Our emotions and thoughts can be our allies or our biggest enemies. Look at how much time we spend on managing and influencing them. Social media, movies, drugs and spiritual practices all serve the same purpose.
A small amount of your time spent understanding them will put in the top 5% of people. Which means you will be able to use your emotions and thoughts and not let them use you.
In this article you will learn what emotions and thoughts are, how they work together and how they affect your behaviour.
What Are Thoughts?
Thoughts are mental processes. There are different types of thoughts like memory, beliefs , opinions and ideas.
If we hold a thought over a long period of time it becomes an attitude.
Thoughts can have images, sounds and smells and are influenced by our genetics and life experiences.
We have automatic thoughts and deliberate thoughts.
Automatic thoughts are useful as they save us time and energy, but they can also lead us astray. They are scripts we play over and over that we learned from childhood onwards. But we use them as short cuts they will not be 100% accurate and will lead to cognitive biases.
Deliberate thinking is when we put our mind to solving a problem. Could be something important or simple like a crossword puzzle.
We use our thoughts to make sense of not just of our environment but also our emotions. As you will see later on, this is why it is important to understand your emotions clearly.
What are Emotions?
Emotions are physical feelings that we experience in response to external and internal events. They are influenced by our genetics, experiences and culture.
An example of an external event is a big barking dog running at you.
An example of an internal invent is a thought about someone you love.
You can imagine your emotional experience in each situation.
Emotions help us make sense of the world…
In other words we experience emotions as a way of making sense of the world. Things like mental disorders and physical conditions will change how we experience emotions because they change how we see the world.
Although almost everyone experiences the same emotions, we experience them at different intensities and we give them our own unique meaning. One person can think of a loved one and feel happy, another will feel sad because that person is not with them.
Emotions also help us bond with other people. Imagine if you did not feel emotions, how would understand another human being?
Emotions are Necessary
Currently it seems we either put too much emphasis on emotions or we try to shut them down by medicating ourselves senseless. It’s also popular to do spiritual practices like meditation to try and detach from them.
We do not need to do either. Emotions are like any other sense. Just like vision, smell and listening. They give us information about our environment.
Relationship Between Emotions and Thoughts
Do thoughts influence emotions or the other way around? The relationship between emotions and thoughts is not that straight forward. The reality is they influence each other.
Imagine walking in the dark and you hear two men talking loudly. But you cannot see them.
Just hearing the voices, makes you anxious (emotion).
Now, if you think it is a couple of drunk men, you will go from anxious to scared.
As they come closer, you see it is a family. Mum, dad, baby and teenage son. Immediately you will relax.
The anxiety lead to the thought (two drunks) and the thought increased your fear. (Correctly, by the way, as it is best to be prepared, just in case.)
Luckily, we have the ability to calm ourselves down and get some perspective. Otherwise that cycle can get out of hand, and a healthy emotional response can lead to a panic attack.
Do thoughts lead to feelings? Which comes first in the process…
When our senses pick up information it goes to our limbic brain before our cerebral cortex. The limbic brain is responsible for our feelings and the cerebral cortex is where we think. So feeling come before thoughts.
In the above example. The person would have felt anxiety before the thoughts.
This is useful to know, only if you use it in the correct way.
For instance, when we are feeling anxious and cannot pinpoint why, but our thoughts are jumping from one reason to the next. We can take a walk or exercise. This will change the emotions and calm our thoughts.
The other option is trying to think our way out of anxiety. Which does not work.
Rational Thought Changes Emotions
Remember, thoughts and emotions feed each other. The body feels what the head is thinking and the head thinks what the body feels.
Because of this process, we can use rational thought to calm or make the emotions disappear. Even change them to their opposite.
Imagine going to a job interview and feeling nervous. You convince yourself if you do not get this job you are failure and you will never find another job.
To counter this you can remind yourself of all the jobs you have had in the past and the skills you have for this job. You can also remind yourself that whatever happens at the interview you will use the experience in to your advantage in the next interview.
Or a simpler example.
You fall over and look silly in public. You feel embarrassed, a natural emotional reaction.
You can rationalize it from “I will never live this down”
“This will make a funny story I can tell at parties.”
Does Understanding Emotions Help?
Understanding emotions can help us manage them. If we don’t know why we feel emotions and we don’t believe they are useful, we will misinterpret them.
And if we cannot label our emotions accurately, it can lead us to over or under react.
For example, if we think we are angry, but are actually frustrated we will react out of proportion. This is because when we tell ourselves we are “angry” we think thoughts that correspond with the anger, which can lead us to actually feeling anger.
The best way to understand what you are feeling….
When you have an emotion, look at it deeply as you can.
Rather just say you are happy, go deeper. Is it joy, excitement, anticipation or relief?
You can use the wheel of emotions as it has the different variants of each emotion. If you have been emotionally stunted, this will be like new language to understand the world.
You can also write down what you feel, without censoring yourself. This will help you clarify your thoughts and feelings.
Emotions and Thoughts And Behaviours
Lets use our example above again, you are walking at night.
You hear two male voices.
If you believe you are in a violent area. you are likely to run or freeze depending on your fear response.
Now imagine you hear the two voices and think it’s a grandfather and his grandson taking a walk in a friendly neighbour hood. You will carry on walking as normal.
Not only have your thoughts influenced how you feel but also how you behave. Also, your behaviour will change the way you feel and think.
This is the premise Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) works on. It changes people by focusing on changing either or both of their thinking and behaviour.
Emotions and Thoughts Conclusion
Emotions and thoughts are so much part of us that it can seem silly to even try to understand them.
But as you probably experienced reading this article, you might not be clear as you though you were.
Thoughts are cognitive processes that interpret our feelings and the world around us. Emotions also interpret the world but also respond to our thoughts.
Emotions come before thoughts because our brains function by interpreting our experiences through the limbic part of the brain first, which is responsible for emotions.
The sensory input then goes to our thinking part, the cerebral cortex.
This is why, if you want to feel better and calm your thoughts, the best way to do it is to take a walk or exercise. A better option than trying out think our thinking.
It is important we understand our emotions, otherwise we will not understand what they are telling us.
Emotions and thoughts influence our behaviour and our behaviours in turn influence them. You can change your behaviour and thinking to influence your emotions. This is what Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) does.
Remember, emotions are not bad. We do not need to get rid of them or put them on a pedestal. They are messengers about our external and internal environment. Useful tools like our sight, touch and smell.
Use them with your other senses and rational thinking and you will not be overcome by them.