“Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs” ~ Antonio Damasio
Karla McLaren’s work (2010, 2013, 2020) teaches us to channel our emotions. To channel something is “to direct or convey something along a chosen pathway in a conscientious manner. If we can learn to properly channel our emotions, we can begin to … interpret the messages our emotions carry and make use of the instincts our emotions contain” (McLaren, 2010, p. 33). Emotions are only ever felt in the present moment (much as the body is only ever in the present moment) but, having said that, there are emotions within the fear family that tend to distinguish past, present, and future concerns. Here is a short overview:
Fear has an eye on the present moment to help us orient to novelty and change as it arises. Think of it as a bunny rabbit in the woods nibbling on a piece of grass. He hears a twig snap nearby and pops his head up.
He’s not in flight or freeze in that moment but, rather, he is orienting to that sound: “Is that a sound I want to go investigate? Do I want to put some distance between me and whatever made that sound? Or is that a neutral sound and I can go back to nibbling my piece of grass?” Fear is the emotion that helps us sort through the possibilities and arrive upon the one appropriate for that particular situation in that particular moment. After orienting to the scene, it asks a simple “What action should be taken?” (McLaren, 2010, p. 235). Once we take that action and the novelty/change stabilizes, the intensity of the fear subsides because it’s done its job and we attended to the work it needed us to do.
Anxiety on the other hand, has its eye on the future and is task-oriented to help us meet our goals. Think of it as a border collie who needs to get a flock of sheep from the pasture to the pen by the end of the day.
It keeps an eye on all the moving parts involved as it herds the flock towards that goal, course correcting along the way as new challenges are variously introduced and resolved. If fear’s question is a straight-forward “What action should be taken?” anxiety’s question is “What really needs to happen?” (McLaren, 2013). A lot of things could happen (including avoidance and over-thinking the issue), but what really needs to happen in order to help us get to our desired goal? Answering this question helps us cut through the whirlwind of “what ifs” and self-doubts to focus us on what the priorities are for getting us to where we want to go. Once we take that action and we arrive at our goal, the intensity of the anxiety subsides because it’s done its job and we attended to the work it needed us to tend to.
Confusion is an important buddy for anxiety because, otherwise, anxiety might barrel forward with its tasks and goals without stopping to consider whether it’s on the right path. Anxiety needs confusion to help it become “more appropriately employed” (McLaren, 2019, personal communication). Think of confusion as an impeded stream.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
~ Wendell Berry, Standing by Words (1983)
Confusion is the impeded stream that sings to divert our attention from where we’ve been focused in order to consider integrating new information. In the case of conflicting information, it helps clarify things for us by asking “What is my intention?” (McLaren, 2010, p. 257). If we listen to it and heed it’s advice, it will help us determine what course correction needs to take place. Once we take that action and make the correct adjustments, the intensity of the confusion subsides because it’s done its job and we attended to the work it needed us to tend to.
Panic can be a bit murky because we have one word in our English language for what are actually two different experiences. We can separate these two different experiences via time too. The first is reserved for clear and present danger that needs to be responded to immediately in order to promote survival. An example of this is when a saber-tooth tiger is bearing down on us.
The saber tooth tiger is in the room here and now. Our nervous system automatically chooses between variations of fight, flight and freeze (some would add “fawn” and “feigned death” or “submit” to this list) in a last-ditch effort to save our lives. Panic is not an ethical or relational emotion. Panic is about survival. Fight, flight, and freeze are appropriate in these situations. Panic loves us so much, it’s willing to sacrifice everything to save us.
However, most of what we call panic isn’t clear and present danger that is happening in the present moment. Most of what we use the word panic for actually centers around the past and is why we put the “P” in “PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder). This emotion is trying to help us too. Think of it as a medicine man.
If a medicine man in full ceremonial dress appeared in front of you engaged in full ceremonial dance – looking like he looks, moving like he moves, sounding like he sounds – and you weren’t familiar with his cultural traditions, he might trigger your sense of clear and present danger. Just like an actual medicine man, though, this form of panic is meant to help heal you, not hurt you. This form of panic tries to help you attend to the past via three questions: 1) “What triggered this?” 2) “What has been frozen in time” (in psychological language: “What does this remind you of?”) and 3) “What healing action(s) need to happen?” (McLaren, 2010, p. 281). A lot of things could happen (including avoidance and hyper-vigilance), but which actions would actually be healing? Answering these questions that panic poses helps us cut through the haze of past projections to focus us on what is needed to help separate past from present so that we can be in the present with all the power and resources it holds, rather than the past when we didn’t have the power or resources we have access to now. Once we take those healing actions that help us get back into the here and now and within our window of tolerance, the intensity of the panic subsides because it’s done its job and we attended to the work it needed us to tend to.
“In a nutshell, people must pay attention to their emotions and give them equal status to thought and action. It is the integration of emotion and reason that results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is not that the experience of emotion alone leads people to wise action. . . . How people make sense of their emotional experience and how they use it is what makes the difference. Awareness of emotion and the ability to enable emotion to inform reasoned action is what is necessary for emotional intelligence” (Greenburg, 2008, p. 10).
- Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. NY: Pantheon.
- Greenberg, L. (2008). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
- McLaren, K. (2010). The language of emotions: What your feelings are trying to tell you. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
- McLaren, K. (2013). The art of empathy: A complete guide to life’s most essential skill. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
- McLaren, K. (2020). Embracing anxiety: How to access the genius of this vital emotion. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.