My dad once told me to not mistake a feeling for a thought. It took me a while to get it but he was saying that feelings are something, you do feel them and they impact your body, but they are not the same thing as thoughts.
Okay, I don’t really think I would have ever come up with that notion by myself. I mean the way feelings feel, they have to be real.
They are real. Every feeling you experience is made up of a specific combination of neural transmitters and hormones. When a stimulus causes the emotion to be evoked your body will release the chemicals and they will wash throughout the body playing whatever role they need to play.
Think about the feeling of guilt. There’s a sense of doom in it and there is a powerful darkness that taints your perceptions. This is a chemical reaction inside your body. It will last a few seconds if you immediately stop thinking the guilt inducing thought. I would say that the life span of the chemicals that cause the physical sensation of guilt is about 3 or 4 seconds.
The same thing applies to all the emotional states, the chemical that cause them to be feelings will only impact on the body for a short period of time.
So what? Well, ever notice that happiness seems to be harder to spontaneously maintain than something like anger? When you think about it, all of the negative emotions seem to fuel themselves while the positive ones tend to fade away very quickly. This is probably because these negative emotions served to warn us about something that could endanger our chances of survival. These feelings needed to be easy to maintain because the dangers would never really go away. Feelings like happiness and satisfaction really don’t increase our chances of surviving, they are positive and add a lot to the quality of life but feeling happy doesn’t alert us to something that could kill us.
I see emotions this way: They represent the degree and quality of dissonance between what the sense organs are inputting at that moment in time and what the brain predicts should be going on. It’s a system that came to be because we don’t have the capacity to be consciously aware of everything that is happening in the world and all of our past experiences at the same time. The amount of information that our sense organs process and send to the brain is mind-boggling. What is happening right now is made up of billions of pieces of information and there is no way that you can be aware of that much data. Consider everything that you have ever done, these experiences were made up of trillions of pieces of data. All of this data has been run through your brain, processed for meaning, assimilated into a world view and stored as required.
Emotions alert us to specific errors between what we sense and what we think we should be sensing.
Now given that the brain doesn’t know the difference between what is thought and what is reality, we will learn to associate particular thoughts to particular emotions and will replay the conditioned thought when we experience the emotion. The thought will then give way to more of the emotion and so on.
The key to make your emotions work for you is to identify the period of time between the stimulus and response and to consciously respond instead of reflexively respond. There is very little you can do to alter the emotional response, and frankly you shouldn’t be willing to change it, because it is an adaptive system that helps us survive. However, you should allow the emotional sensation to be experienced and then fade away. Feeling the emotion is critical because it means something unusual is happening, but that is all. Sustaining the emotion does not reveal any more information and will only serve to impair logical thought. Once the emotion dissipates, you then respond with pragmatic action.
This task is initially pretty difficult. In fact, many don’t believe that there is a period of time between stimulus and response; and for them, there isn’t. But if you work at it, you will gain the ability to identify the period of time and, with lots of practice, teach yourself NOT to react. For example, getting cut of in traffic can be infuriating, but it isn’t cause for you to freak out and seek retribution. If you are in your car, there’s a very good chance that you weren’t driving around waiting for someone to cut you off. Chances are you were going somewhere to do something that didn’t involve the driver of the other car. Why should you let their actions dictate your behavior? It is simply illogical to do so but in the fit of road rage this is exactly what happens. The stimulus of being cut off causes the release of anger chemicals in the body. A temporary state of anger becomes a complete rage as the emotion fuels itself and causes the complete loss of rational thought. At this point, anything can happen because the anger is all consuming, the body is continuing to pump out anger chemicals which regulate the fight or flight responses. These responses are at best, very primitive and they tend to fuel physical action.
The reality of the car cutting you of is that someone else is a jerk or in a big hurry and wants their car to be where your car is. A full fight or flight response is not required here because your life is not in danger. That reaction is disproportionate to the stimulus because the time was not taken to assess the meaning of the stimulus.
Emotions provide us with valuable information about the world that our conscious mind cannot. They alert us to dissonance between what is going on in the world and what we predicted should be going on in the world. They provide us with a little more information that we can use to make better decisions but we need to keep them in control because, left to grow, they taint our judgment and impair rational thought. It is very easy to create a loop to feed back into them, causing the message they were trying to tell us to be completely lost.