There is a prevalent theory making the rounds, time and again, that your thoughts are what create your emotions and therefore your stress.
One of the expressions of these is what is called “Appraisal Theory”, which has been summed up as follows:
Event ==> thinking ==> Simultaneous arousal and emotion
Back in the day when I believed that the mind was supreme, this made perfect sense to me. After all, we humans are the thinkers, which is supposed to distinguish us from all other beasts. Hey, we have really old books that tell this story as well, and it just feels dang good to be top of the heap, don’t it? Stop noticing how we slaughter each other by the millions and how nasty we can be to others – it is best to ignore all that conflicts with our idealized vision of ourselves as simply wonderful.
Well, truth be told, I’m not so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed any more, which is another way of saying that I no longer automatically accept that humans are so much better than other species. Yes, we’ve managed to develop incredible technology so we could leave our trash behind even on the moon… Yes, we’ve polluted and ravaged the landscape to such an extent that there are few places left on Earth which are not damaged in some way.
OK, we have also done lots of good things, but if we are going to be relatively objective, we need to own what we do that is not so pretty or a good subject for polite conversation.
If we accept that even though humans seem to do a lot more thinking than dogs, for example (although your mileage may vary, depending on the human and canine subjects used in a study you might undertake), it would appear that this thinking is not always giving us a better world.
Ah, you might say, what we need is better thinking. Well, that would be an improvement, of course, but there is no guarantee that just because you are going to be thinking better that your actions are going to be congruent with these “better” thoughts. I know lots of people who can talk a good talk and who obviously are quite developed in the thinking department. They also happen to be less than optimum in the acting department – they don’t walk a good walk. Maybe you know someone like this too – a brilliant mind, but not so good to interact with.
And this is just one example of how I find less than satisfactory the concept that it is always our thinking that triggers our emotions. I would argue that there is a three-way street on which our physiological environment, our cognitive thought processes and our emotional responses are all interacting constantly.
A few examples from real life:
Imagine that you are standing outside and it is raining, cold and you are getting soaked and feeling rather clammy. You don’t need to think about this situation to feel miserable – you just feel it, as a normal result of your environment.
I would venture to say, given how the weather is the starting topic for so many conversations, that people generally respond to their environment without thought – they feel the environment acting on them and their emotions pop up in response. One can change one’s emotional and mental response to the environment, of course. But that is grist for another mill, fodder for another cannon, etc., etc.
Another example of this is when one eats something that tastes really good. This bite of Bill’s blueberry pie that I just ate triggers in me a feeling of comfort. I did not have to think about it – the pie enters my mouth and my taste buds signal “yum, good!” to me. And, as a result, I feel good about the pie and about Bill. I don’t have to think gratitude – it just comes up as a response to the good taste and texture.
When I think about this body and emotional response to the pie that I am enjoying, the feeling of gratitude can become more intense, of course. In fact, eating the pie triggers good thoughts about Bill. The communication is in all directions – from my body to my emotional centers to my mind. They interact with each other, back and forth.
Let’s look at another example – you are driving along and your car hits a slippery spot on the road and for a moment or two, is out of control. Before you have time to think “Oh Dang!” or something a little stronger, your body and emotions respond to the situation. Your body, probably guided by your enteric brain, starts telling all of you – “holy jumping jelly beans, we’re outta control here!!!!” It also floods your system with those infamous fight or flight chemicals and maybe you break out into a cold sweat and your heart is racing. You feel fear both emotionally and viscerally, and way before any thoughts can arise. Your mind can say anything calming or rational it wants, to no immediate avail – you are still reacting to the situation and until those chemicals that are flooding your system start to subside, not much calming is going to happen.
The same thing happens with people who are upset – while in that state, they are not thinking rationally – they are experiencing their upset and will continue to do so until they start to settle down. Their thoughts are greatly influenced by their physical and emotional state. Again, we can see that no matter what the starting point, our bodies, our minds and our feelings are interacting and influencing each other constantly.
Another example is when you are feeling some heart-based emotions. These emotions, whether of love-sickness or heartbreak, trigger all kinds of non-rational thoughts and result in all kinds of out-of-the-box actions. Go on, tell someone in love to think logically and see what happens.
Now, I’m not dismissing the notion that thoughts can trigger feelings. We can find plenty of examples of that, too. Someone sees a bully pick on a child and thoughts of disgust can arise which lead to anger and then some intervention action.
Less Chicken and Egg
I think the world would be a much better place if we spent less time on chicken-egg-what- came-first notions which place one part of us in a superior position to the other parts. Our minds can do a good job of analyzing, understanding, comparing, etc., but they are not designed for loving, for caring, for empathy – that comes from our hearts. If you ever try to drive a car using your mind instead of allowing your body to handle the majority of the work, you’ll find it rather tiring rather quickly.
Remember that we have lots and lots of neural networks in our head brains, heart brains and enteric (gut) brains. Even though many, many people have been convinced that “it’s all in your head” that just ain’t so. All three of those brains talk to each other constantly just as our thoughts, emotions and body sensations constantly interact.
So, if you are feeling stressed about something and someone tells you it is your thinking that is to blame, smile and know that they have only got one piece of the picture, one nibble of the cookie. There is a lot more going on with us than simply our thinking triggering emotions – any one of the three parts I have mentioned can trigger a response in the other and influence, often enhancing or diminishing, the response that the other part is having. We’re not machines – we are complex organisms with all kinds of internal systems, many of which we have yet to properly discover.
Like a lot of people, I have tried many cognitive approaches to improving my life – I have a wealth of books and courses done on this. The stark reality is that my emotions are not dictated by my thinking, nor are yours. I can’t think myself happy when I am feeling sad, and when I am feeling happy, sad thoughts are nowhere to be found.
What I have found really useful is to acknowledge my complexity as a human and use the appropriate tools for the specific. I use AER to release stressful emotions which in turn releases stressful thoughts, both of which help hold in place non-resourceful beliefs.
You think, you feel, you act, you be, you respond – and therefore you are. Help me spread the word – Rene has done enough damage with his “I think therefore I am”.
Copyright 2009 Robert S. Vibert, all rights reserved.