Some time ago I was cleaning the house with my daughters, and they put the radio on. A song came on that was popular when I was in the depths of clinical depression, and I found myself plunging emotionally. Within a couple of minutes, I started to wonder, “what is happening to me?”
I was able to think through what brought me there – the unconscious linkage between the music that played a lot when I was depressed, and that emotional state. I changed the station and changed my state.
I read an article yesterday by a hypnotherapist who stated unequivocally, “Every feeling begins as a thought.” Horse manure.
I see this sentiment echoed throughout the worlds of coaching, therapy, and self-improvement. Just change the thoughts you have, and you’ll change your life.
In my opinion, this dangerous misapprehension of how people operate leads to a lot of frustration for people trying to change how they feel. It underlies some forms of talk therapy which are popular despite the evidence showing they are becoming less effective.
Your Multiple Brains
I think the Triune Brain model is an incredibly useful one. This is a model, meaning three in one, that was put forth in the 1960’s that divides the brain into three evolutionary regions. Like all maps, it is neurologically an extreme simplification of brain function. But it’s useful to consider in this context.
The part of the brain that includes the brain-stem is called the proto-reptilian brain and is responsible for survival tasks. It’s the oldest part of the brain – evolved even in reptiles before there were humans. Its principal functions include fight, flight, freeze, feed, and fornicate. It processes sensory input all the time looking for danger signals.
The next older part of the brain is called the mammalian (or paleomammalian) brain. It’s widely considered the seat of more complex emotion. Many of its principal functions revolve around our social connections.
And finally, the part of the brain that makes us human is the neocortex (literally new brain). This is the part of the brain that’s involved in logic, language, and planning. This is where rational thinking takes place.
Where do our Feelings Come From?
In the triune brain model, the mammalian brain is the seat of emotions. This is mainly supported by research into a part of the brain called the limbic system which seems to regulate things like memory and emotion.
We tend to remember things better that have a stronger emotional component – like the birth of your child, or the death of a loved one. This has an evolutionary advantage. If you saw a friend get eaten by a tiger, you will remember that tigers are dangerous the rest of your life.
The older parts of the brain, in this model, are faster, more efficient, and use less energy than the new parts. The tiger jumps out, and you fight, flee or freeze without having to give it much thought. If you had to stop and weigh a lot of options, or balance your checkbook first, our ancestors would all have been tiger poop.
So, the emotional parts of our brain can react to sensory input faster than we can form conscious thoughts. Remember my story of hearing the music.
You may have certain smells that evoke certain feelings and certain memories without you having to create thoughts about it.
Humans Aren’t Rational
It makes us comfortable to believe that we are considerate and reasonable animals, but we aren’t. Every good sales person knows that people buy things based on emotion and then justify their purchases with reason after.
I laugh when I check out at Target, and the cashier tells me how much I just saved while handing me the receipt for the $200 I just spent. It’s funny, but most of the brain doesn’t see the lack of logic here. I feel good for buying stuff I want; I feel better for being smart and saving money.
We also do stuff that’s against our long-term self-interest all the time. As a coach, I’d be out of a job if we didn’t. “I need to lose ten pounds, but it’s been a hard day, and I deserve those brownies.” We’re satisfying a short-term emotional need and sacrificing our long-term goals. Most of us do this to some extent every day without even considering it.
How to Quickly Change Your Emotions
Have you ever been deeply depressed and had someone just tell you to think happy thoughts? Don’t you want to kill them? It’s just not helpful.
Positive affirmations, the cornerstone of many personal development systems, can hurt feelings of self-worth when used improperly. If you are telling yourself you’re rich while watching your car get repossessed – you create cognitive dissonance.
Let me be very clear – thoughts can affect emotion. There is a feedback loop there. But it’s most efficient to change the feeling (when possible) and allow the thoughts to follow suit. I think talk therapy for emotional issues can be extremely helpful – but even more so when you do things to change your physiology.
If you want to change your emotional state quickly, you have to get into your physiology or deeper parts of your brain. You can do this by changing what you’re sensing externally or internally.
Externally, there are many things you can do. I had a client who found herself getting sad while she was commuting in her car. She was ruminating (having constant negative self-talk). I don’t do therapy, so I cautioned her to bring it to her therapist, but I also suggested she set up a playlist of music for her car. That list should only include songs that she would feel compelled to belt out and dance to as she drove.
She was so excited that she sent me her playlist. Even before using it, thinking about the songs that rocked her world had a positive emotional impact.
A powerful way to change your internal state is through breathing. Our breath ties to the very primal parts of out brain and can affect things like heart rhythm and blood Ph. Breathing exercises like in yoga, meditation, and Qigong are powerful tools for transforming our immediate feelings.
Getting regular exercise is good for your emotional and physical health. Many times, our emotional state is a reflection of the state of our health. I have written about the link between depression and chronic inflammation. You have unconscious systems that are constantly scanning and monitoring the state of your body and providing feedback – via feelings and sensations. Most people who exercise regularly get to the point where it feels exquisite emotionally to do so – as the body releases endorphins.
Think about substance abuse. While it can be incredibly destructive, using drugs or alcohol changes our emotional state rapidly without the need for intervening thought. The same goes for unconscious eating.
Sex, when it’s good, releases a whole bunch of happy chemicals into the body. Our body’s natural opiates are received in many places – including a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the mammalian brain has the highest concentration of opiate receptors, and also processes things like social connectedness.
Active social connections are one of the biggest factors in a long-term positive emotional state. Being around people who nurture us makes us happier and healthier, both in the short-term and in the long-term.
So, do things that change your feelings AND do things to change your thoughts. Start with self-awareness. Know where you are, and where you want to be.
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