“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This could have been said by someone struggling with mood swings! How many of us have not experienced something similar? We’re in a good mood—maybe even enjoying “the best of times”—when someone says something hurtful to us or we hear that someone has said something hurtful about us, and instantly, we spiral into the throes of despair—the worst of times. And all this within a minute!
When you read it in a short paragraph, it kind of sounds crazy, huh? It really does! But we’re all guilty of those kinds of emotional peaks and valleys. The question for this post is, can we control those emotions? Or are we slaves to our circumstances (that is, our day goes good, and we’re happy, but then one thing goes wrong, and instantly, we’re depressed or angry)?
The short answer is a resounding YES! we can control our emotions. The Bible says, “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.” That’s one of many, many scriptures on the subject, and that is enough for me to confidently affirm that it is possible to control our emotions.
But there’s more! If you’re a regular reader of My Pleasant Places, you’ve probably picked up on my fascination with the brain. I do lots of reading on the subject—how to “feed” it so that it performs better, how to improve and prolong our memory, activities that will create new neural pathways, etc. It was in some of this brainy reading that I learned that there is a specific part of the brain that is recognized as the emotional center—the amygdala. There is also a center for reasoning and [sound] judgment; it is called the prefrontal cortex. And here’s the intriguing part: when the amygdala is “acting up” (that is, when we are emotional), the prefrontal cortex sort of shuts down; it takes a back seat to the amygdala. Another way of saying this would be when we are highly emotional, we tend to lose all sound judgment! The emotional center and the reasoning center cannot both be dominant at the same time, and by default, it seems, the judgment center will defer to the emotional center unless trained to do otherwise.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, when our emotions are stimulated, we could bring them into subjection to our sound minds? That when we hear some hurtful words, we can feel the pain but not spiral downward? That when someone crosses us, we can “be angry and sin not”? Well, we can. But just like any other character trait, it will require training. The obvious question is: How do I train my reason and sound judgment to stay “on” even when my emotions are “on.”
I’m no brain specialist, but I have learned how powerful “self-talk” is. For me, there is no more effective self-talk than using God’s words and speaking them to myself. For example, I might declare that I am a woman who keeps herself under control. I do not give way to my emotions—good or bad. I walk in a spirit of love, power and a sound mind. I will enjoy good emotions, but even they (the good emotions) are not allowed to take over the reasoning part of my brain.
“Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.” The walls spoken of in this Proverb were the city’s protection. It’s what kept the intruders out and kept the citizens safe. A wall-less city was vulnerable to all manner of attacks. That is what a person without self-control is compared to. They are vulnerable, they are unprotected, they can be their own worst enemy, making themselves easy prey.
Developing self-control and ruling our emotions can be done. As with any other character trait, it takes time, consistency/repetition, and patience, but we are equipped for success in this area. Our brains are even wired for it. Only one “center” can be in control. Let’s train our brains to default to sound judgment rather than emotions.
What are your thoughts about controlling emotions? Do you have any strategies that have better equipped you to keep “sound judgment” in the driver’s seat even when your amygdala is acting up? I’d love to hear your strategies.