all_togetherThere are several theories about the mechanism of emotions arising or in other words, how we perceive certain responses of our body as emotion. Older theories like James-Lange or Canon-Bard theory emphasize the role of physiological arousal in the process of emotions arising.  Modern theories have included perception as an important factor in this process, although don’t neglect the physiological arousal. Nevertheless we have some knowledge about emotional mechanisms, we still don’t know how to control emotions.  One of the dilemmas that psychology and psychopathology has been dealing with is the ability to regulate emotional responses. Emotions often lead to personal distress, may be socially maladaptive and self-destructive. They are functional as a signal for us to take some action and make same changes in recent situation, but often their intensity and uncontrolled responses to them become a great burden. So far the only regulation of emotions has been considered only on the level of response. Unfortunately emotions are like fire, it is hard to cool them down when they are already burning. We often regret our actions while being in charge of emotions, but it is usually to late, the damage has already been done. How can we regulate emotions just at the moment of their arousal?

I would like to introduce the idea how practice of meditation and the psychotherapy based on role changing can influence emotional control. Although there are many different forms of meditation, all share a number of common features. First aspect of meditation is withdrawing from thinking of everyday problems and being “here and now”. Another aspect is perceiving everything that is actually appearing in the mind and in external world without judgment. This opens us to the flow of life as it is, without colouring it by our past experiences and matrixes. Another important factor is gaining deep knowledge of self and the world by insight and understanding of our own actions and feelings as well as others. As the result of this experience we open up to others and feel compassion which influence our perception and judgments. This aspect also seems to be important in regulation of emotions.

One of the aspects of meditation is concentration, like focusing attention on a mantra, breathing rhythm, or a number of other internal or external events. That practice sharpens our awareness, self consciousness and improves perception. All existing studies using neuroimaging techniques during meditation show converging evidence of activation of frontal attentional network (Herzog et al., 1990; Lazar et al., 2000; Lou et al., 1999; Newberg et al., 2001).

But what attention and perception has to do with regulation of emotions?

We usually keep for some time a certain identity with all its goals and we don’t want any external factors to take it away from us. So our perception is narrowed and limited to one identity and present goals. The events that are contradictory to them cause the emotional reactions. This is the basic idea of the cognitive theories of emotions.

R. Lazarus (1991), who’s theory takes central place among them, stated, that emotions represent outcome of specific relation between the organism and the environment. His main idea of relations assumes that all our reactions and responses happen in interaction with other people or external circumstances. The importance of relation with another person determines the intensity of emotion. He has formulated five concepts about the nature of relation person-environment.

  1. Emotions are evolutionary-adaptive and are dependent on motivation, which guide to important aspects of environment.
  2. The importance of situation depends on so called basic topic of relationship. Emotions inform us about the possible lost (negative emotions) or gain (positive emotions). The idea of relativity also consists in the fact that two people can perceive the same situation in totally different way.
  3. Relation between emotion and relative meaning is inherited and specific to species. That means that similar interpretation of the relation by few people evokes the experience of the same emotion. If the same people read the relational meaning differently because of different goals, their emotional response will differ. The process of emotions arising depends on individual copying styles which can be directed to changes of environment or changes in relational evaluation.
  4. Strategies of copying might change the content, sign and the intensity of emotion. Their nature is biological and cultural.
  5. Differentiation of emotional process depends on different cognitive processes of relation evaluation between the individual and the environment. This evaluation is conditions by individual values, differenced of personalities and copying styles.

According to Lazarus the evaluation of situation or an object is a product of actual attributes of environment and the traits of the person. Still what the actual attributes of the environment are, has not been discovered yet.

He also described emotional process in terms of two kinds of evaluation: the primary and secondary. The primary evaluation has the motivational aspect and includes three aspects:

  1. Goal relevance, that means whether an event or an object is harmful or beneficial to the individual.
  2. Goal congruence, which means whether the situation brings the individual closer to the goal or drives away from it.
  3. Ego involvement. Different situations require different levels of ego involvement. For example, in case of anger person evaluates the situation as harmful to ego, in case of happiness, there is no need to engage ego, because “happiness comes by itself”.

The secondary evaluation is based on the process of copying with the situation.

Another important concept in the current cognitive theories has been introduced by N. Frijda. According to him emotions are some kind of signals informing whether the situation is important or not. The importance is evaluated from the perspective of individual gain. He assumed that emotions arise as a result of interpretation of situations, are connected with the individual interest and might allow or prohibit its realization. Positive emotions signalize that we are on the right way to realization of our goal, negative are induced by the events that are threatening or disturbing. Fijda has formulated ten laws of emotions, which only few I’ll mention on the need of this essay. First laws are similar to Lazaus theory and talk about different emotional responses to various interpretations of situations and also about motivation related engagement. The law that seems especially interesting to me is the law of immediate perceived reality. Emotion, according to it, are induced by events that we think are real and its intensity depends on to what extend we perceive them as real.

