Scientific Methods To Manage Negative Emotions

The Latest Scientifically Proven Ways to Manage Negative Emotions
by: John Schinnerer


At the age of 27, while working towards my doctorate in educational psychology at Cal, I found myself as an intern in charge of the emotional issues of several thousand students at three separate schools. As part of my job, I ran a number of counseling groups.

At every school, I was assigned the boys with the worst impulse disorders in the school.

Middle school is fascinating to me because the social hierarchy is so clearly delineated by the age of 11. There is a pecking order. There are the cool kids, the geeks, the outcasts, the Goths, the skaters and so on. And everyone knows where they stand in the pecking order.

One of the middle school groups that I ran was made up of 8 young men. Even within this group there was a obvious hierarchy. The student at the bottom of the pecking order, let’s call him Todd, was the most impulsive of the lot. Todd couldn’t stay in his chair, couldn’t keep his whole body still for more than 4 seconds to save his life. He lacked social skills. He was usually getting in fist fights with the toughest students in the school because he would mouth off before his rational mind caught up. He’d insult a bigger, older student and wind up getting the snot beat out of him weekly. The other students teased him mercilessly causing a gradual build up of rage within him.

When I run a group, I seek to give the students a unique experience – a change from what they’ve come to expect from other adults in their lives. So I try}} to be relaxed, calm, and compassionate with them. One day, I was running the group as usual and all of the guys were stirred up more than usual. Todd, in particular, was agitated and wound more tightly than normal.

Towards the end of the hour, for some reason unknown to me, Todd flew out of his chair, hopped the table and ran towards me with the unmistakeable look of anger in his eyes. As he closed on me, he made a fist and threw a punch at my face. I looked him square in the eye but made no attempt to stop him. As his fist flew towards me, I sat as calmly as I could. Todd’s fist stopped millimeters from my nose. Apparently, he had some self-control after all.

My eyes went from his face to his fist. I had a choice to make. Do I send him to the vice-principal for discipline or do I take a risk and treat him differently than every other adult in his?

Rather than send him to the vice-principal for discipline, I told him to take his seat or return to his class. He chose to take his seat.


Emotion (Photo credit: rexquisite)

I turned to the group and asked them, “Okay, now what just happened?” The boys were stunned}}. It took several minutes to get anyone to say anything. Eventually, one boy said he saw Todd take a swing at me and I did not respond. He said he had never seen anything like it. In his world, anger was always met with anger. Everyone responded to anger with anger. For these young men, it was inconceivable to respond to anger in any other way, until then.

And it’s true; anger is nearly always met with anger because anger is contagious. You can ‘catch’ anger from someone else…unless you know how to stay calm in the face of fury. Over the next three years, I received phone calls from every one of those boys’ mothers to ask about private counseling. And it was the boys that asked their mom to call me! That day had a lasting impact on how those boys viewed the world around them.

That powerful moment etched an indelible message in the emotional part of their minds. And that is a perfect segue into a discussion about the human mind and how best to think of it.

The Mind Throughout History

For thousands of years, philosophers, authors and scientists have searched for an adequate metaphor to describe the human mind. In fact, your entire way of thinking is founded on language and metaphor. You are limited by the language you use to describe the world around you.

For instance, it’s difficult to think about life in the abstract, or even long-term. However, once the metaphor of life as a journey is applied, the metaphor provides a framework in which you can think about life. The metaphor of life as journey implies that it’s a good idea to discover which direction you’re headed, who you’re going with, and to expect some ups and downs. It is far easier to make sense of complex ideas with the right metaphor – the right language.

Along these lines, humankind has likened the mind to many different wild animals. For instance, Buddha compared the human mind to a wild elephant.

The philosopher, Plato, used an allegory of the human mind as a charioteer holding the reins of two horses where the calm, reasonable part of the mind is the chariot driver, the soul is the chariot, one horse represents the virtues and the other horse is the animal appetites and desires.

More recently, Jon Haidt, professor of psychology at University of Virginia and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, compared the mind to a rider atop an elephant where the rider is the rational, conscious mind and the elephant is the emotional, unconscious, automatic part of the mind.

There is a reason that humankind has compared the mind to wild animals for thousands of years – because it’s an apt comparison. When I talk of the human mind, my audiences find it easiest to think of the mind as one of two metaphors:

1) A rider atop a wild stallion or

2) An alligator tamer wrestling an alligator.

In both metaphors, the person (the rider or the alligator trainer) represents your conscious, rational side of the mind and the stallion or alligator represent your unconscious, primal, emotional, automatic side of the mind.

For the first metaphor, the rider is your thoughts and the wild stallion is your emotional, primal mind.

Using the second metaphor, the person training the alligator is like your thoughts and the alligator is like your emotions. You can use whichever metaphor works best for you. The metaphor you use should be one that resonates with you.

