Detecting patterns in the emotional-response cycle
BY: Troy Murphy |September 2016
Recognizing reoccurring emotional patterns provides opportunity to intervene with unproductive reactions that previously knocked us off track from intentions; such as angry remarks that injure rather than repair important relationships. Once we subjectively see the whole pattern, rather than bits and pieces from the blur of heated moments, we can interrupt the damaging cycle of environmental triggers, reactionary emotions and destructive responses, by enforcing healthier responses, inviting more promising futures, and attaining the intentions we aspire.
To fully understand emotional reaction, we must grasp their complexity, their causes, and their inability to define right and wrong. We must challenge emotional reactions for their effectiveness. Anger, sadness, shame and guilt erupts from experience, signaling importance to an event. Sometimes the emotions are appropriate. The event has great importance to safety, security and acceptance; other times the emotions is askew, and needs to be challenged rather than absolved. But until we recognize reoccurring patterns, we will never effectively distinguish between healthy emotional motivations and the blistering self-destructive reactions that continually haunt our relationships and cripple futures.
Our interpretation of importance, for the most part, is socially constructed. Biologically our sensitivities differ but experience transforms those sensitivities into real life meanings. Past pain and pleasures orders experience, emphasizing and categorizing experience, giving meaning to the present to guide future choices. Extremely painful or pleasurable experience binds emotions to associated external stimuli. The stimuli then evoke emotion in future encounters. These connections are highly subjective, igniting defensive responses that fail to achieve long term objectives. Life is more complex than these simple cause and effect connections.
Traumatic and chaotic experiences create confusion. Constructing clear connections between cause and effect nearly impossible. A large net is cast, associating a large selection of data, all bound to the experience, evoking future emotions but not necessarily materially involved. Through this process, we form biases. We shape expectations. Expectations dramatically impact emotional responses—especially to events occurring outside strict expectations.
When events conflict with expectations, we experience anxiety, requiring reassessment, and change; or simply unproductively complain. Whichever path we choose adds a new component to the trigger. When a reoccurring trigger has never successfully propelled us forward, the triggering event spikes anxiety. We chaotically respond, stabbing at the dark for a better resolution, but the emotions overwhelm, sabotaging the outcome. A young friend remarked upon entering a new relationship, “I just want to go into the mountains for a few days and scream.” The whole cycle—attraction, romance, commitment, vulnerability—she hasn’t successfully navigated this course in the past. The past forms expectations of failure with each new relationship. She excruciatingly thinks one thought to many examining every detail of the relationship for signs of impending doom. Any relationship with prospects of closeness triggers emotions, confusion and eventually overwhelm---to the point she wants to explode, escape, go into the mountains and scream.
We scan for perceived threats. A process cloaked in unconsciousness. Detection of the slightest threat ignites chemical changes preparing the body to respond. Threats are not simply man eating lions but also subtle slights to personal value, or shaking the security of a relationship. A raised voice, an angry look, or an uncomfortable question all can trigger fear, fear of loss. A political remark on social media simultaneously activates hundreds of limbic systems around the globe by threatening security by challenging beliefs.
Experience fires up the limbic system. We react to experience; negative experience creates emotional discomfort. It’s automatic. It’s going to happen unless we emotionally disconnect. Avoid all discomfort is a fruitless battle. We’ll never win. Nor, in my opinion, do we want to win. Well-being, the overall enjoyment of life, depends on successful navigation of discomforting emotions. A skilled approach to discomfort allows discomfort to run a natural course, signaling a threat, directing our attention to the threat, rather than the discomfort, and properly responding.
Ideally, the cycle of threat-emotions-evaluation-proper response would correctly direct us. Life is complex. The cycle often goes unrecognized and we haphazardly stumble through the destructive routines we have in the past. Even when we recognize the start of a reoccurring cycle, we don’t know the proper response needed to achieve the desired result. Few, perhaps none, completely mastered the art of living. After several decades of intentional effort, I’m still a novice. Often I curse discomfort and beg for escape, possibly a good scream in the mountains would help. But other times, understanding and acceptance prevail, the emotions run their normal course and depart.
While the rush of discomfort may come quickly and depart quickly, our thinking often exasperates the discomfort. The emotional explosion is given meaning. We create a story to explain the severity of feeling. We attribute disrespect to mundane interactions and furiously respond. The story derails the natural emotional signal. Our story aggravates or soothes the original emotion. When we create catastrophes out of small disruptions, life is drama filled with continuous emotional upheavals. When we translate a partner’s occasional slippage as “he is so inconsiderate, he is selfish, and he has never loved me,” our emotions respond to our cataclysmic interpretation rather than the reality of a little rudeness.
Past Emotional collapses become an integral part of the present. They spill over to now, creating new fears--a fear of life. We say, “I am improving,” but continue vigilantly scan for the next overwhelming catastrophe. This becomes the pattern—improving followed by collapse. As a dear friend confessed, “I’m afraid to enjoy life because I know it won’t last.”
Changing patterned reaction is difficult. Patterns are automatic—often unrecognized. The event, the thoughts, the emotions smoothly and effortlessly flow. Recognition unhealthy patterns always proceeds successfully addressing them. Recognition unreasonable anxiety allows for challenging the anxiety and acting in opposition to its warning. Recognition self-abasing and catastrophic stories allows for purposely creating softer alternative explanations. We need help. Our mind explains, mitigates and absolves reoccurring reactions. Others see through these defensive mechanisms, and can redirect our efforts. Mindful awareness proceeds change, becomes a confederate in fighting despair, destructive pasts and will guide us to a more manageable life.