Without any deliberate effort on your part, your brain evaluates every situation you encounter and decides if an emotion should be activated to alert and protect you. The ability of your brain to evaluate situations, events, or stimuli is referred to as an appraisal. A situation may have a particular meaning for you, and therefore your brain appraises the situation in terms of what emotion it will create. Such appraisals happen automatically, without your conscious control, and trigger a reflexive response. Your appraisal system takes into account your well-being, plans, and goals when it processes events or situations and provides them with meaning (Levenson, 1994). Consequently, many of your preferences and decisions are determined unconsciously and automatically by your emotions.
How such appraisals develop is somewhat controversial. Are we hard-wired to experience certain emotions as a result of specific circumstances, or do our early experiences with emotions and the memories they formed lead us to evaluate future situations in particular ways? Since emotions serve to protect humans by helping them respond to situations, then perhaps appraisals that activate emotions can result both from our innate ability to size up situations as well as what we’ve learned from past experiences. Researchers who theorize that memory is what contributes most to our emotional responses to situations assume that we appraise events—both consciously and unconsciously—based on how closely the circumstance resembles past situations (Clore & Ortony, 2008; LeDoux, 1996). As a result, certain situations are consistently sources of emotions that you have connected with them in the past, and these are considered to be appraisal tendencies—the characteristic way in which your brain has learned to evaluate specific situations. Suppose, for example, that you are involved in a professional or personal relationship with someone who deceives you. A later circumstance or behavior that mimics the previous deception will be appraised by your brain as a possible threat to your well-being, much like having eaten something that made you sick will later trigger a disgust response when you encounter a similar food. Thus, your emotions will provide you with a truth that is based upon your previous experiences, which is why altering your emotional system’s interpretation of life may require time and contrasting experiences.
Once your brain instantaneously has processed an event or a situation and provided it with meaning, the emotion it activates will prepare you to take action. The resulting reflexive urges and behavioral responses you may have to a particular emotion are its action tendency (Clore & Ortony, 2008; Fredrickson & Cohn, 2008; Lazarus, 1994; LeDoux, 1996). In action tendencies, your brain can trigger the release of hormones related to high stress, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and gluco-corticoids from the adrenal gland, which can lead to either an enhancement of memory or an impairment of memory for an event (LeDoux & Phelps, 2008). So if your brain appraises a situation as dangerous it will activate fear that is accompanied by the urge to respond with a particular action, such as escape or avoidance. However, once you experience the particular urge to respond, you also have the ability to cognitively consider this action tendency. In the above-mentioned case of deception, you may have an urge to avoid the relationship out of self-protection. But since you are able to cognitively consider what else you are leaving behind, you may hesitate, and instead, justify staying. Even so, any emotional memory of the event that was stored in your brain may later cause you to become more vigilant about the possibility of that person deceiving you again.
Appraisals that trigger emotions, the resulting action tendencies, and the thoughts you might have in response are important to consider when it comes to dealing with emotions. Although you may have an inclination to take action immediately, you also have the ability to inhibit or alter a response by thinking about it. Since you can quickly consider the consequences of your actions, the best approach to dealing with an intense emotion is to involve some quick cognitive assessment of what would be your best approach. Taking into consideration the emotion that is triggered, and thinking about your response to a situation before you act, is what’s often referred to as regulating or managing your emotions. However, emotion regulation is different than disregarding or avoiding what they are trying to tell you.
Nevertheless, at times you may want to hide from the information that is based upon the plethora of data stored in your brain’s hippocampus for your benefit. You could instead, for example, self-medicate emotional responses and shun them as you would an authority who tries to convey what is in your best interest that you don’t like hearing. On the other hand, you might just ruminate about the situation, continuously triggering the same emotional response but inhibiting any action on your part.
By creating anxiety, anger, sadness, fear, guilt, shame, disgust, embarrassment, or any number of emotional responses that your brain has at its disposal, your emotional system attempts to inform and protect you by making you feel whatever it is you need to know. Your emotional system has no reason to lie, although it can be misguided based on your previous experiences in the world that have informed it. The maladaptive guidance that your emotional memory has accumulated can be considered a component of your pathogenic beliefs—a subject for a subsequent blog. Nevertheless, your emotions will tell you the truth—your truth—even if you don’t want to listen.
For information regarding my books about emotions: http://www.marylamia.com
This blog is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.
Clore, G., & Ortony, A. (2008). Appraisal theories: How cognition shapes affect into emotion. In M.
Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742–756). New York: Guilford Press.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Cohn, M. (2008) Positive emotions. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 777–796). New York: Guilford Press.
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. New York: Simon & Schuster.
LeDoux, J., & Phelps, E. (2008). Emotional networks in the brain. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 159–179). New York: Guilford Press.
Lazarus, R. (1994). Universal antecedents of the emotions. In P. Ekman & R.J. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions (pp. 163–171). New York: Oxford University Press.
Levenson, R. W. (1994). Human emotion: A functional view. In P. Ekman & R. J. Davidson (Eds.), The nature of emotion: Fundamental questions (pp. 123–126). New York: Oxford University Press.