This is an important question to get into the habit of asking because by asking it we learn that we can actively change how we feel. Yet it’s a question most people often don’t consider because of the idea that feelings aren’t really under our control. In some ways, that’s correct since the activation of feelings happens automatically: When something angers us, we feel angry; when something saddens us, we feel sad, etc. Emotions are biological experiences that just happen.
However, the cognitive model, on which cognitive behaviour therapy is based, proposes that thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all linked, each one able to influence the others.
From this perspective, we have the ability to change how we feel by changing our thinking or our behaviour. A concrete example will illustrate the process:
A man is feeling stressed one morning about a presentation he has to give at work that afternoon. He realizes that he’s walking around his house with a furrowed brow, sighing heavily and utterly preoccupied with how challenging his presentation might be. Aware that there are several hours between that moment and when his presentation is scheduled to begin, he asks himself the question ‘How do I want to feel?’ and decides he wants to feel calm instead. With that as his goal, the man begins the process of changing his behaviours to ones that are more consistent with feeling calm. He relaxes his face and other tense muscles, he takes note of his breathing and tries to breathe more calmly, and he slows himself down so he isn’t stressing himself further by rushing. He also changes what he is thinking about to better reflect the state of calm he is looking for. Instead of continuing to imagine all the terrible futures he might encounter, he focuses on the things around him in that moment; he also thinks about a recent time in his life when he felt happy. Because he knows where he wants to end up, the man is able to change his course and get himself there. It isn’t easy, though. When he stops focusing on calmness, his body occasionally drifts back into the stress. But knowing about the cognitive model, he is able to return to that state of calm as many times as he needs to.
Decide for yourself how you want to feel then take the time to change your thinking and your behaviour to bring about that desired state of feeling. We can all do this.