We are facing unprecedented times.
By saying so, we already are saying two things of today’s situation: one, that it is scary (lets accept this fact that the situation is scary) and two, that we do not have a pre-existing template or process to rely on as the existing templates are not very helpful. Although there has been some similar situations in the past and my social media feed that references has more and more prominent references to Contagion – the movie; Virus – the Ebola movie or even La Peste – the book.
Emotions play a crucial role in this kind of situation. There is always an undercurrent of emotions beneath the surface of information exchange and rationality. And this might be a wonderful time to actually reposition their meaning in our lives, in the right place.
As we understand it in Psychology, Emotions are messages – they are information (of a qualitatively different nature). They inform us about what we see outside (i.e. how it appears to us – how it ‘feels’ to us) and they also inform us about how we ‘feel’ inside. And that’s where the difficulties and internal-external misunderstandings occur. The example of this can be noted from the way different kind of people (Journalists, Health Workers, Managers) are talking about it.
To an extroverted journalist who enjoys travelling the world, meeting people, talking with any and all, this idea of Physical Distancing appears threatening. This could probably be the reason why media people are using the term “Social Distancing” while objectively it is more of “Physical Distancing”. Why does the idea of Social Distance appear so frightening, almost threatening?
Why to an unsecure teenager, who relies on the comfort and reassurance of his/her everyday habits with his or her friends – in a café, on their walk home from school, during sport practice, physical distance appear so frightening, almost threatening, despite his or her constant presence online – surrounded by others?
Why to a career-minded and career-focused young professional, who for the past many years has sacrificed other areas of his or her life to finally reach something somewhere – why does this imposed quarantine appear so frightening, almost threatening?
Well, if we reconsider the psychological definition of the emotional process, or to say it in simpler words – if we look at the overall process which, in the end, leads to an emotional experience – we may find the answer.
The emotional process is started by what we call a Trigger. But at this point it is important to remember that it is not the Trigger – by itself – which presses the emotional button. The trigger just happens to exist. For the actual process of emotional experience to be started, that trigger has to be ‘paid attention to’.
In other words, you need to notice the trigger in order to experience an emotion. It might seem a self-evident statement, but attention (as we know in Psychology) is not as simple or straight forward as it might seem.
When we ‘pay attention to a trigger’ (when we modify our Attentional Focus) we may do it in different ways. We may ‘notice’ the trigger as affecting our external world (External Attentional Focus) – “The car is coming very fast in my direction”. We may also ‘notice’ the trigger as affecting our internal world (Internal Attentional Focus) – “They didn’t come to pick me up after school.”
In both cases (Internal or External Attentional Focus scenario) the trigger is now acknowledged – or let’s say for the time being – noticed, but this is still not enough to generate the emotional experience.
After the trigger has been caught by our attention, the next phase is Cognitive Appraisal. And it is this Appraisal which will determine the colour and shade of the emotional experience which we will have. Or to say it in more psychological terms – the nature and the intensity of the emotional experience.
Due to this Cognitive Appraisal – basically an evaluation phase where one internally decides what the trigger they have ‘noticed’ actually means to them – same trigger may result in very different individual emotional experiences. We experience the world not as it is but as we understand it after the cognitive appraisal.
As such, in the case of the car, (External Attentional Focus) post the Cognitive Evaluation phase one may ‘conclude’:
“The car is coming fast and it may run me over if I don’t move and if it doesn’t notice me or breaks-down. ”
As such, a heightened (intensity) fear (emotion) will arise – characterized as we all know by its specific manifestations (what we know the experience of ‘fear’ to be).
Then the resulting emotion is manifested in various ways. Psychologists have identified Five such categories of manifestations:
- Neurophysiological manifestations (hear acceleration, breathing rhythm acceleration – basically the activation of the Fight or Flight mechanism through the activation of the Autonomous Nervous System )
- Cognitive manifestations / Thoughts which are ‘coloured’ by the emotion. In the case of fear, one tends to scan the environment in minute details (heightened level of vigilance) while at the same time scanning internal resources (can I run fast enough? should I make large signs to attract the driver’s attention..)
- Action tendencies which correspond to what we are ‘prompted to do’ while experiencing those emotions – we could simplify by saying : in this case Fighting being useless, the options remaining are Flight or Freeze.
- Postural, Behavioural and Facial expressions get also modified – remember that emotions are not only a mean of Self-to-Self communication, they are also a mean of Inter-personal communication. We not only experience fear – we also show our fear to others. Which can be understood in a way as our warning sign to others – “hey be careful? there is a car coming fast, it is a real danger?”
Interestingly enough, this aspect of emotional communication is one which has been most studied by psychologists, and we know (through animal studies and cultural studies alike) that emotions of others are clearly recognizable (we don’t mistake fear for anger when we look at someone else’s face and so even if that someone else comes from Papua New-Guinea, or even if it is an animal).
- And finally, the last component of the emotional experience is something less studied, but very relatable for each and every one of us – it is the Subjective Experience of the emotion. What does it mean to ‘feel fear’ for me, how does it feel to have fear? Basically, what allows me to know that what I experience right now is fear.
We thus better envisage the dynamics of the process between the outside – the car coming at fast speed, and the inside – attention, appraisal, emotional experience and its manifestations.
Let us now have a look at the other scenario – when we ‘notice’ the trigger as affecting our internal world (Internal Attentional Focus). Post the cognitive evaluation phase one may conclude:
“They didn’t come to pick me up after school, they must have forgotten about me. I am abandoned.”
In this case, we can clearly see that the emotional experience will be of a different nature (in this case one will experience sadness) and probably of a high intensity.
The resolution of these emotional situations will not be the same.
The restored sense of Security (in the case of fear) and the restored sense of belongingness (in the case of sadness) may come from different families of means (families of Emotional Regulations).
Researchers have actually identified Five such families :
- One can modify the Situation
- Once can modify the Attentional Deployment
- One can modify the Cognitive appraisal of the situation
Ex:it is not that I am abandoned, it is on the contrary that my parents work hard to make sure I have everything I need, and that’s why they are slightly delayed.
- One can modify the Emotional Response
Ex: before rushing, let me take a deep breath, calm the ‘system down’ a bit and then I will ‘look at the situation’ again
The fifth strategy is Social Support – which can help us regulate the emotional experience at any of those levels. We can ask others to help us modify the situation, we can ask the help of others to shift our attention or to ‘rethink the situation differently’ and finally we can ask them to help us ‘calm down’.
As such, and I guess this is the message that the Psychological study of emotions is conveying to us:
Social Distance, Physical Distance and imposed quarantine does not need to mean Psychological Isolation. We all still have access to our fifth (and for many preferred) way to regulate our emotional experience, it is just like everything else (remote working, remote studying…) we can re-invent our social support in a non-physical world as well.
About the author:
Dr. Mariya Jilinskaya is associate professor of Psychology in O P Jindal University. She teaches course in psychology and its applications in various areas of life and business. Dr. Jilinskaya writes about emotional intelligence, life and career development, psychometric testing and other areas of applied psychology.