Emotion = Feeling + Thought
I should probably begin by stating the difference between an emotion and a feeling. These two terms are often used interchangeably even though they are two very different concepts. We are always in a state of feeling because our bodies are constantly perceiving sensations. Being in a body is feeling; whether the feeling is made aware is up to us.
Emotion is born in the brain and is only the interpretation of a feeling in the body. It's the byproduct of a thought process attached to a sensation; a feeling observed through the lens of personal experience: an emotion is always subjective.
Your brain is like a crazy archivist playing a game of memory. It's a logical machine : it needs to understand, and it understands by association. The thought that our brain will associate with a feeling depends on our individual programming, which is defined by a vast range of experiences that live forever in our heads. When the brain receives a group of sensations, it's going to dig into our memory to make sense of them and decide how to react : that's the fabric of thoughts, which generates emotions. Your brain is making connections and decisions based on what it already knows. Sometimes unfortunately it will recognize elements of a traumatic event and bring along the corresponding emotions or beliefs, based solely on its assessment of our present situation - that's when it gets ugly. I'll give you an example with my favorite insect.
Pretend you are a small baby. You're at home with your dad, everything is fine. The telephone rings and your dad runs out of the room to answer it, leaving you in your chair. You look around : you are all alone. Your breathing speeds up. You wonder if your dad is going to come back. Suddenly a big bumblebee flies into the kitchen at the moment you were having this scary thought. Bam, your brain records the whole experience : the fear, the loneliness, the bumblebee. From this moment on, you will have an aversion for the cute, fluffy-butted insect without knowing why. Each bumblebee on your path will have you submerged with anxiety and completely helpless. But you, will have no idea what suddenly caused you so much pain.
You do not remember every painful experience but your brain does, and it puts elements of your current and past experiences together to help you have an appropriate response. But it doesn't make a difference between the present moment and something that happened twenty-five years ago. An innocent and apparently insignificant detail is enough to bring you back to the initial trauma. What is just a harmless, logical process for your brain can destroy you on the inside in a second.
No such thing as overreacting
That's why two people will have different reactions to a same event. That's why we sometimes "overreact" (I don't like to use this term but I'll do it here for the sake of understanding). When you think someone is overreacting to a situation, you are most likely witnessing this person being hit by trauma all over again. Even though the situation is completely unthreatening on the surface, in that person's brain it's chaos and pain. The worst part is that we are largely unaware of these mechanisms.
There is never an appropriate emotional response to something. There are no two people having the same experience. What might feel innocent and painless to us will feel unbelievably painful and be a massive trigger to another. It's important to remember that we never know what's going on in someone else's head. We don't know what they've been through, no matter how close we are and how well we think we know them. The truth is we can never fully understand anyone.
Every emotion is a choice
Because an emotion is merely a thought or a belief attached to a feeling, it may not represent how we truly feel about something, or someone. We use the word "love" a lot: "I love chocolate." "I love these shoes!" "I love my boyfriend." Okay, but how does it really feel to love them? Do you feel the same way about your boyfriend as you do a pair of shoes? Didn't think so --although if you do, you might want to get yourself a new boyfriend.
To truly feel, you must remove the emotion or belief that your brain has attached to a feeling. In order to do that, you put yourself in a state of awareness. Let's take anxiety as an example because so many of us struggle with it. How does it feel? You may be tempted to describe an emotion -what you believe it feels like- but I want you to focus on the sensations in your body : that is feeling. Do you feel your stomach tensing up, your chest caving in? How's your back? Did you just stop breathing for a second? Is your heart beating faster, your hands numb? Focus solely on your body and be present with each sensation without attaching any thoughts to them.
The more you sink into your body, the more it relaxes. Presence with your bodily sensations is the key to -not avoid- but confront your negative emotions head-on. You are telling your brain "I am safe in the present moment. I do not need you to protect me." You have the power to reprogram your brain so that it will stop bringing you back to that initial painful experience. When you practice feeling in your body, you will soon begin to notice that some painful emotions occur less often. Perhaps no longer at all.
There is no avoiding pain, but you can tame it. A feeling is no more than a wave passing through you, animating every inch of your body (or bodies, but that's another issue that we will discuss later on). Make the conscious choice to feel before you think, and to not believe the stories you've made up in your head.