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Feeling Your Thoughts

Are emotions and thoughts really as separate as people may think?

Feeling your thoughts doesn’t mean that thoughts can be felt in the same way you feel a pin prick on experience a surge of anger or fear. Have a minute to do a thought experiment to see just how closely your thoughts and feelings are related to each other? In the next 30 to 60 seconds, try to make yourself feel really angry while keeping your mind completely blank. After reading this sentence, move away from the screen and just let yourself get angry without thinking any thoughts or picturing any image in your mind. Try it, really.

Were you able to do it? To feel real anger? If so, were you able to hold the anger for more than a passing moment?

Did you clench your fists the way you might if you were really angry? Or did you try to recapture the feeling by furrowing your brow, gritting your teeth, and breathing heavily.

Brain by Dierk Schaefer/Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY 2.0
Source: Brain by Dierk Schaefer/Flickr Creative Commons/CC BY 2.0

You may have been able to recreate some physical attributes of anger. But did you feel genuine anger or did it seem you were just going through the motions of pretending to be angry?

Something was missing from this little anger exercise—the thoughts or cognitions that give substance to the emotion of anger. You have to be angry about something to feel genuine anger. Having something to be angry about means you have accompanying thoughts about someone or something (the object of your anger) that provoked you or treated you badly. Without these connecting thoughts as bridges, emotions cannot stand on their own.

Perhaps you're saying to yourself, "But I did feel angry when I clenched my fists and tightened my jaw. I wasn't thinking about anyone in particular to feel angry." True, some sense memory of anger can be brought to awareness by recreating the physical attributes of anger. You can try to induce anger by clenching your jaw or feel anxiety by shaking your hands and arms to induce a trembling state. It's doubtful, however, that you could hold a feeling for very long without connecting it to a particular thought or mental image.

Without an angering or anxious thought, all you’re left with are the sensations that accompany jaw clenching and hand trembling, not the true emotions. Likewise, you can try to induce positive emotions by forcing a smile, but alas, the feeling seems, well, forced.

Now, if you permit me, let me ask you to try this again, but this time make yourself feel angry by whatever means you like, short of physically harming yourself or others. You may let your mind focus on any thought, mental image, or memory of someone or something that summons feelings of anger. Hold the image in mind and feel the anger for a few seconds. Okay, you may begin.

Were you able to do it this time around? While not everyone can vividly recreate an emotion using imagination alone, I suspect most readers will be able to experience some degree of anger by holding an angering thought or image in mine. The more vivid the angering thought or image, the stronger the anger is likely to be.

What you may discover in this little exercise is that emotions follow thoughts and that without thoughts as drivers, emotions are mere shadow puppets on the wall. Put another way, an emotion needs to be about something. You can’t be angry, fearful, or joyful in a thought vacuum.

To better understand emotions and learn to manage them, we need to peel back the surface of the emotion to identify the thoughts or images that triggered it. We need to identify the angering thoughts that make us angry, as well as the scary thoughts that make us afraid.

One reason people tend to unlink their thoughts and feelings is that they are often more aware of what they are feeling than the thoughts that underlie these feelings. When I ask people who are feeling sad, angry, or joyous to report the thoughts or images bouncing around in their minds at these particular moments in time, they often draw a blank. Thoughts and mental images are fleeting things that dwell only in the ever-changing present. Trying to capture one is like catching a moving target that always seems to be one step beyond our reach. Let me ask you: What were you thinking about a minute ago? Hmm. I shouldn’t be surprised if you draw a blank.

Our double-sided thought experiment illustrates a principle that underlies much of contemporary practice in psychotherapy—namely that behind every disturbing emotional state lurks a triggering negative thought. Cognitive-behavioral therapists help people who are struggling with emotional disorders involving anxiety, anger, or depression, by helping them identify the particular thought triggers that underlie their emotional responses and then helping them change how they think in order to change how they feel.

In other posts on the Minute Therapist blog, we'll connect the dots between thoughts and feelings and show how taking a minute of your time can help you change not only how you think, but how you feel.

© 2015 Jeffrey S. Nevid

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