to get entirely away from the disturbing circumstances.
Remember: fears can be conquered by watching someone else overcome the same fear, especially if the person will then help you get into and deal with the situation (see modeling in method #2 in chapter 11).
Happiness and contentment with one's life is based, in part, on one's values and expectations and attitudes. For example, unconditional positive regard for self and others and the tolerant-accepting attitude of a determinist makes life run smoother (see method #3 and chapter 14). To love and to be loved is life's greatest joy. Having a worthwhile mission--a purpose--adds meaning and satisfaction to life. See chapter 3.
Emotions can be changed by doing the opposite of what you want. If a dirty house really bothers you, re-double your efforts or, the opposite, try for dirt, i.e. let the house cleaning go for a couple of weeks. If you are terribly upset by a "B" (since you usually make A's), you could try to get B's until you no longer considered it terrible. If you are afraid of rejection, you can keep asking for dates until you find out it isn't awful to be turned down. If there is some idea or thought that really upsets you (like someone being homosexual or your partner flirting with someone), have thoughts about that occurrence until you are no longer bothered. The process is like flooding (method #6) where one's attitude changes from "I can't stand that thought" to "OK, if I'm going to get up tight with that little thought, then I'm going to make up a fantastically disturbing story this time. I can take it." See chapter 14.
Express the emotions you want to have.
In 1872, Darwin suggested that free expression of an emotion intensifies it. Suppression of the outward signs of an emotion reduces the feelings. Thus, it may be helpful to replace an unwanted emotional expression with another more desired one: a frown with a smile, a bowed head with a raised one, down cast eyes with good eye contact, a slow gait with a quick, peppy walk, a stressed expression with a calm one, etc.
Although we have had 120 years to research this notion, we haven't done much and our knowledge is still not very useful. Obviously, the constant suppression (denial) of some stressful emotion may not be easy or healthy. Yet, there is ample evidence that many (most?) people are not consistent in their expression of their emotions, i.e. our verbalized feelings don't correspond well with our physiological state nor with our appearance (facial expression, body language, voice quality, and so on). Frankly, we're pretty damn dumb about the consequences of pitting one part of ourselves against another in order to change how we feel. Conventional wisdom would say a body in harmony is ideal, but perhaps these parts of ourselves are controlled by independent parts of our brain and consistency doesn't matter (and one part can't control another part). It is needed research and it isn't difficult. You'll just have to try it out yourself.
Useful general references: (most are not in bibliography)
Averill, J. R. and Nunley, E. P. (1992). Voyages of the heart: Enriching your emotional life. New York: Free Press.
Greenberger, D. & Padesky, C. A. (1995). Mind over mood: A cognitive therapy treatment manual for clients. New York: Guilford.
Harmin, M. (1976). How to get rid of emotions that give you a pain in the neck. Niles, IL: Argus.
Hyde, M. & Forsyth, E. (1975). Know your feelings. Watts.
Jonas, G. (1973). Visceral learning: Toward a science of self-control. New York: Viking Press.
Keen, S. (1992). Inward bound: Exploring the geography of your emotions. New York: Bantam.
Kinder, M. (1994). Mastering your moods. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Newberger, H. & Marjorie, L. (1975). Winners and Losers. New York: Signet.
Preston, J. (1993). Growing beyond emotional pain. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Publishers.
Sand, F. (1974). The life wish. New York: Hawthorn.
Viscott, D. (1976). The language of feelings. New York: Arbor House.
Wegner, D. and Pennebaker, J. (1993). Handbook of mental control. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Wood, J. T. (1974). How do you feel? A guide to your emotions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
References cited in this chapter are listed in the Bibliography (see link on the book title page). Please note that references are on pages according to the first letter of the senior author's last name (see alphabetical links at the bottom of the main Bibliography page).