In my previous post I spent some time discussing the relationship between Events, Affects, Behaviors, and Cognitions. Or, put more simply, that something happens, initiating (quite spontaneously) a bodily sensation (an emotion, drive, reaction), leading to the emergence of a behavior, followed by an explanatory thought. If that were the entire picture of our minute to minute activities during the course of a normal day, then we would seem to be some sort of automata, driven as if programmed like a computer or a robot.
There’s more to the story, beginning with the nature of the explanatory thought. Under many circumstances the process of event-driven behavior stops at the explanatory thought. For instance, the traffic light ahead turns yellow, the urge to stop the car arises, my foot lifts to touch and press the brake pedal, and I think “better stop; hey I can check my text messages!” Well, maybe better to ignore the text messages; the State Police might be watching! But you get the point; there’s no need to think about much beyond the “better stop” thought.
But not all event-driven behavior is so simple. And this is where our mindfulness practice can help us. When mindful, one is able to notice the process as it unfolds. Maybe at the point of the bodily and/or emotional arousal, maybe not until the behavior has commenced or even subsided; perhaps not until the explanatory thought has arisen. But, when mindful, one does eventually notice what is going on.
I would like to focus on event-driven behaviors that lead to unpleasant emotional (affective) states. It may seem a bit morbid to put my attention there, but it is the long-term effects of unpleasant emotional states that we’re more concerned about. After all, when the event is pleasant, such as learning that your friend got the promotion she had been working so hard to earn, it is joy that arises. Your behaviors emerging from the joy are probably congratulations and well wishes, leading to thoughts that reflect on how wonderful it is for your friend to have this achievement and how lucky you are to have such a wonderful friend. You hardly want to alter THAT experience. But when the event is some kind of loss, or threat, or violation, the feeling that arises is unpleasant, along the lines of sadness, or fear, or anger. Each of these unpleasant emotions lead to certain kinds of behaviors, such as crying and withdrawal when sad, fight/flight/freeze when afraid, or aggressive when angry. These feelings and behaviors are quite ordinary, a normal part of our lived experience. And they’re not inherently unhealthy, as there is a time and place for feeling sad, afraid and angry.
But sadness, fear, and anger, when perpetuated, can be a health risk. We know that persistent stress leads to a host of medical and psychological maladies, including ulcers, colitis, headache, reduced immune function, depression, anxiety, and addiction. How is it that these normal and healthy emotions can perpetuate to the point where they threaten our health? This is where we must turn our attention to the explanatory thought, and specifically to one kind of explanatory thought, emotional reasoning.
When we feel an emotion it stands to reason that the first set of thoughts that arise would be consistent with the emotion. We hear bad news, feel sad, and think along those lines. For instance, when I learned that my dad was diagnosed with cancer I felt sad, and immediately began to think about what life would be like for him as he went through chemotherapy, the strain it would put on my mother, the anguish that would be felt by me, my sister, my mother and extended family and friends as we watched this man that we love endure this trial. This way of thinking, that is congruent with the feeling that I was having, can be named as “emotional reasoning.” And there’s nothing wrong with emotional reasoning; like the emotions it emerges from, it is quite normal and rather ordinary. But there is a problem with emotional reasoning if it is the end of the story: since emotional reasoning emerges from the felt emotion, it tends to support and sustain the feeling of that emotion. And that’s what can lead to diminished health responses associated with sustained stress.
The practice of mindfulness allows us to become aware of our emotional reasoning very easily and rapidly. As with all mindful activity, the key to mindful awareness is to be non-judgmental about the object of awareness, in this case the emotions arising and the emotional reasoning that goes with it. Note that we’re focused here on embodied mental activity, not on the event itself. By focusing on embodied mental activity, we create the space for the next chapter in mindful living, perspective taking, which will be the topic of my next post.