Both theories, Lazarus’s and Fijda’s share one common element. We react emotionally on subjectively interpreted events or stimuli. What happens if our interpretation broadens and includes not one interpretation, but all variety? What if we interpret with less personal attachment or don’t interpret it at all?

In Frijda’s theory control always accompanies emotions, but paradoxically we acknowledge its existence already after it has failed. The control has to take place on the level of immediate cognition of stimuli. This kind if perception can be exercised by practice of meditation, but it is not easy and takes some time to develop. Meditations of expanded consciousness like Vipassa and Zen are the techniques that cause significant changes in perception and emotional regulation in highest degree. Buddhist monks are so well trained in self awareness that can perceive the first signals of emotions and not let them evolve to the extent that they become harmful (Ekman, 2000). How do they do it, what is the way to such state of mind, that I personally would like to maintain?

First step in emotional awareness is the awareness of thoughts that are actually crossing our mind before they induce strong feeling. This perception can be described as the perspective of the observer. During meditation we come out of our everyday identity are observe ourselves without interpretation. We leave the roles that we play and put aside the goals connected with them. We step aside to the meta position and observe what kind of thoughts arise at the moment which makes it easier to understand what roles and identities they are assigned to. This perspective helps us to acknowledge motives of our actions and through this deep understanding, to accept them. Being opened and accepting toward ourselves makes us also more tolerant to other people. We see that they have similar motives to our own and do similar things in higher or lower extend. That state of mind brings us closer to others, so close, that we sometimes fell united as one organism. As a result we develop a great sense of compassion, which is often healing to ourselves and to our relations.

Meta position causes lowering of subjective interpretation and changes evaluation. When we are attached to one identity we fell threaten when circumstances are pushing us to take different vision. One identity, one role, ego, has a goal. When something stands on the way of achieving it, emotions arise. In case of flexible role changing or meta position of the mind, there is no resistance and therefore emotions don’t appear so easily. According to Lazarus and Frijda we interpret a stimuli in a certain way and that interpretation induces emotions. If we interpret the stimuli in various ways, if we see it’s relativity because of detachment from one identity and because of keeping meta perspective, the stimuli is unlikely to cause strong reactions.

The same situation takes place in case of any psychotherapeutic methods using switching roles, like for example: Gestalt, Psychodrama, Process Oriented Psychology. We learn to play different roles, to understand them and also how to be beyond them. Such practice opens us up to others, makes us more tolerant, loving and compassionate.

In Process Oriented Psychology the part of our personality that we identify with and the goals that we think are important to us are called the primary process. The aspects of ourselves, as well as the aspects of our environment that we don’t identify with, that we don’t want, are called secondary process. This conception is close to cognitive theories in terms of the identity and obstacles, but the terminology – primary and secondary process differs from Lazarus primary and secondary evaluation.

According to this concept emotions appear when some events from our secondary process disturb our primary process. If we allow the signals from secondary process to complete themselves, we become in tune with the flow of life and there is no disturbance. In order to do so it is crucial to be conscious and keep easy, cool awareness. Clear awareness, as I mentioned earlier is associated with the prefrontal brain regions, activated during meditation. So meditation by sharpening cognitive process and increasing self consciousness might contribute and controlling emotions.

Still in order to be conscious it is not necessary to sit down and stay with closed eyes for hours. The key point of meditation is being alert in relaxed manner and keeping reflective state of mind. This can be sustained in everyday activities, yet it is hard if we don’t even know what state of mind to search for. Therefore it is easier on the beginning to practice still meditation and then extend this state of mind to everyday life. Hopefully if we are able to be conscious of our emotions and regulate them, we will have less problems in relationships and the world will be place with less harm. We will also live healthier lives perceiving emotional signals only as signals for change instead of letting them make devastation around us.

Ewa Holt


  1. “Cognitive control of emotion”, Kevin N. Ochsner, James J. Gross, Elsevier, Vol.9, May 2005
  2. “Mind and consciousness: Toward the final answer?”, John G. Taylor, Elsevier, December 2004
  3. “Psychologia emocji”, red. Michael Lewis and Jeannette M. Haviland-Jones, GWP, Gdańsk 2005
  4. “Psychologia, podręcznik akademicki”, Jan Strelau, GWP, Gdańsk 2004
  5. “Praca nad samym sobą”, Arnold Mindell, Nuit Magique, Warszawa 1995

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