How well do you really know your own emotions?
Can you accurately describe when you are feeling depressed? Anxious? Overjoyed? What about some of the reasons you might be feeling this way?
It’s okay if you’re unsure. Most people are relatively unfamiliar with their emotions. In our emotion-phobic culture, we are often taught how to avoid our feelings instead of how to address them. What’s more, we are told we are supposed to have total influence over our emotions when the science says that emotions are driven by a whole host of non-conscious physiological forces.
Control your emotions! Emotions are for weak people. Get over it!
Sound familiar? We internalize these sorts of values all the time. When we have emotions that can’t be stopped with sheer will, we tell ourselves we are bad or weak — that we should try harder. When we cannot, we feel worse.
Simply learning a bit about emotions can make people feel much more comfortable with them. After all, no one teaches us the difference between categories of emotions. For example, core emotions, like anger, sadness, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, anxiety, guilt, and shame are not dictated purely by cognate processes but by physiological responses to environmental stimuli.
This is why emotion researchers consider the body central to the construction of the modern self. Interpretive theorist Paul Ricoeur (1992), for example, remarks that while personal identity is often perceived differently across time, the body is a resilient part of us and thus reflects a strong link to a deeper notion of identity or self. According to Ricoeur, as well as a whole host of thinkers at the intersections of phenomenology and cognitive psychology, understanding the body is essential to understanding how we feel.
Yet thanks to the problem of emotional self-alienation, getting to know one’s own body is rarely a simple task. As philosopher Thomas Szanto (2017) points out, we are estranged from our own emotions to the extent by which we feel out of sync from the rhythms of our body. Such alienation extends into our relationships with others and society as a whole — this then aggregates as experiences of burnout at work and a lot of excess psychological stress.
According to William James (1890:450), the founder of American psychology, your emotions are completely governed by your body’s responses. In fact, your body is your emotions. Imagine you’re being pursued by a wasp. If you’re like most of us, fear and panic will take over your entire being, causing your heart to race, palms to sweat, and stomach to turn over. James highlighted these responses of your autonomic nervous system with the actual emotion of fear.
Quite literally, when James talked about a “visceral” (or gut) emotional reaction to externalized social and environmental stimuli, he meant it:
“Common sense says we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike, afraid because we tremble… the more rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble.”
At EiQ Technologies, we believe biosensors can help people to become more attuned to their bodies and thus address some of the root causes of this problem of emotional self-alienation. Though there are a few ways to “read” the body, electrocardiography (ECG) and heart-rate variability (HRV) have been proven to offer direct insights into the complex unfolding of feelings.
As affordable, scalable, mobile apparatuses, these sensors present a unique opportunity to examine the ways in which our built, natural, and social environments aggregate or buffer against how we feel. To this end, recent research has highlighted how the ability to generate personalized data over space and time provides much needed answers to these pressing challenges concerning how people’s overall mental health is affected by the duration, sequences, and accumulation of our deep-seeded emotional self-alienations.