Emotional Reasoning

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.



Emotions, Thoughts, and Behaviors: More Reasons to Practice Mindfulness

To paraphrase Descartes:  “I FEEL therefore I am.”

OK, that was a pretty cheesy opening, but the way we feel matters a lot.  Ask someone “how are you doing?” and if that person answers sincerely (usually most of us just say “fine” whether we’re actually fine or not) you’ll probably find out how s/he is feeling.  And feelings come in a lot of varieties.  There are feelings that we think of as emotions:  sad, angry, afraid, ashamed, joyous, excited, loving, interested, blissful.  There are feelings we think of as medical: sick, feverish, congested, achy, sore.  There are feelings that we think of as physical: tired, relaxed, energetic, aroused, alert.  There are feelings we think of as drives: defecation, urination, thirst, hunger, desire.  And, of course, there are feelings we think of as the senses: seeing, tasting, hearing, feeling (tactile, that is), and smelling.  There are all sorts of feelings.

Feelings matter.  Did you ever notice that most, if not all, advertising, appeals to feelings?  Mazda doesn’t sell us a car by telling us about the engineering of their new SKYACTIV technology, they have someone whisper “zoom zoom” as you watch a shiny new Mazda zipping along a curvy seaside highway.  They want you to FEEL what it’s like to be so lucky as to have a brand new Mazda, not think about it.  And it’s a smart approach to selling cars.  Medicine marketers sell the same way.  When Advil is advertised you don’t get an explanation about chemical and neurological mechanisms, you see people in pain who end up with big smiles and happier times after taking an Advil or two.  Same with antidepressant ads.  And please don’t ask me to comment on ads for Cialis!  Advertisers know better than anyone: the way we feel drives our behaviors.

Now, you may not like that idea about feelings driving behaviors.  But there’s a lot of very good research out there that demonstrates this to be true, not to mention that every advertiser known to humankind bases its advertising on this principle, and quite successfully!  When some event occurs in our immediate environment, our bodies respond immediately with some felt sensation, some feeling.  There’s no way to stop that.  A loud noise happens followed immediately by the startle reflex, followed by a felt sensation of fear (maybe a little fear, which we would call “nervous,” or maybe a big fear, which we would call “panic;” it all depends on how loud the noise is, what it sounds like, our past experiences with loud noises, and a host of other variables).  Now our bodies do something wonderful, something that is intended to keep us alive: our bodies move.  Move to the nearest escape, move to stop the noise, move to get safe in some way.  That behavior follows feeling is incontrovertible; just ask anyone who is skilled at motivating people.  The greatest of the early American psychologists, William James, made this fact the bedrock of his thoughts about human psychology.

Once those behaviors begin our minds begin to think.  We appraise the situation, form opinions, wonder about the meaning, consider the next steps, or simply justify (or rationalize) our actions.  And here’s what can be very interesting: sometimes we mentally reconstruct the event in such a way as to remember it in this order: event happened, I thought of what I should do, I did it, and then I felt a certain way afterward.  And that’s why memory is so tricky: it is so often a reconstruction.

This happens with emotions too.  It’s difficult to accept sometimes that we are driven by feelings that arise before we’ve mentally considered all of the facts concerning some event.  But our bodies have evolved in such a way as to maximize survival (of ourselves and of our species).  Feelings are triggered only by the important phenomena that arise in our immediate environment.  Someone is crying, and you feel sad.  You complete a task and you feel joy.  Someone speaks meanly to you and you feel anger.  You see a red sky as the sun sets over the trees and you feel awe.  Life happens, and  you feel it.

This is all the more reason to practice mindfulness.  The awareness that we cultivate in our sitting or walking or yoga or body scanning practices strengthens our mind’s capacity to realize in the moment what feeling is arising and what it’s about.  That we cultivate this awareness with a non-judgmental attitude makes us all the more able to manage our reactivity with greater skill and ease.  So instead of getting swept up in the feeling of the moment and the behavioral reaction that emerges from that feeling, we’re able to slow down our body’s protective and/or adaptive reactions to ensure that we respond with the utmost skill to the needs presented in that moment.  Whether you’re practicing mindfulness for stress reduction, relaxation, insight, prayerfulness, or Buddhist enlightenment, it’s a great skill to have in the moment when the proverbial “you know what” hits the fan!  And it’s also a great skill to have when any sort of feeling emerges.

In my next post I want to consider two forms of mental activity: emotional reasoning and perspective taking.  These two ways that the mind works can determine whether we are happy or sad, satisfied with our lives or in despair.  I’ve presented the relationship between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in order to set the stage for understanding emotional reasoning and perspective taking.  I’ll be sure to post those mental meanderings of mine in a day or so.