Our thoughts and emotions are closely intertwined. In my blog, Positive Thinking, I wrote about the importance of focusing on positive thoughts. Because our thoughts have a direct influence on our emotions, choosing positive thoughts can help to create better feelings. But we can also focus on the emotion part of the equation.
While there’s a distinction between emotions, feelings and moods, for simplicity, I am going to use them interchangeably here to mean an affective state of consciousness. This state, combined with physiological changes in the body, sets in motion a behavior. The basic formula goes something like this:
An event happens > a thought, belief or opinion is formed > a feeling is activated in the body > that emotion elicits a behavior > new circumstances unfold leading to new events
When we are not aware of our thoughts and emotions, a vicious cycle can ensue. Negative thoughts and emotions can lead to destructive behaviors and circumstances, to which we continually respond negatively. Of course, the same is true with a positive cycle.
The classical view on emotions is that they are biological, and that our emotional system is hard-wired through our genes and the limbic system in our brains. It explains how our emotional system has evolved over time based on survival instincts. But we can’t scientifically measure emotions, we can only measure physiological changes, such as increases in blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, even chemicals in the blood and activity in the brain. There is no test for emotions, it’s purely assessment and inference based on observation and cognition.
In her book, How Emotions Are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett explores a new view, which she calls the theory of constructed emotion. The theory is that emotions are not biological, that they are actually learned over time, and that our brain constructs the experience of emotions. Emotions are concepts of social reality that give meaning to sensations and actions, and help to communicate experiences with others.
What is biological, however, is our interoceptors. These are internal sensors that are responsible for signaling the feelings of pleasure or displeasure, as well as our level of arousal, from agitated to calm. She calls this our affect. We can pinpoint any physical feelings based on these two scales, and signals from our interoceptors are sent to the brain where they are processed and interpreted. The brain is constantly working to find meaning in these physical feelings, and from there can determine the actions to take.
Interoceptors have been shown to be present in infants (further proof that they are biological and universal), and responsible for signaling babies’ two inherent fears: fear of loud noises and fear of falling. When a baby cries, fear could be the cause, but he could also be hungry, tired, has a wet nappy or needs to be held, among other things. As the child grows and develops communication skills, he can start to express what is bothering him. Through observation and verbal cues, he starts to learn concepts and builds an emotional vocabulary.
The theory of constructed emotions proposes that emotions are concepts that are taught and constructed based on our physical feelings, our predictions of an event based on past experiences, and our social reality. An unpleasant and slightly aroused feeling in the gut could signal irritation, nervousness, distress…or it could also just be hunger. Depending on how we interpret it, we could have various outcomes: we might go grab a bite to eat, or we might end up chewing off someone’s head instead.
Another point Barrett explored is that if emotions are biological, they should be universal and present in all cultures. But what she discovered is that some countries have their own specific emotions. For instance, there’s an emotion concept in Denmark called “hygge”, which is a feeling of close friendship mixed with a cozy and comfortable togetherness. A Filipino may experience “gigil”, which is the feeling of having to hold oneself back from an overwhelming situation, often associated with an irresistible urge to hug something extremely cute, like a baby.
Author and Buddhist meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, recounts the story of when she had an opportunity to ask the Dalai Lama a question at a 1990 conference in India. With hopes of getting to the cause of the suffering she has seen in so many students and herself, she asked, “What do you think about self-hatred?” After going back and forth with his translator in Tibetan several times, the Dalai Lama turned back to her, and with a look of confusion said, “Self-hatred? What is that?” Throughout the rest of the conference, he tried to wrap his head around this, finally stating at the end, “I thought I had a very good acquaintance with the mind, but now I feel quite ignorant. I find this very, very strange.”
Only the Dalai Lama himself is aware of the quality of emotions he has felt in his life, but that there is no comparable translation for self-hatred in Tibetan culture is cause for pause. How many Americans have felt some degree of self-hatred in their lives? At the very least, most have an understanding of that concept.
Not only do cultures and societies form our experience of emotions and social reality, but so do our families. If you have a lot of hot-headed members in your family, you will be very acquainted with anger and hostility. If your family is calm and laid back, you will probably feel even keeled a lot of the time. Since we learn a lot by observation, we will easily take on predominant household moods and feelings, from joy and love to fear, anger or depression.
If our emotions are constructed, then we have the power to create and cultivate new ones. We do not have to be victims of our emotions; we can learn to choose anew.
In my blog, Love Your Emotions!, I describe the four primary emotions (happy, sad, mad and scared) and the messages that they carry. All of our emotions are messengers. Whether or not emotions are biological, constructed, or a little of both, they are still the body’s way of telling us something. Though we do need to pay attention and be aware of our feelings and their messages, we don’t need to hold on to them. Some of the messages might just be alerting us to our negative thinking.
It’s easy to relive an event in our mind and reactivate those emotions. Often times, the emotions become more intense the longer we ruminate over the story. While we can’t control our thoughts and emotions, what we can do is choose which ones to entertain. Barring any traumatic experiences that do take longer to process, we can learn to let go and choose how we want to feel.
Challenge of the week: Choose your emotions!
When you are faced with a strong emotional feeling, take some time out to process. Find a quiet space where you can be alone, and take some slow, deep breaths. Breathe deeply into your belly and fill up your chest, and let it all out with a long sigh. Repeat a few times. Let the emotions come up and out.
Identify what you are feeling. Don’t think about the story or the event that triggered it, just sit with the feeling. Ask if there’s a message for you. You might find that it’s just your body telling you to slow down, take a time out, or even eat something. After a few minutes, ask yourself if you want to continue feeling this emotion. If it’s not a pleasant feeling, chances are the answer is no. Then ask yourself what you would rather be feeling. It’s hard to jump from grief to joy, so you can choose something more mellow, like calm or tranquil.
It’s easy to fall into default emotions or just feel numb, until something knocks us off kilter. We often don’t even know what we are feeling, being in our heads and not our bodies. It’s those times that we can really make an impact and choose. Make a decision and a conviction to feel good, to feel happiness or joy or whatever feels good to you. And together with positive thinking, you can learn to create more good feelings.
Have a great week! Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below.