Discomfort is a natural part of your existence, ranging from minor inconveniences like the occasional headache to more persistent conditions such as a recurring backache. You’ve likely experienced discomfort in various forms, and at times, these experiences may have led to varying degrees of suffering. But what if this suffering could be managed or even reduced?
In this post, drawing from Dr. Barrett’s insights in “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain,” I will explore the idea that you have the power to manage or even reduce the suffering that comes with various forms of discomfort.
The Brain’s Interpretation of Sensations
The sensations you feel—such as the quickening of your heartbeat or the gnawing sensation of hunger—don’t just exist in isolation. Your brain actively engages with these physical sensations, working to make sense of them.
Dr. Barrett suggests that your feelings of distress or misery often stem from the brain’s interpretation of “interoceptive sensations.”
What exactly are interoceptive sensations? Interoception is your inherent ability to sense your body’s internal state, which includes feelings such as hunger, thirst, and pain.
Here’s the intriguing part: Your brain doesn’t passively register these sensations. Instead, it actively interprets them, assigning meanings that can transform into emotions like anxiety or joy. For instance, a tightness in the chest might be interpreted as anxiety in a stressful situation, or as excitement before a big event.
At times, this interpretive process can cause your brain to amplify or mislabel your feelings. Understanding this mechanism is crucial to mastering your emotional responses.
Discomfort vs. Suffering
Dr. Barrett’s work suggests that understanding the difference between discomfort and suffering can help you achieve a sense of control.
Discomfort is your body’s immediate reaction to stimuli and manifests as physical sensations, such as the ache in your muscles after a workout or the pang of hunger before lunchtime. These forms of discomfort are direct and often temporary, conveying clear and identifiable messages.
In contrast, suffering encompasses not only the physical sensation but also the emotional story that you (or more precisely, your brain) attach to it. Chronic discomfort isn’t just an inconvenience—it can lead to feelings of despair or hopelessness. The emotional narratives attached to discomfort can, at times, amplify suffering.
Recognizing when your brain is simply registering a sensation versus when it’s weaving an emotional story allows you to challenge and potentially change the narratives you tell yourself.
Bodily Sensations: The Core of Our Emotional Responses
While Dr. Barrett emphasizes the brain’s role in constructing emotions from bodily sensations, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, a renowned historian, offers a complementary perspective in his book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.”
Harari states, “According to the life sciences, happiness and suffering are nothing but different balances of bodily sensations. We never react to events in the outside world, but only to sensations in our own bodies.”
This idea suggests that reactions to life events, whether it’s the loss of a job or personal upheaval, are fundamentally based on how one’s body interprets these sensations.
Highlighting this idea’s significance, Harari adds, “People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies.”
By better understanding and mastering these sensations, you can significantly influence your overall well-being.
Imagine you’re watching a movie, and you’re on the verge of tears during an emotional scene. Is the scene itself causing those tears? Or could it be a combination of the music, the acting, the lighting, and even your personal memories and experiences?
Similarly, your emotions aren’t generated spontaneously. They result from your brain piecing together various elements from your current environment, past experiences, and bodily sensations. For instance, feeling sadness on a rainy day might result from a combination of gray skies, past memories, and the chill in the air.
To navigate the complex world of emotions, it’s crucial to understand how they are constructed. Dr. Barrett advocates for deconstructing emotions by identifying their basic components, especially the physical sensations associated with them.
The Power of Recategorization
Once you’ve deconstructed an emotion to its fundamental sensations, you’re faced with a pivotal choice. This is the moment where you can reshape your emotional landscape, an empowering process Dr. Barrett refers to as “recategorization.”
Take the sensation of a racing heart, for instance. Without introspection, your brain might automatically interpret this as anxiety. However, with the insights gained from the emotional deconstruction, you can challenge this initial label. Is the sensation truly anxiety, or could it be excitement, anticipation, or even eagerness?
By actively choosing to recategorize your sensations, you empower yourself to influence your emotional reactions. This process is about recognizing the malleability of emotions and your capacity to guide them, while also validating the real emotions you feel.
Recategorization provides a moment of reflection, giving you the opportunity to alter your emotional trajectory. Rather than being passively swept along by your emotions, you become their informed navigator, with significant implications for your well-being.
My Experience with Emotional Deconstruction
I used to grapple with an unusual sensation in my mouth. At a loss to comprehend or describe it, this sensation became a source of distress for me, as my brain sought to understand it.
After reading Dr. Barrett’s work, it all made sense. I realized that what I was experiencing was merely a discomfort, not profound suffering. Recognizing this distinction allowed me to view the sensation for what it truly was—a simple physical sensation from my body. I learned to coexist with it without adding unnecessary emotional weight.
The Subtle Influence of Affective Realism
Your emotions and bodily sensations are interconnected; they actively shape your world perception—a phenomenon Dr. Barrett refers to as “affective realism.” This concept means your feelings can skew your understanding of your surroundings.
Dr. Barrett highlights an intriguing study in her book: Scientists in Israel observed that judges were significantly more likely to deny parole to a prisoner if the hearing took place just before lunchtime. Instead of recognizing these sensations as hunger, the judges misinterpreted them as justifications for their decisions. After lunch, they resumed granting paroles at their usual rate. This underscores how our emotions and sensations profoundly influence our decision-making, even in professional contexts.
This idea of “affective realism” extends beyond just hunger. Dr. Barrett points out that people often report feeling happier on sunny days. Yet, when questioned about the weather, this correlation disappears, hinting at an unconscious influence from their environment. This observation is crucial even in scenarios like job interviews where candidates might be seen more favorably on bright days versus rainy ones.
Practical Strategies for Emotional Mastery
Drawing on Dr. Barrett’s research, here are some practical steps you can take to navigate and master your emotions:
1️⃣ Mindful Observation: Pause periodically throughout your day for reflection. Ask yourself: Am I experiencing just discomfort, or is it escalating to suffering? What specific bodily sensation is associated with this feeling?
2️⃣ Challenge Assumptions: When you notice a bodily sensation, such as a racing heart, don’t immediately assume it’s anxiety. Reassess your initial reaction. Could there be another explanation?
3️⃣ Practice Recategorization: Pay attention to subtle sensations and intentionally try to relabel them. This conscious practice of recategorization can become a natural part of your emotional regulation over time.
This exploration into discomfort, sensations, and the emotions that follow highlights the power of understanding your reactions. Distinguishing between discomfort and suffering is crucial. It provides a roadmap to better manage your emotional responses. By honing these insights, you can face life’s challenges with a clearer perspective, enhancing your overall well-being.
Embrace the journey of introspection and reshape your emotional landscape for a brighter, more resilient tomorrow!