Understanding emotions may be similar to trying to find other life forms on Mars, but the reality is they exist! Before I dive into why emotional awareness is important, let me address what emotions are. This may seem like a simple phenomenon, but is it? Think about this for a moment; when a person asks you, “how are you doing today?” and your automatic response is fine, what does that mean? What is ‘fine’ in relation to how you are actually feeling. That answer comes automatically for various reasons, but it isn’t the truth. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines emotion as “a conscious mental reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body” (An Encyclopædia Britannica Company). This definition is loaded with complex terms. If we break it down emotions are the reactions we have to a certain event. The movie “Inside Out” by Disney Pixar is a fairly accurate picture of emotions. The movie presents the concept of basic emotions which can be dated back to the first-century (Burton, 2016). Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus in Psychology at UCSF and leader in psychology, identifies six-basic emotions; joy, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise. My graduate professor went as far as to eliminate surprise and disgust stating that those fell under fear and anger. These four or six emotions are the control center of our mental state and behaviors.
Now that we understand that there are four or six basic emotions, we can look at why it is importance to have emotional awareness. As a school counselor, I am teaching emotional understanding and awareness to my students. Emotional awareness is the first step in emotional regulation. A high school teenager has a lot of emotions they are dealing with due to their biology and psychology. Neuroscience studies show that the adolescent brain doesn’t look like that of an adult’s until early 20s. Teenagers are constantly reacting to their emotions instead of regulating them. There are many risk factors during this age, because they have not developed the ability to control impulses or plan ahead (National Institute of Mental Health, 2011). You add hormones to the mix and there’s bound to be a lot of emotions! I believe that our thinking (Rational) controls our emotions (Emotive) and our emotions control our (Behaviors). This is the reason I teach emotional awareness and regulation to my student. Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy is the theory that I use in educating students. Once a student can identify their emotion then they can identify the thought associated with that emotion. Then we can use a variety of techniques to help them regulate their emotions. Mindfulness is a great tool to use as well, because it forces the student to stop thinking about the future and focus on the moment. What does this look like in action? For example, when a student is worried about a test or assignment I have them go through the following steps:
Step 1. Identify the emotion
Emotion: worry = fear.
Step 2. Identify the thought that is causing that emotion.
Thought: “I won’t do well, I’m going to fail, and if I fail I won’t graduate…” these thoughts continue to make the student feel worse and distract them from focusing on studying.
Step 3. Refocus, Mindfulness Technique
I have the student take a moment to refocus by breathing and “clear his head” by mentally wiping away his thoughts. That way we can start with new thoughts to negate the previous ones.
Step 4. Making Irrational Thoughts Rational, Role Play
During the last step, I would have the student write down thoughts that would make his irrational thought, “I’m going to fail”, rational. The student could come up with a variety up thoughts that would lessen his/her anxiety. They don’t have to be positive, but they have to be neutral. For example, “I have studied and prepared for this test. I’m going to do my best! Even if I do not get the grade I want, I will not be a failure”. This would be an example of making an irrational thought rational. This isn’t a Band-Aid technique or approach. It takes time to teach the student to do this on their own.
Our adolescents and pre-teens have a lot of anxiety in this high pressure filled society. They are expected to excel in every area of their life. As social beings, we naturally compare ourselves to one another and idolize people who have achieved greatness. The need to measure up, work harder, and be better puts a strain on our student’s mental health. They need to have the proper tools to be able to endure this mental stress. This article hasn’t taken into consideration student’s who have a mental illness. The mental health of our students is vital! That is why it’s importance to understand, have awareness, and advocate for Emotional Intelligence.
-Heather Couch, School Counselor at Covington Latin School
An Encyclopædia Britannica Company. (n.d.). Emotion. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from Marrian-Webster Dictionary: marriam-webster.com/dictionary/emotion
Burton, N. (2016, January 7). What are Basic Emotions? Retrieved October 11, 2016, from Psychology Today: psychologytoday.com
Ekman, P. (n.d.). About. Retrieved October 11, 2016, from Paul Ekman: paulekman.com
National Institute of Mental Health. (2011). The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction.Retrieved October 11, 2016, from National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov