Our brains have a tendency to cling on to an emotion and amplify it. Observing my own mind, I found that there are 4 stages to any emotion. Psychologists call it the “emotional feedback loop”, although it’s not formally described in these stages.
Let’s go through them, taking anxiety and excitement as examples:
Stage 1: Physiological response
Something out of the ordinary happens, which your body thinks is important. Let’s say you have to talk to an important client, which makes you really anxious, or you make plans with a dear old friend who you haven’t seen in a while, and you’re very excited.
The body’s response is quite similar in both cases. Your pulse rises, your pupils dilate, you may breathe a bit faster. Suddenly, all you can think of is this particular event.
Notice how anxiety and excitement aren’t necessarily distinguishable at this stage. It’s our body’s way of making us pay attention to events we perceive as important. It improves our focus on the event, and puts everything related to it in our short-term memory, pushing away other, “less important” memories. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, on the contrary.
Stage 2: Thinking about the event
Then thinking kicks in, as a result of all that extra focus.
Sometimes, we put that focus to good use. We think about practical matters related to the event. We may make a list of points to bring up to the client, or think about what food/drinks to buy for when your friend comes over. The physiological response remains, but we don’t perceive it as much of a “positive” or “negative” emotion. It is merely neutral.
Other times, instead of making plans, we tend to daydream about the event. This can help us come up with better plans, but often leads to amplify the original emotion.
If it’s about your friend, you may be picturing the two of you grabbing a beer, playing some board games, and talking about life, like in the good old days of college. You feel yourself really looking forward to it, getting more and more excited with each imagined scenario.
If ti’s about your client, you may picture him asking difficult questions or making unreasonable demands, maybe getting upset about something you did or didn’t do. If you’re particularly anxious, you may imagine saying something stupid to the client and feeling really embarrassed or losing his business. You find yourself dreading the talk, as you spiral deeper and deeper into anxiety.
So even if, initially, our body may have reacted in similar ways to both events, the way we think about the event changes the way we experience the emotion related to it.
Stage 3: Thinking about the emotion
If you went away from the planning route and on to the daydreaming route, you will probably have noticed how intense your emotions are, by now.
You may be happy about being so excited. “This is going to be great!”, you may be thinking. “Just look at how excited I am!”. Feeling positive about the emotion will reinforce the initial feeling, making you even more excited.
You may be rather unhappy with how you feel about the client. “Oh man, look how anxious I am!”, you’re likely saying to yourself. “I really wish I didn’t have to do this. I’m even more likely to screw it up and not think properly if I’m so anxious!”. This, of course, leads to being anxious about the anxiety itself, further amplifying it.
By engaging with the emotion in this way, judging it as good or bad, we amplify it further.
Stage 4: Identifying with the emotion
By now, you’re deep into the emotion and it’s all you can think about, be it “yay” or “go away”. We tend to give deep meaning to these temporary emotions, allowing them to drive our stream of thought. Often times, we tend to bring up memories of events where we experienced similar emotions, and suddenly, it seems like our whole life is a series of similar events.
If you’re excited about your friend, you may be thinking “My life is so awesome right now! Last week I got a raise, and now I get to see my old friend! Who knows what other amazing surprises life has in store for me! Things are pretty great!”. Needless to say, this amplifies your excitement further, and all troubles seem like they vanished.
If you’re anxious about the client, you may be thinking “I’m still waiting for the payment from the previous client and I don’t know what I’ll do if he won’t pay me and I don’t get this new client. Everything is so stressful and nothing ever goes right! I just want to run away from it all”. Suddenly, you’re on the verge of a panic attack or existential crisis.
An important note: neither of the 2 ways of thinking are necessarily beneficial to us. It may sound like it’s a good thing to get so excited about our friend, but in doing so, we may be forgetting another important task we had to do, or we may forget to purchase refreshments for their upcoming visit, spiraling into guilt for “ruining the moment”.
To avoid falling into this trap, we need to always be aware of what stage we are in, and what our brain is doing. Mindfulness can really help with this. Just by knowing that it’s not the event causing this level of anxiety, but the runaway thoughts about it, makes it easier to deal with.
Do you experience emotions in a similar way? Share your examples or counter-examples in the comments below.