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Emotion Regulation Skills for the World.

Organized religion has served the purpose of organizing human beings around some shared concept of absolute good. A shared higher purpose. However, religion doesn’t always work in this way. Any organization run by human beings is subject to the problems of humanity. Clearly all organized religion have at one time or another been kidnapped and altered by greed, selfishness, narcissism, fear and paranoia.

Religion has taken the human race a long way toward peace. But it has also been responsible for providing the catalyst for many wars and disagreements. It’s the not the religion per se that causes the problem. It’s not the "god" du jour. It is instead an identification and labeling error made by human beings that causes the desire to "kill" for the sake of righteousness.

I often think of Lennon’s song "Imagine" and how it makes so many religious followers angry. The song suggests that a world without religion, without the lines of right and wrong being drawn, would be a more peaceful world. He makes a good point. However, Lennon commits the same thinking error of the religious right when he suggests that a place with "no" religion, "no heaven" and "no hell" would solve the problem.

Both sides of this discussion commit the same error. Religion is not the problem. The problem is that both liberals and righty tighties make the same cognitive distortion. I prefer my lefty cognitive distortions, but what keeps me sane, is my awareness that my thinking that any one side of any given argument is all right or all wrong is the cause of at least some and maybe even all war, and all insanity. Yes, I think it’s safe to say that all mental illness includes some cognitive distortions.

It’s not a particular god that causes terrorism, or war. It’s instead the concept of "righteousness". Emotions are stimulated internally and externally. Sunsets tend to bring a smile to all human beings. Some fear on the edge of cliff is a normal response to a factual vulnerability of humanity. Those are externally stimulated. Many emotions however are internally stimulated. That is, caused by our own "thoughts" about any given situation. Those thoughts fuel the stimulation of emotions. Problems arise when we automatically stimulate emotion without recognizing the validity of our "thoughts" as we fuel a reaction.

The practice of "Zen" and meditation encourages awareness of this process. All religions encourage at least some awareness of thought, emotion and action. Naturalistic Inquiry the likes of Korzybski and other great thinkers also highlights this important aspect of human thought and emotion.

Working with survivors of trauma it has become very clear to me that trauma survivors often share certain cogntive distortions that are related to the trauma that they survived. The nature of trauma causes the brain to be unable to process intellectually and with clarity the events of the situation. Too much stimulus at once overloads the brain, too little knowledge (depending on the age of the survivor), too little time to think through the situation for the need to survive, causes cognitive errors. These errors in thinking and understanding fuel thought and emotion for the rest of our lives unless we become aware of the distortion, it’s link to the trauma and then some correction for the distortion to a more valid understanding.

This is part of the emotion regulation process. We are not taught emotion regulation. We learn it by the role modeling done by our parents, our leaders, our teachers. If we see an absence of this role modeling we often are learning the "rules" for addiction. That is that those around us are not actively using the correction of invalid thought to regulate mood, but instead regulate by chemicals, substances or habits.

So, how do you teach emotion regulation? It needs to be taught to children, in schools and in homes. This is the idea that for every emotion there is a thought or interpretation. That emotions last seconds to minutes, unless we trigger more emotion with a new thought or refiring of an old one. That part of emotion regulation is awareness of the thoughts that fuel emotion and a willingness to analyze these thoughts. This results in the regulation of emotions. We can choose our feelings.

We as humans get into trouble when we believe that there is a "right" response to any given situation and that this response is tied to some rigid rule of humanity. For instance many people are shocked to learn that some cultures celebrate at a funeral instead of somber tears and prayer. Emotion regulation as a skill reguires the ability to find the thought behind the emotion. First however, we have to have the ability to recognize our emotions. Then we must validate the purpose of emotions and be able to assess the value of any given emotional response. Finally, it requires the ability to replace the thought with facts, with validity that often decreases the emotional response and sometimes even feeds the brain a solution to the problem at hand.

Emotions are energy. They come from the most primitive part of the brain. Emotions give human beings quick answers when analysis is not possible. It gives us an auto pilot response that does not require use of the frontal lobe. Problems arise however, when we fail to aknowledge that emotions are not facts and that often times emotions are fed by ideas or thoughts that are not valid.

For instance. If my daughter comes home crying because some one called her a name. I say to her "is it true what she called you?" Sometimes my daughter answers "yes". If she answers yes, we look at the validity of that answer. Is it really true that you are stupid? What are the facts. What are your grades? What is smart? What is stupid?. She begins to see leeway in this. She begins to see that the answer is not so black and white.

So what if she says "no", I am not what she called me. Then I ask "then why are you sad?". She might say "because she hates me". I say "is that really true? Do you know that for sure? Have you ever called your brother or anyone else a name you didn’t mean?" She aknowledges this. Then we talk more about what might really be going on. My daughter will see that the girl in question might be feeling angry, jealous, some emotion that is not my daughter’s to own. That the girl is responding to her own emotion not my daughter. We focus not on how she "should" feel, but on how she would "like" to feel and how she can get to that place.

As we begin to interact from different cultures on a more global scale, it has become even more important for us to develop this skill. We must start to work on increasing this mental flexibility. We must start to realize that our emotional responses are not truth.

Traumatized and invalidated people tend to "believe" their emotions over facts. They have learned not to trust the cognitive part of the brain. They have habitually lived in emotion mind. They can be taught to use the frontal lobe to evaluate emotions. It works with childhood sexual abuse survivors, it works with borderline personality disorder. It takes time to teach to those who have habitually lived in emotion mind. Some might argue that the dry drunk is the perpetual emotion mind. It takes a while to replace old habits with new ones, but rarely has there been a "habit" more sound than this one. This habit is worth the energy it requires for the change that it brings to one person and then the world. Serenity requires this skill.

We need to begin teaching emotional intelligence to schools, and to the world. We can all learn to analzye for the cognition behind the emotion, for validity and fact over guesses and theories. It doesn’t mean that we stop having hunches, but that we recognize the difference between a hunch and a fact and that we as human beings evolve in our ability to recognize the difference between feelings and facts.

It is my humble opinon that our ability to find world peace is based on our ability to teach and role model the skills of emotional intelligence. These skills are not tied to a religious belief or a "right" and "wrong" approach. These skills are not ethnocentrically based. These skills are based on the nature of the human brain.


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I am a licensed mental health counselor specializing in the treatment of trauma. My twenty years of experience in treating survivors of domestic violence, childhood abuse, sexual assault and war have increased my desire to participate in studying the invariant relationships related to violence. My current pet theory has to do with denial and truth. The invalidation of those who suffer from trauma, has created symptoms that plague our society. The most serious symptom being the perpetuation of violence in our denial of it's consequences.

The truth shall set you free. But it takes skills (emotional intelligence) to handle the truth...because most of society...
"can't handle the truth."