What causes emotions and how do we change how we feel?

Our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations cause emotions. At least that’s what cognitive therapists think. Some people have a very difficult time accepting this, but stick with me here. Many people believe that situations or other people cause their emotions. These people talk to their friends and say things like “he just makes me so mad!”, “how can I be happy when ____________ is wrong with my life?”, or “I’d never have any road rage if people could just learn to drive.” While it is true that situations influence our feelings, it is what we think about those situations that cause our emotional reactions to those situations. Take for example, two people who have recently gone through a divorce. Assume for the purposes of this example, their situations are exactly the same. The first divorce’ feels overwhelmed with depression, guilt, and shame because they think: this is the worst thing that could happen. I’ll be alone forever. No one will ever love me. I’m too old to start a relationship. This is going to ruin life for my kids. The second divorce’ has a radically different emotional reaction because they think: In all honesty I was generally unhappy in that relationship, this is an opportunity for me to invest my time and energy into something more satisfying. This is difficult and it is unfortunate that this did not work out but just because it wasn’t a good fit with my last partner does not mean it won’t work out with other people in the future.

“But what about brain chemicals??? Aren’t our emotions a reflection of the levels of neurochemicals in our brains?” First, it is true that the levels of certain neurotransmitters are associated with the likelihood of experiencing particular emotions. This is why medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help reduce depression for some people. However, your neurochemistry is greatly influenced by what you do and how you think. Therefore, you can change your neurotransmitter levels by changing what you do and how you think.

It is still okay if you are still unconvinced that your emotions are created by your thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, and interpretations. If your are still skeptical let me ask you this – even if 99% of your suffering is caused by your brain chemistry, other people, or situations, isn’t it more productive to focus on that 1% you can control? What is helpful for you? Is it helpful to believe that you are a powerless victim without any choices?

Alright so if we accept that our emotions are caused by our thinking, how does this help us? It means that we can change how we feel by changing how we think. Many types of therapy rely on thought replacement to do this.

The first step of thought replacement is building awareness about the thoughts causing your emotional reactions. These automatic thoughts (or “hot thoughts”) can be in the form of language (“I’m an idiot”) or in the form of images/fantasies, and they automatically pop into our minds when we are in moments of crisis. Unfortunately, we usually just accept our automatic thoughts to be true. This is unfortunate because often our thoughts are just dramatic nonsense.

Once we are aware of our automatic thoughts we try and assess the degree to which these thoughts are realistic or factual. Dr. Beck (the founder of cognitive therapy) recommends three questions to do this: (1) what’s the evidence that this thought is true or false? (2) What might be another way of looking at the situation? And (3) so what if this thought is true? Challenging our automatic thoughts can be very difficult at first (this is one of the reasons I have a job) because we usually have a lot of practice just accepting our opinions, interpretations, and assumptions as facts.

If we come to find that our thoughts are not realistic or factual we move into the third step of thought replacement – focusing on a more rational alternative. It is usually not enough to simply deny the validity of a thought, we usually have to focus on another thought to take its place. Our focus is like a laser pointer, we can point it at one thing at a time. Sometimes it feels like several things because we are frantically moving the laser pointer from one thing to the next. With practice we can choose to focus our attention on the more rational alternative and let the negative automatic thought go. However, we do not stop there. How do we know that the new alternative thought is more realistic or factual? We test out the new thought in the real world. In science terms – we test our new hypothesis and try and see if it is supported by evidence.

So to go back to my example of the first divorce’ who feels overwhelmed with depression, guilt, and shame. First we (1) identify a negative automatic thought that is contributing to their suffering – “I’ll be alone forever.” Then we (2) assess the degree to which this thought is realistic or factual by asking those three questions posed by Dr. Beck. What’s the evidence? Many people who go through divorce end up in even better relationships. What’s another way of look at the situation? This is an opportunity for me to invest my time and energy into something more satisfying. This is difficult and it is unfortunate that this did not work out but just because it wasn’t a good fit with my last partner does not mean it won’t work out with other people in the future. So what if this thought is true? The world would not end. My happiness is not dependent on my being in a relationship. While it is unlikely I’ll be alone forever, there is still a lot of joy to have in the world. Finally, we then (3) focus on a more rational alternative – I would have preferred to have been in a perfect marriage on my first try but I am not entitled to have everything I want. It is easy to be a kind, respectful, and loving person when everything is going my way, this is an opportunity for me to display the depth of my character when challenged to my children. Just because one relationship did not work out does not mean that I am unlovable or that I will be alone forever. What can I focus on improving about myself so I can increase the chances of meeting my goals in the future?

I am very aware that these principles are easier said than done. I do not mean to suggest any of this is easy. Thousands of journal articles and books have been written on these topics and this is only a very brief overview. I’ve had to use these skills many, many times in my life and they have been an immense help for me. My only hope with this post is that perhaps it may be helpful for you as well.

The influence of behaviour on emotions will be explored in more depth in future posts.


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