Thoughts and Emotion
Thoughts and emotions are complex and intricately related, and they are distinct. We can easily believe that we can’t have an emotion without a thought. However, events can automatically trigger emotional responses without thought. Imagine if you were on a hike and round the corner of a trail to find a bear right in front of you, you wouldn’t need to think about being afraid of the bear. During and after the event, thoughts can alter our emotional response. If the bear is still, you may experience being afraid while thinking about the opportunity to use your survival skills. If it begins to rush towards you, your emotions may alter from afraid to terrified, thinking you will die. Or, if the bear slowly starts moving away from you and into the woods, you may feel safe and begin thinking about what kind of bear it is.
Alternatively, sometimes thoughts are the primary fuel of our emotions. Imagine it is Friday. Before you leave work, you receive an email from your boss saying they want to meet with you on Monday morning. From the moment of the email to the meeting, your mind will think about the meeting. You may think your boss will fire you, fueling emotions like being anxious, scared, nervous, or worried. What if you knew they were giving you a promotion? Your thoughts might be about your new position or what you will do with the raise, fueling emotions like being proud, thankful, or successful.
Thoughts are mental cognitions resulting from ideas, sensations, notions, intuition, opinions, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Our perspective alters our thoughts and viewpoints; over time, when repeated thoughts are reinforced, they become beliefs. While our thoughts are shaped by our life experiences, education, culture, and even genetics, they are generally something we can consciously choose to change.
Emotions are a complex experience of consciousness, bodily sensation, and behavior that reflects the personal significance of a thing, an event, or a state of affairs. A natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. While emotions are associated with body reactions activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain, feelings are the conscious experience of emotional responses.
Emotions can result from external triggers like seeing a friend cry or internal triggers like a memory. While the range of available emotions is universal, we may each experience and respond to them differently. Some of us may be acutely aware of the emotion(s) we are experiencing, or we may struggle to identify them.
Many things can influence how we experience and express our emotions.
- The people we spend time with can influence emotions, such as when a stranger smiles at you or when you hear a baby giggle.
- Our cultural traditions and beliefs can affect how we express emotion; some cultures consider it bad manners, and others think it is healthy and appropriate to express emotions.
- According to Neuroscientist Richard Davidson, each of us has an Emotional Style composed of Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention. Where we fall on these six continuums determines our own “emotional fingerprint.” (Find out more in his book “The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them.”
- Our emotional responses can be altered by physical conditions, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis, brain tumors, strokes, and metabolic diseases such as diabetes and thyroid disorders.
Why do we want to differentiate between thoughts, feelings, and emotions?
“I feel like I’m not good enough.” In this example, the thought is “I’m not good enough,” however, our thoughts often skip over acknowledging the emotion and lump it together as one experience. By focusing solely on the thought, we are disconnecting from our experience of the thought. We may be experiencing sadness or fear and feeling disappointment or regret without recognizing that we can easily miss what we need. However, we can develop emotional intelligence if we learn to identify thoughts, feelings, and emotions individually.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, support, and regulate one’s emotions and understand the emotions of others. It includes five key elements, self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. A high EQ helps build relationships, reduce team stress, defuse conflict, and improve job satisfaction.
When we first distinguish each individual, confusing them will be easy. It can be helpful to think of emotions as the physical state resulting from a stimulus. Our feeling is our experience of the emotional state, and a thought is the words we use to describe our experience. The key here is learning the nuances of our experience to respond intently and appropriately to our needs with self-compassion and empathy.
Learning to understand what makes us feel and respond the way we do allows us the ability to regulate our experience.
Can we change our thoughts and emotions?
When we feel an emotion, especially when it is overwhelming, we can believe that they are just part of us. However, research has determined that emotions are malleable. They have found that certain types of mental health training, such as mindfulness and meditation, can affect our perceptions of the world and help us feel calmer and more resilient. Other researchers have identified that cultivating practices such as forgiveness, gratitude, and kindness can also be helpful.
Parts of our life have tremendous power over the way we feel. If we know how something makes us feel, we can change our experience by changing aspects of our lives. These actions can take time and be hard to do, and they can free us. Such as changing our external environments, such as leaving an abusive relationship or an unfulfilling job. We can expand our internal environment by expanding or shifting our attention, such as focusing on what is working or positive and widening our perspective.
How RAIN can help
The RAIN technique is a powerful tool when facing challenging situations and emotions. It can help us supersede our primal threat-based reactivity and replace it with more thoughtful responses. It is also be used as a guide to help us learn about our experiences.
Recognize what is happening for you at this moment.
Become aware of the kind of emotion you are having.
Can you allow the experience, emotions, or thoughts to occur.
See if you can bring some gentle acceptance to it.
Investigate your inner experience with kindness.
Get curious about your emotion. What does it feel like, particularly in your body?
Not identify with:
You are not your thoughts and emotions.
As you go through the process you will naturally begin to take this emotion less personally, seeing it as it is; energy in motion, passing through you.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinicians.