How Thoughts and Emotions Affect Everything You Do

Our interactions with the world comprise perceiving, feeling, acting, and thinking, four basic processes that aid our survival and well-being. We rarely perceive these processes as distinct steps because they operate subconsciously in tandem with each other.

Consider, for example, a trip to the bookstore. As you peruse the rows of books, a title finally catches your eye (perceiving).  You are curious and wonder whether it is what you’re looking for (thinking). As you read the table of contents, you really like what it says and desire to read more (feeling). Finally, your experience culminates with the decision to take the book to the register and purchase it (acting).

The example above illustrates a holistic process that operates seamlessly, with no true delineation of when one process ends and the other begins. It is important to note these processes can function in any order. For example, if you hate a particular person (feeling), you are likely to dwell on something negative that they’ve done (thinking), which compels you to avoid them (acting) when you see them (perceiving).

Emotion as a Key Player

The interaction between thoughts, emotions, and behavior is a synergistic process. However, philosophers and scientists across time have asserted that emotion is the key player because it has a strong influence on thoughts and behavior.

Functionalist perspectives of emotions conceptualize emotion as an evolutionary adaptive response that organizes cognitive, experiential, behavioral, and physiological reactions to changes in the environment. In other words, emotions play a key function in our survival.

Prominent theories on emotion indicate that emotion interacts with our mental processing by eliciting changes in cognition, judgment, physiology, and behavior. Current research shows that discrete emotions (i.e., happiness, sadness, anger, and anxiety) change the way we think, feel, and behave, and directly affect our everyday judgments and decisions.

There is a consensus that emotions play a key role in decisions. In fact, researchers have found that people who have specific types of brain damage that impair their ability to experience emotions also have a decreased ability to make good decisions.

Ways to Manage Thoughts and Emotions

Albert Ellis, founder of rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT) and early pioneer of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), recognized that emotions directly affect other processes, and that emotional distress often results from dysfunctional thought processes. Ellis promoted the belief that “emoting rather than thinking is often the main problem of human living today.” As a result, Ellis developed REBT as an action-oriented approach that helps individuals to understand how their dysfunctional internal beliefs can cause dysfunctional feelings, maladaptive behaviors, and unhealthy psychophysiological reactions. This style of therapy helps individuals to shift from “hot” emotional reactions to “cool” reflective thinking, which ultimately results in healthier thoughts that promote goal achievement and emotional well-being.

Mindfulness, defined as focusedMindfulness awareness of the present moment, is a mind-body approach that can help individuals to be less reactive to emotions. Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, explains that mindfulness techniques are based upon paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. Focusing attention in this way helps individuals to observe their thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental manner.

The benefits of mindfulness practice include decreased incidents of unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events, and an increased ability to respond more intentionally and wisely. Based on the findings of neuroscience and clinical research, the medical and mental health communities recognize mindfulness as a highly effective skill for stress reduction.

Conclusion

The overall goal of this article was to provide a basic understanding of how thoughts, emotions, and behaviors interact, and the direct bearing they have on emotional well-being. In particular, emotions and thoughts are intricately related and underlie our daily decisions and behavior. Therefore the key to having a more fulfilling and less disturbed life may be to manage our thoughts and emotions.

Personal Reflections:

  • Are you a “hot” reactor, or a “cool” thinker?
  • Can you recall an instance when your emotions prompted you to react in a way that you later regretted?
  • Have you ever tried a mindfulness technique? If so, was it helpful?

References

David, D. (2013). Rational emotive behavior therapy in the context of modern psychological research. Retrieved from http://albertellis.org/rebt-in-the-context-of-modern-psychological-research/

Ellis, A. & Harper, R. A. (1997). A guide to rational living. Chatsworth, CA: Wilshire Book Company

Frijda, N. H., Manstead, A. S. R., & Bem, S. (Eds.) (2000). Emotions and beliefs: How feelings influence thoughts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Lench, H. C., Flores, S. A., & Bench, S. W. (2011). Discrete emotions predict changes in cognition, judgment, experience, behavior, and physiology: A meta-analysis of experimental emotion elicitations. Psychological Bulletin, 137(5), 834-855. doi: 10.1037/a0024244

*Images: artqu and UNSW