Monday, February 7, 2011

Saber-toothed Tigers

In the last two posts I’ve talked about the life events that hit us, the characteristic self-talk that we attach to those events, and the helpfulness of changing that self-talk to more calming, upbeat, realistic thoughts that will more likely bring greater feelings of peace and happiness. This is a difficult process, however, because in addition to our old automatic self-talk being deeply ingrained through years of rehearsal (see Runaway Mental Semi-Trucks) the life events that hit us do so with some initial emotion even before we begin thinking about them.

There are implicit memories that get stored in our brains, and when a new event triggers that area or memory in a familiar way we can quickly feel the emotion that has been repeatedly associated with that event or a similar event. Our bodies have been wired physiologically to do this since the beginning of the existence of humans because it can be a very helpful process in some circumstances.

If one of our early ancestors walked out of their cave and heard the familiar growl of a dangerous animal such as a saber-toothed tiger, it would have been fairly important for the emotional/physiological response to that sound to occur automatically. If thinking were first required to create the emotion of fear, our ancestors probably would have been eaten by the time they thought, “hmmm, I’ve heard that before; I remember several times after hearing that sound that it was a dangerous animal to be feared; I’d better get psyched up now so I’m ready for it!”

Similar to this fear response, when feelings of discouragement, anger, stress, self-doubt, or anxiety have been repeatedly paired with certain life events (our modern day saber-toothed tigers), we often quickly experience one of these emotions when a new life event hits us, even before we’ve attached our characteristic thoughts to it. Your mind and body want to work together, so the initial emotional reaction to an event can easily  trigger the cascading self-talk that further elicits more of the negative emotion. Over time, people can become chronically stressed, anxious, depressed, self-doubting, or irritable as their mind and body work together in this fashion.

For example, many people frequently feel annoyed or irritated by others. They have chronically paired “frustrating or annoying” interactions with other people with corresponding self-talk such as, “Why does this person always have to act like that?; Why are people so stupid?; Can’t anybody do their job the right way anymore? What happened to manners in our society? Look at what an idiot that person is!” etc. Over time, any new situation or interaction with another person in which that other person behaves contrary to how they should be behaving, driving, talking, working, etc. quickly hits with those old familiar feelings of annoyance and irritation. These feelings are then exacerbated by the old, automatic self-talk that is attached to it.

This process works similarly for reoccurring feelings of discouragement, depression, self-doubt, worry, or stress. It is quite difficult to change the ingrained, automatic messages we attach to life events, but it becomes easier to do this when you can lessen the impact of the initial emotion that hits you, and in the next post, I will discuss one strategy for accomplishing this challenging task.

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