Years ago, before raising two small children and navigating a global pandemic topped my to-do list, I fell prey to the slippery slope that is chasing happiness. Life moved quickly then, and one joyous and momentous event followed another. First, a promotion at work. Then marriage and a big summer wedding, followed by a home purchase and a two-week trip to Europe.

And yet I struggled with the fact that I didn’t feel happy every day. I assumed something was lacking, rather than accepting that it’s OK to just have a bad day. I began seeing a therapist, whose exercises helped to shift my perspective, quiet outside noise, and hone in on what truly makes me happy. It was a process — and one that taught me to embrace my full spectrum of emotions.  

Especially in the midst of the pandemic and its dramatic and overarching upheaval, understanding how we can — and should — be comfortable with all of our emotions often begins with patient education, says licensed professional counselor Katie Kreitzer. The owner of the Center for Anxiety Disorders in Brookfield, Kreitzer teaches a model of emotion derived from dialectical behavior therapy, a type of cognitive behavioral therapy developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan in the later 1980s.

“Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on how thoughts, behavior and emotions play off each other,” Kreitzer explains. “... [The model of emotion I teach] is the basics of what happens physiologically — why and how we get where we are.”

To start, she continues, a prompting event or trigger is followed by your interpretation of your thoughts. “Our interpretation changes every day,” Kreitzer says, “... [and is] based on vulnerability factors. We all have vulnerability factors. I like to use a gas tank analogy — what fills our tank and what depletes our tank.” A teenager who gets a bad grade, for example, is left with a low tank and high vulnerability factors, and a simple ask, such as a request to fold the laundry by their parents, may cause an irrational response.

“Vulnerability factors impact our interpretation,” Kreitzer says, “[and] then our interpretation leads to physiological changes — think of tightness in your chest, shortness of breath, racing thoughts.” Other changes may include automatic thoughts and the urge to act out, she adds, or factors we can control like frowning, jaw clenching or shoulder scrunching, and how we choose to react to these interpretations is what guides our primary emotions.

The next — and arguably the most important — step is recognizing that there is a purpose for every emotion, notes Kreitzer. “There are three purposes for emotions, in general,” she says. “The first is to communicate to ourselves, the second is to communicate to others, and the third is to create change.” Take anger, one of the 10 primary emotions. (Others include joy, sadness, fear, disgust, love, envy, jealousy, guilt and shame.) “When we feel angry, that usually tells us somebody wronged us or did something we didn’t like,” Kreitzer adds. This self-communication is typically followed by a verbal or nonverbal reaction from the supposed wrongdoer, and a change in behavior — by one or both parties — occurs.

“The purpose of joy is to help navigate all the other emotions we have. The purpose of fear is to keep us safe,” continues Kreitzer. “... The purpose of sadness is to help us accept change. Think of a breakup, a divorce or losing your job. You’re sad. But a lot of people don’t feel sad. This is where that ‘chasing joy’ comes in. … Our society promotes very superficial joy. Go get your nails done, get a massage, go get a beer with the guys, go to a sporting event. Those things can be fulfilling, but we aren’t actually dealing with the emotions that led to the [coping] event.”

In other words, freshly-manicured nails may evoke a brief bout of joy, but will they ultimately cure sadness? The answer is likely no.

Kreitzer says it’s also crucial to recognize that every emotion is neutral.

“We view emotions as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’” she explains. “‘Let’s not have sadness.’ ‘Let’s not have anger.’ Too much, or an excess of, is bad. Too much anxiety is an anxiety disorder. Too much sadness is depression. But having [a measured amount of] them on a regular basis is normal and healthy, and we have to let our body do its job.”

The average emotion lasts just 30 to 90 seconds, she adds, so understanding that you’ll generally feel better after a short amount of time is advantageous. “The more you let your body do its job, overall the more content you’re going to feel on a regular basis,” she concludes, “because you’re not chasing sadness away.” MKE

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