Controlling your mental state

In this essay I use the terms ‘emotion’ and ‘mental state’ interchangeably. I think they are largely the same thing, the commonly recognised emotions are simply the clearest and most consistent mental states people experience.

I have recently become interested in the idea of exerting control over my mental state. Most people live their lives entirely responding to outside stimuli, having their emotions and behaviours dictated by the events they are subjected to. But it has become clear to me that we have a lot more control over the state of our own minds than we think, and that this concept is rarely mentioned in our society.
It seems only natural that we respond emotionally to the things that happen to us, but thinking about emotions and their Darwinian origins have made me realise that they serve a few basic functions.

Emotions as logical shorthand 
Emotions can cause us to act in ways that improve our chances of survival. If a person takes advantage of you, you might respond with anger, in anger you may be more assertive and demanding than you would dare to be in a calm state of mind, this can be beneficial to you in the short and long term. Fear represents an estimation of risk, when our survival is on the line and we don’t have a lot of information to work with it’s better to over-estimate risk rather than under-estimate, this is often what we experience with fear.

Emotions as physiological modes
Emotions affect us physiologically as well as mentally. Fear or anger or excitement will increase your heart rate or produce adrenaline, they can push you to a peak of physical performance that you could not normally achieve. A calm state of mind, on the other hand, will lower your heart rate, thus saving energy for when it is needed.

Emotions as behavioural stimulus
Our conscious minds often disagree with our biological imperative to compete and procreate. Emotions can make us do things that we may not consciously think of as useful or important, but which evolution has determined to be vital. Jealousy can spur you to compete with your peers. Love and lust urge us to procreate even if we might rationally decide against it.

So with these apparently useful functions, why should we try to override our emotions? Point one was that emotions are logical shorthand. It may be a lot more effort, but with the power of human intellect, we can employ more formal logic. All animals display emotions, they are the attempts by evolution to create logical responses to a large range of situations, without knowing the specifics of that situation. With the power of a human mind, we are able to assess the finer points of the situations we encounter, in a functional sense our reasoning is like a higher precision form of decision making than emotions. Indeed, the role of high intelligence is to be able to make behavioural optimisations within one’s lifetime, while evolution only works at the timescale of generations. Overriding instinct is the primary purpose of our reasoning minds.

Some of what I’ve said so far may seem obvious. The difficult part is trying to find simple, effective methods for altering your mental state. This is something that many people tackle, but a lot of it is presented as a small part of either self help advice or religious practice. Both of these approaches often seem a little ridiculous or fringe to many people, but I think we should all take the idea of exerting real control over ourselves seriously. Additionally, both of these approaches tend to come with inbuilt motives. Self help types often assume that you want to achieve the traditional idea of success, religion assigns you goals that its founders have decided upon. My thought is that everyone should have this kind of self control. No matter what your motivations or aspirations are, learning to override and harness your emotions will surely be beneficial.

I have had two main issues in implementing these kinds of strategies. The first is externalisation. This is, I think, the hurdle that stops many people from taking this concept seriously. Essentially, this is when you blame outside forces for your mental state. Now, it is not a false perspective per se, we do have limited power to stop emotions or thoughts from appearing, and indeed outside forces can be beyond our control. The problem is that this is an inherently dis-empowering thought. If you instead re-frame things as being choices, suddenly you feel that you have the power to control them. If you’re angry when stuck in heavy traffic, don’t think “of course I’m angry, that guy just cut me off! He made me angry!”, instead think “I’m feeling angry, I can either choose to continue feeling this, or not”.
For me this is easier to overcome with basic and obvious emotions like anger or sadness, but more difficult with ennui, and feeling motivated is harder still. When I’m feeling lazy, I have a habit of accepting it. Without even identifying any causes I will just accept that this is the state of mind that I have found myself in. This is doubly bad for laziness because it seems like it will require effort to escape the feeling that I can’t muster any effort. I am trying to force myself to think of every state of mind as one that I have intentionally adopted, and can therefore reject at any moment.

The second big issue is distraction. It is all well and good to decide that you have control of your emotions, but it’s likely that, in the moment, you will focus on the causes of your emotions rather than the emotions themselves. This is only natural, after all it is the cause of the emotions that presumably requires some action on your part. The problem is that the emotional state that is caused by an event may not be optimal for dealing with the event itself. I think the key to practicing this kind of mental control is to experience the emotion in the absence of any distractions. This way you can focus on assessing and dismissing the emotion and build a force of habit that will occur even with distractions. Never focus on the cause of the emotion if you can avoid it, if the cause of the emotion is not relevant to your actions it can only serve as a scapegoat that validates the emotion. Driving is a good time to practice rejecting anger. I’m sure all of us feel a little bit of road rage at times. If you are driving alone there are few distractions, it is a good opportunity to be mindful of your emotions and develop that into a habit.
At a recent family gathering, both my brother and I were pretty tired, not in the best state to maintain a jovial atmosphere. At one point he said something vaguely snarky or dismissive and I almost responded in kind, but caught myself. I realised that as the older brother I tend to set the tone and, as much as I wanted to, engaging with these negative feelings would only bring both of us down. It was a subtle interaction, but it was very profound for me as I had made an instantaneous assessment of possible outcomes and avoided the behaviour my emotions wanted me to engage in.

“Let any external thing that so wishes happen to those parts of me which can be affected by its happening – and they, if they wish, can complain. I myself am not yet harmed, unless I judge this occurrence something bad: and I can refuse to do so.”

-Marcus Aurelius

Strategies for consciously affecting your mental state
My specific strategies are not that well developed, this is the area where I could use a lot of input. If you have any strategies of your own I would love to hear them. Anyway, here are some things that work for me.

Emotions can have physiological effects, but on the flip-side, physiological phenomena can also affect our emotions. The trick is to find out which emotions are connected with which physiological effects. An obvious one, of which many of you are probably aware, is that smiling makes you happier. Our brain’s messy wiring connects smiling with happiness, so smiling circuits activate happiness circuits just as the inverse is true. Similarly I have found that low heart rate and laziness are connected, so getting up and walking even just a few paces will make you more energetic and motivated. Try to intentionally adopt the physical traits and mannerisms that you have when experiencing the mental state you are trying to reach.

The line between our memories and experience of the present moment is pretty blurry, we can utilise this to get the emotional response that we want. Find some strong memories that are associated with certain feelings, reminiscing on these when the need arises will invoke some portion of the associated feelings. I have found smiling and thinking of recent amusing events can dispel anger or sadness almost instantly.

Our brains are excellent at building associations, if you practice changing your mental state and think of some kind of visual or behavioural analogy at the same time, the analogy will strengthen the pattern of thoughts. This is a little difficult to explain, so I will just give my clearest example. When rejecting anger or frustration, I imagine scrunching up a piece of paper and dropping it into a waste basket. I think this analogy works on several levels, the negative emotion is being discarded just like the paper, the scrunching is vaguely cathartic, like a stress ball, and dropping the paper is gentle, it signifies a calmer state of mind, rather than throwing which would imply force or aggression. I think analogies like this also give your brain a clear focus, you could be in any kind of situation, feeling any kind of negative emotion, but the analogy stays the same, as does the intention behind it.

I hope this doesn’t seem like trite advice on how to be happy and successful (happiness is easy for me, but I am not remotely qualified to talk about success), nor is it about rejecting negative emotions entirely. Negative emotions have their place, they can be useful in the right circumstances. What I am interested in is using our logical minds to decide which emotions are necessary and when. I think our conscious minds have the capacity to handle this task better than our subconscious.



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