Although we experience feelings constantly, most people have a sketchy understanding of this subject at best. This is why Ted Talks have attracted millions of YouTube viewers who want to learn how to deal with or prevent their unpleasant feelings.
If you were to condense those Ted Talks into just one sentence that simplifies how your brain’s limbic system affects how you feel, here’s what it would say: Your thoughts about the events in your life arouse emotions that when processed by your body, provoke the feelings you experience.
This explanation is based on the research of Antonio Damasio, a doctor and one of America’s leading neuroscientists. He suggests that emotions precede feelings and are distinct from them. But they’re closely related. For example:
- Emotions are physical (neurochemicals) and usually last for several seconds. They’re associated with brain activity and can be objectively measured which makes them more predictable than feelings.
- Feelings are not physical. They’re associated with how your mind experiences an emotion. They can be confusing and persist for some time based on the stories you tell yourself about the past, present, and unknown future.
- Although emotions provoke feelings, your feelings can also trigger a thought or memory that arouses emotion. If you’re not careful, this can result in a recurring cycle of misery where unwanted emotions and unpleasant feelings feed on one another.
Realize that what you’ve thought about most often has created a neural circuit in your brain that already has an emotion attached. It’s waiting for a thought to arouse it. So just the memory of a problem that pops into your head can release the queued-up emotion. This expedites its processing and without you realizing what’s happening, it causes how you unexpectedly feel sad or unhappy.
Researchers from the Netherlands, Matteo Diano, and Allissia Celeghin found that emotion can also be aroused non-consciously or without thinking. Like when driving and a child suddenly runs into the street. You’re jolted by the emotion of surprise and slam on the brakes without having time to think. What happens they believe, is that a visual message bypasses how emotions are normally created and it’s acted upon by the brain (amygdala) to arouse the emotion of surprise. Then afterward you begin to experience the provoked feeling of relief for not having harmed the child.
Psychologist Joan Rosenberg says that some of your feelings might last only a few minutes. If they last longer, it’s because you’re continuing to arouse more of the same emotions that initially sparked the feeling. You’re either unaware of your thoughts or not supervising them. It’s like outsourcing your emotional self-control and increasing the risk of experiencing an unpleasant feeling.
Just remember that how you feel, be it sad, helplessness, shame, anger, disappointment, embarrassment, or frustration, isn’t caused by the events in your life. You cause these feelings yourself by how you think about those events. That you have the ability to choose your thoughts enables you the means to prevent unpleasant feelings. Choose thoughts that give your body positive emotions to process. Better emotions yield better feelings; otherwise, it’s garbage in and garbage out.
Visit YouTube and search for Ted Talks on how to supervise your thoughts. If you were to condense those presentations into a simple explanation, here is what you’d learn: Not all of your thoughts are easy to control particularly when in the midst of a trying situation. But if you never attempt to do this, your unsupervised thoughts and emotions will attempt to control you.
That’s when you get stuck inside the previously mentioned cycle of misery. But according to Caroline Leaf, a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, there is a way you can break free from this self-destructive way of thinking.
Leaf suggests that because your brain is constrained by its existing neural circuits and queued-up emotions, this can cause your thoughts to become habitual. But your brain can change this habit with input from your mind. She says that by thinking intentionally with your mind, you can train or rewire your brain to avoid habitual thinking that causes the cycle of misery. You create new neural circuits and queue-up better emotions.
Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge refers to this restructuring of your brain as neuroplasticity. He says that in response to how you stimulate your brain, it can change its own structure and how it functions to improve both your health and mental abilities, including how you think and feel as a result.
But when attempting this, says psychologist Martin Seligman, it helps that you become increasingly aware of the thoughts and beliefs that arouse your emotions and how they make you feel. Then when attempting to think intentionally, don’t try to think positively when it’s not always rational to do so.
The rational way to deal with and prevent unpleasant feelings is to think positively when you can. But when this isn’t possible or appropriate, don’t allow yourself to think negatively. Instead, Seligman suggests that you think non-negatively. You do this by thinking realistically about your situation while infusing greater optimism into the flow of your thoughts.
Like a stream of water, your stream of thoughts flow nonstop regardless if you want them to or not (at least for people that haven’t mastered the extremely challenging process of stemming this flow). But since you own your thoughts, you have the option to map out the general route of their flow toward the destination of your choice. The idea is to make positive feelings the destination of your stream of intentional thoughts.
Start by creating a set of rules or a mindset for how you plan to think more optimistically about your life’s unfolding experiences. Since your thoughts flow swiftly, you won’t be able to apply the rules to all of them. But you can at least try to apply them when you can. Here are some examples of rules:
Rule 1: I direct the flow of my conscious and intentional thoughts toward the destination of positive feelings and the avoidance of negative ones.
Rule 2: I choose to take the optimistic route of thinking non-negatively as often as I can so to comply with rule No. 1.
Rule 3: When a pessimistic thought flows into my head and I become aware of it, I put on the brakes and continue to comply with rule No. 2.
Not everyone is an optimist and it’s OK if some of your thoughts are pessimistic. You’ll simply have to try harder in following the rules you establish for yourself. If you don’t, there’s a good chance your thoughts will habitually flow down the self-destructive route toward negative feelings. If you don’t own your thoughts and are not responsible for supervising them or your feelings, who is? Best to not leave this critical responsibility to circumstance. You might even say that learning to control your thoughts is a foundational skill for any human being hoping to have a healthy and self-realized life.
Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training provider. He holds a master’s degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is the originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment. Twitter: @ccgarton