Thoughts and Emotions
The Thought, Emotion, Behavior Cycle
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2016
Thoughts influence emotions and emotions influence thoughts. We modify thoughts, emotions, or behaviors and the entire cycle changes.
Thoughts are not facts; they’re just a string of words and images passing through consciousness, drawing attention, and stimulating emotions. Feelings stimulate thoughts, and thoughts stimulate feelings back and forth these two ingredients interact forming the conscious experience of living. A burst of emotion, forcing its way into consciousness, demands articulation with words—and as we begin to ruminate on the words, making the small big and the big small, we assign cause and affix blame. A fatal and most interesting cycle—emotions spark thoughts and thoughts further agitate emotions.
"We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far."
Our Multi-Function Brain
The layered and modulated construction of our brains solves and creates problems. Emotions, language and consciousness all evolved because of the benefits they provide to survival. They didn’t evolve together from a master plan to create the perfect being. Each addition to the brain evolved with new gifts to resolve existing glitches and new complications. Each new layer and each new module adds to the complexity of existence—thoughts and emotion.
The Emotion-Thought Cycle
A spouse’s inconsiderate behavior triggers discomfort (emotions), the feeling initiates thoughts to explain the feeling and plan a response. The parade of thoughts, dances and moves through possible causes for the behavior, developing a theory and devising a plan. We ruminate, we judge, and we retaliate. We typically assign more meaning to the suspect action than the action deserves., blaming the unseen motivation to selfishness, stupidity or meanness. The wheel begins to turn, moving us through this magnifying cycle of words and emotions, disrupting our quietness of mind; we pain over unfairness, dread the future, and forget pleasant pasts.
See Catastrophic Thinking for more on this topic
Our thoughts effortlessly jump from a simple inconsiderate action to a catastrophe of more disastrous causes. Instead of accepting humanness, we attribute shortcomings to atrocious character flaws. We muse, then dwell, then with paranoia imagine catastrophic causes, and inescapable conclusions. “Our mate is selfish; they hate us, they are cheating.” The conclusions, ill-conceived from limited information, create very painful meanings that are much more disrupting than the original behavior.
"Sometimes there is no darker place than our thoughts, the moonless midnight of the mind."
Our Subjective Thoughts Feel Like Facts
We react to self-generated thoughts as if they’re the facts, never challenging the facts, or examining the conclusions. Our fears intermingle with the creativity of language and author disturbing stories full of myth and assumption. Instead of closing the book, or rewriting the story (reframing), we lose ourselves in the emotion, and crumble, pulled into the engrossing drama.
"Our thoughts effortlessly jump from a simple inconsiderate action to a catastrophe of more disastrous causes."
Interrupting the Cycle
We will never escape the drawbacks to a multi-layered, multi-module brain. We benefit from the complexity of function, the resilience of segregated functions, and resourcefulness of independent functioning. When the modules get caught up into the quagmire of conflicting and repeating programs, we must intentionally intervene and interrupt the cycle. By mindfully evaluating thoughts stirring emotions, examining conclusions, and seeking alternate explanations, we provide an escape.
We should routinely question the accuracy of the ruthless thought soldiers marching through our mind. We can also intervene with the emotions. When we are running hot, we must have a repertoire of practices to cool. We can introduce soothing thoughts, change environments, or engage in mindful breathing.
We calm our bodies and open our minds. With more clarity, we may discover that the disastrous conclusions are faulty, based on self-created meanings; meanings that only exist in our thick-skulled heads.
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