I’m partial to the alligator and the alligator wrestler which I think is an excellent metaphor for our mind. It’s not so much the alligator trainer, or wrestler, which I like. It’s the alligator as allegory for emotion. The reason I love this is because alligators lay in wait, just beneath the surface of the water, just as intense feelings lie in wait just beneath the surface of our emotional masks. Both alligators and emotions pounce suddenly, without warning, when their prey comes along. Emotions and alligators are primitive; aggressive throwbacks to an ancient, fierce time. And more, the word, alligator is taken from the Spanish ‘el lagarto’ which translates as ‘the lizard.’ The emotional part of the brain is considered the limbic system which is also known as the ‘lizard brain.’

Further, alligators are known for their death roll. Alligators drown their prey and rip them apart limb from limb by aggressively rolling over several times, back and forth. Rage and fear are also (emotional) death rolls and threaten to end in violent confrontation with others each time they arise.

Alligators have been shown to be an integral part of the ecosystem, creating holes for other animals to live in and keeping and are considered to be an integral species for maintaining the system’s integrity. This relationship holds true for emotions as well which are integral for the proper function of humans. We need emotions. We cannot simply turn off emotion and live as logical cyborg-like beings. We could not exist solely with our rational mind. Individuals with damage to their emotional mind are unable to make simple decisions. They cannot tag events as dangerous, safe or urgent, or even which general direction to head in without access to their emotions.

The Hidden World of the Mind

I have spent my entire life exploring the hidden terrain of the mind. I have studied philosophy, quantum physics, psychology, physiology, and world religions. I have spoken with the mentally ill and the psychologically resilient. And this article, an excerpt from my book, ‘Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought’, is part of my attempt to put forth the latest ways to tame your alligator – your emotional mind.

When a Ph.D. in Psychology Struggles with Their Emotions

For many years, I was able to suppress my own emotions in stressful situations. I had excellent control over the alligator wrestler but little awareness of how to manage the alligator. Despite my Ph.D. in psychology, I struggled to stay on an even emotional keel day-to-day. I would get irritable with my family. I would have an occasional angry outburst at an unsuspecting coworker. I would be overcome with sadness for days or weeks.

Since then, I have found ways to manage my emotional mind. I have learned to train my thoughts to be more realistically optimistic. It took me a great deal of time and energy searching to find ways to train my thoughts, and release harmful emotions. I have found tools and attitudes to help me remain calm amidst the emotional hurricanes brought on by my clients, my coworkers and my family.

Even more amazing to me was that, within the past five years, it was easier for me to continuously love my family. This was in stark contrast to the frustration and irritability that my wife and four children had once caused me.

So what changed?

I did.

I changed my outlook from pessimistic to realistically optimistic. I improved my physical health.

I learned how to get rid of unwanted anger, sadness and fear.

I discovered how to relax and enjoy life.

I stopped my negative, self-defeating, punitive thoughts and replaced them with optimistic and supportive ones.

I reduced my contact with life leeches, the people who constantly suck you dry of energy.

I learned to be more compassionate and forgiving.

I focused on those things over which I had control.

I slowed my pace down.

And I learned to smile more easily and frequently.

Despite having everything, I used to be irritable and somewhat moody. When I became sad, I would stay down for days or even weeks at a time. When something made me angry, I could not shake the anger. Fear gripped me much of the time. People scared me. My muscles were always tense. I never took a deep breath. It was like my emotional gas tank was filled to the brim with negative energy – fear, anger and sadness. It was as if the world had hurt me so badly so frequently that I never got the chance to recover from one traumatic blow before getting hit by the next one.

From the perspective of an outsider, everything looked fine in my life. On the inside, I was drowning. I tried everything to escape from my perfect façade of a life – drinking, counseling, overachieving, medication, education – and none of it worked. These did not work because none of them addressed my life as a whole. They were a shotgun approach to a complex problem – the problem of human existence.

Now, things are different. I went from smart to happy. My patience has grown. I find joy in life’s little nuances. I live in the present. I am more authentic in the sense that my outer appearance is an accurate reflection of my inner state. I am passionate yet relaxed in my own skin.

Most importantly, there are proven ways in which you too can build up your inner reservoir of energy to become more productive, more balanced, and more content.

If you are interested in coaching around these issues or life-changing training for your staff, feel free to call Dr. John Schinnerer at 925-944-3440 or email him at or check out the website at

By Dr. John Schinnerer
Guide To Self, Inc.

About The Author

Dr. John Schinnerer is a much sought after speaker, author, psychologist & executive coach. He is an award-winning author (‘Guide To Self’). His blog ‘Shrunken Mind – Using Positive Psychology to Master Life’ is among the top 3 in positive psychology on the web. He is collaborating with the University of New Zealand on the International Wellbeing Study to look at what makes for a happy, meaningful, thriving life.
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