The roots of emotions
May 1, 2002
What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things.
–Epictetus (ca. A.D. 50-130)
In explaining the basis of his insightful book, The Three-Minute Therapy, psychologist Michael Edelstein points out that “Nearly everything in this book flows from a single, simple fact: the way you feel, emotionally, arises from the way you think. Your feelings come from your thinking. For most people, this truth is usually overlooked or denied.”
If the way you feel evokes the way you think, how can you change the way you think? Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is one way to bring your attention to your thoughts, and ‘re-think’. However, the actual mechanism of response to a given thought is dependent on the physical mechanisms and environment within the brain that generates both thoughts and feelings. There is the thought, for example, a sudden memory of a person, a place, or an event, and there is the chain of neurological events that leads to the ‘feeling’ generated by that thought.
What is originally input is a combination of inputs from our five senses, which is then correlated with memories from prior experience, and those are then operated on by the brain to respond through the circuits of the brain that release neurotransmitters and hormones that in turn create the complex proteins that trigger cells to act, glands to secrete things like adrenaline, muscles to contract or relax (sphincter, facial, eyes, stomach, bowel), heart rate to increase or decrease, stomach to secrete or stop secreting digestive juices, bowels to move or stop, etc.
For example, if I anticipate parachuting from a plane, I may feel either exhilaration or terror, depending on whether I’m genetically programmed for novelty-seeking or for risk-aversion. That programming is resident in my neuro-circuits, and that wiring and the stimulation can be affected by (1) the original circuit layout (genes), (2) the strengthening and weakening of those circuits from use, (3) the availability of nutrients and physiological health from sleep and exercise in the system to be converted into neurotransmitters and hormones, (4) the application of neuro-feedback techniques to strengthen and weaken blood-supply and channeling of signals.
Thus, we can train ourselves to control thoughts through REBT, control nutrients to support certain mechanisms, control building of synapses through neuro-feedback, and build preferred circuits through repeated practice.