“People feel disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them.”
–Epictetus, 1st Century Philosopher
As Epictetus reminds us, as I think, so I feel. Thoughts cause feelings and feelings can cause behaviors if we let them.
Events and circumstances serve to trigger thoughts, which then create feelings. Events and circumstances do not cause our feelings. The thoughts (beliefs) we have about events and circumstances cause our feelings. We can consciously change our feelings about things by changing the thoughts and beliefs we have about things.
By examining the rules we have made for ourselves and for others, we can learn to change them so that we have different feelings. In the example from the trust seesaw last week, suppose I have a child who has been lying to me. If I have a belief that my child is showing disrespect by lying to me, I will probably be angry and upset that my child chose to be deceptive. What if I could change that belief? What if I consciously decided that my child’s lie was because I hadn’t made my child feel that it was safe to tell me the truth? How might that change my emotional reaction? Would it change how I felt about the situation?
By changing our thoughts about a given situation, we can control the feelings we have about that situation.
“As I Feel, so I Think”
While it is true that “as I think, so I feel,” it is also true that, “as I feel, so I think.” Feelings are part of the reptilian brain. This concept is part of something called the Triune Brain Theory. In this theory there are three major portions of the brain. The primitive brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain, governs things having to do with immediate survival: Food, fighting, fleeing and reproduction. Next is the limbic system, sometimes called the mammalian brain, responsible for regulating the higher emotions. The third part of the brain is the cerebral cortex, responsible for higher reasoning and logic skills.
In the case of the more visceral emotional responses, the reptilian brain activates first, then the mammalian brain, and finally the reasoning centers. In such a case an automatic emotional response has been activated and the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered before the higher reasoning centers are even aware of any activity. As noted earlier, such automatic responses are usually operating on the subconscious level, and they are in full swing by the time the rational brain figures out what’s going on.
These feelings then lead to thought processes. These thought processes often become ruminating cycles, and sometimes these ruminating cycles lead to emotional aggression. If these thought processes are leading us to behave in ways that result in consequences we don’t want, it’s a bit more difficult to track down these triggers because they are rooted in subconscious processes.
As noted earlier, these processes leave physiological traces. By using the mindful skills of observing and describing we can tune in to these physical signs. Becoming aware of these early warning signals is a way to ‘shut off’ or slow down automatic processes so the rules can be changed. In this case, the ‘rules’ are the thoughts we have about the feelings. When negative feelings hit, we are conditioned to believe we must do something to make them stop. But by engaging our own internal observer, we can come to realize that feelings are feelings; we don’t have to respond or react to them. At any given time we are in control of what we choose to believe and do about the feelings we are experiencing.
When I teach a Mindfulness-Based Ecotherapy class, one of the first questions I ask is, “How many of you in the room here today have never been depressed in your entire life? How many of you here today have never been angry? How many of you here have never been troubled by overpowering emotions?” Of course, nobody raises their hand. We are conditioned to believe that negative and overpowering emotions are somehow “not normal,” but the truth is that expecting never to have negative emotions is like expecting never to have a cloudy day. Cloudy days are natural, but they don’t last forever. If we wait long enough, the sun will shine again. Likewise, if we’re having a bad day emotionally, we don’t have to try to do anything to fix it. If we wait long enough, the feeling will eventually pass.
As I Think, So I Feel: Addictions
I work a lot with people who have addictions. These addictions aren’t necessarily addictions to alcohol and other drugs. People can be addicted to food, to bad relationships, to anger, to emotional aggression, or to a host of other different things and processes. All of these things produce chemical changes in our brains.
Our bodies are complex systems of cycles. These cycles peak and trough throughout the day, and throughout our lifetimes. They come and go in waves. When certain waves peak together, that’s when those addictive cravings hit. We may crave alcohol, or chocolate, or an argument to try to get our systems back in balance. When we’re on top of that craving wave, it can feel like that urge is never going to go away. But since these changes occur in cycles, if you can ‘ride the wave,’ these urges will eventually subside.
If we don’t give in to them, and we learn wait patiently for them to go through their paces by living in the moment, we can take comfort in the fact that they will eventually go away. Mindful Awareness helps us to know our bodies and their complex cycles. It also helps us to know that this too shall pass.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying that recovery takes place “one day at a time.” Mindfulness-Based Ecotherapy says that if “one day at a time” is too much, try “one hour at a time.” If “one hour at a time” is too much, try “one minute at a time.” If “one minute at a time” is too much, try “one moment at a time.” Leave Doing Mode by remembering that nothing has to happen right now. You don’t have to ‘fix’ it. You can sit quietly with it and ‘ride the wave’ until it passes.
When you can do so, you will understand how to be in the present with your thoughts and feelings without feeling obligated to respond to them in detrimental ways.