When it seems that nothing works, when the world is turned upside down, do you feel just sick or experience a more specific emotion like despair, frustration and sadness?
In psychology there is an expression that refers to people whose feelings are finely tuned, “emotional granularity”. When these people read the news of a terrorist attack, for example, they do not feel only fear or anger, but also indignation, anguish, disappointment, despair or irritation. When these people read of corruption they do not just get mad, but they can also experience exasperation, anger, sadness or even embarrassment.
Emotional granularity does not simply mean having a large vocabulary with which to express what you feel, but above all means to be aware of emotions and feelings. Unfortunately, most people are unable to detect these subtle changes in their emotional states. However, experiencing emotional granularity can make a big difference in our lives.
Experiencing a wide range of emotions is beneficial for the mind and the body
Experiencing a wide range of feelings, although unpleasant, allows us to be more effective in regulating our emotional states, preventing us from taking destructive strategies in dealing with situations that overwhelm us. This is confirmed by a study conducted at the University of George Mason, where it was revealed that people who are able to detect and understand their emotions are less likely to seek refuge in drugs, alcohol or food as ways of escape.
Another study conducted by psychologists at the University of Kentucky found that these people also showed a greater self-control and were less likely to react aggressively to difficult circumstances, although they were very angry. In practice, everything seems to indicate that the emotional granularity is an important indicator of resilience.
But perhaps the most surprising thing is that emotional granularity is not only beneficial at a psychological level but also helps to have a longer and healthier life. In fact, it was found that these people go rarely to the doctor and take less medication, as well as spend fewer days recovering in the hospital.
In this regard, one particularly revealing study involving 92 women with breast cancer, found that those who were able to detect, label and understand their emotions showed lower levels of inflammation, one of the processes underlying this disease and which is considered a negative symptom.
Where is born the concept of emotional granularity?
Emotional granularity is a concept that was born in the nineties of the last century, when the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett realized an experiment in which she followed the emotional experiences of hundreds of people for months. It was then when she realized that most of the participants used generic words to describe their emotional states, such as “sad”, “angry” and “scared”.
The interesting thing was that some people were using different words that allowed them to investigate what they felt, or resorted to phrases and similarities that allowed to further clarify how they felt, such as: “I feel unhappy” or “I feel fragile as a crystal”.
At first it was thought that these people were only able to recognize more accurately their emotions, but the truth is that it was something much more complex and important. The key lies in the fact that the brain turns emotions into something very real, in a blink of an eye and without realizing it, so that people who are able to manage different emotional concepts are also able to try “customized” feelings for each situation.
For this reason, the emotional granularity has a great influence on our well-being and health. In practice, it offers our brain more precise tools with which manage the various challenges of life.
Calibrating the emotions alows to find better solutions
Imagine you can not stand your boss, but you still have to go every day at work. When you wake up every morning, it overwhelms you an unpleasant feeling of discomfort and hatred makes you feel worse and worse.
However, it is you who created this feeling of discomfort because your brain does not just react to what happens, but also proactively adjusts the energy needed by your body to react to the environment, and it does it based on past experience and the way it consider the situation. In this way, the brain can know how much cortisol and adrenaline need to be produced to help you escape the danger that a given situation requires for you.
Obviously, because the brain generates the necessary activation and maintains a certain balance, it is necessary to know precisely the emotion we are feeling. In this regard, the emotional granularity saves resources, avoids triggering an unnecessary activation. On the contrary, experiencing widespread emotional states can result in a “wrong calibration” of emotions, something that becomes a breeding ground for diseases.
Emotional granularity allows the brain to build a more specific and measured emotion, which implyes responding more adaptively depending on what is happening and we are trying. So instead of feeling bad every day when you go to work, you may think that in fact your boss makes you feel helpless, despised, humiliated or dissatisfied, and so you will be able to design a more effective strategy to address the situation and get out of this vicious circle.
Developing emotional granularity you stop being a passive spectator of your life and take control of it. This way you avoid unnecessary discharge of cortisol and adrenaline, which are so damaging.
It is possible to develop emotional granularity?
The good news is that emotional granularity is a skill, so you can develop it. The first step is to strengthen the emotional vocabulary, this way you will have a wider range of concepts with which categorize what you hear.
The second step is to increase the emotional awareness, that is, learn to listen to your feelings and deepen them. Considers that emotions are like a skein, you’ll have to unravel them slowly, little by little. If you’ve never done it before at the beginning can be difficult, but with a little patience you can better delineate how you feel.
Remember that the more tools you have to manage your life, the better your brain will be able to deal with the situations and lower will be the problems. The change is definitely worth it.
Feldman, L. et. Al. (2015) Unpacking Emotion Differentiation Transforming Unpleasant Experience by Perceiving Distinctions in Negativity. Current Directions in Psychological Science; 24(1): 10-16.
Pond, R. S. et. Al. (2012) Emotion differentiation moderates aggressive tendencies in angry people: A daily diary analysis. Emotion; 12(2):326-337.
Kashdan, T. B. et. Al. (2010) Emotion Differentiation as Resilience Against Excessive Alcohol Use An Ecological Momentary Assessment in Underage Social Drinkers. Psychological Science; 21(9): 1341-1347.
Stanton, Annette L. et. Al. (2000) Emotionally expressive coping predicts psychological and physical adjustment to breast cancer. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; 68(5): 875-882.