Understanding emotion remains something of a mystery, yet it appears to be such a dominant controlling factor in our lives. Many of the effects of emotions cannot be explained and it seems, often ignored by medical and psychological science. Is emotion a result of a thought or a result of physiological changes in the body, or both? I believe emotion to be influenced by both biological and mental processes. And I believe emotion to be influenced by metaphysical experiences as well, but that is a totally different topic than what I present here. In this blog, my main objective is to focus on the influence of cognitive factors on emotion. How much do our thoughts influence our emotions? In my opinion, a great deal.
As we have already learned in our chapter on emotion, views on emotions have changed dramatically since the James – Lange and Cannon – Bard theories. In review, the James – Lange Theory was one of the first theories of emotion proposed in 1884 (Bear, Connors & Paradiso 2007) which suggests that we experience emotion in response to physiological changes in our body. In other words, our physiological response is the emotion. For example, we feel sad because we cry. The Cannon – Bard Theory proposes that emotional experience and emotional expression are independent of one another, that emotions can be experienced regardless of sensed physiological changes, and that the thalamus regulates emotion (Bear, Connors & Paradiso 2007). We now know that it’s the amygdala, not the thalamus that is responsible for emotions such as fear and aggression. We have come to realize that emotions are different than reflexes, that emotions are not controlled by structures of the brain in the same way reflexes are.
In my quest to discover more about cognitive influence on emotion, I came across the work of Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy. His publication of Depression: Causes and Treatment addresses the correlation between distorted thought and depression (Dobson & Dozois 2010). Beck’s studies on depressed individuals showed that thoughts alone can produce emotions, particularly how negative thoughts result in negative feelings and behavior. The diagram below shows the relationships between thoughts, emotions and behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on examining these relationships as a means towards treatment.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with mental illness can modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that is different from traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy in that the therapist and the patient will actively work together to help the patient recover from their mental illness. People who seek CBT can expect their therapist to be problem-focused, and goal-directed in addressing the challenging symptoms of mental illnesses. Because CBT is an active intervention, one can also expect to do homework or practice outside of sessions. (“Treatment and Services,” n.d.)
Below is the link to the NAMI website’s page on CBT. This page elaborates more on the definition of CBT and when it is used as a form treatment.
One of the ways in which a therapist would help a patient through CBT is to have their patient notice and monitor automatic thoughts (Dobson & Dozois 2010). Below is a video demonstrating the cycle of a negatively – framed automatic thought, the negative thoughts impact on emotion and behavior, and how a therapist can help a patient recognize and change their negative thinking.
I am familiar with the cycle of negative thinking all too well, as I’m sure we all are. It’s human nature to experience negative automatic thinking, perhaps some of us more than others. I find that my yoga practice is useful in helping me notice my thought patterns. It has been within the last 5 years since adopting a regular yoga practice that I have been able to combat my own symptoms of depression. Yoga, a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, is very similar to cognitive behavioral therapy in that it involves noticing the activity of the mind. In preparing for this blog, I was excited to learn about a form of cognitive therapy called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBCT includes yoga, breathing, and meditation. MBCT combines the techniques and theories from Aaron Beck’s CBT approach with the Buddhist concepts of mindfulness. Jon Kabat – Zinn developed a program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It is an 8 – week intensive training and is now offered in over 200 medical centers, clinics, hospitals all around the world. Below is a link to the MBSR website if you would like more information about this program. It’s so great to see mindfulness – based programs like this one becoming more accepted and integrated amongst the medical and science communities.
So the question remains, can we change the way we feel by changing the way we think? I am a strong proponent for this theory and according to Aaron Beck research supports this idea. The youtube video below shows a fantastic “meeting of the minds” between Aaron Beck and the Dalai Lama in which they discuss cognitive influence on behavior. Beck talks about the research conducted on people with certain medical disabilities who have negative thoughts about their symptoms versus people with medical disabilities who have positive thoughts about their symptoms. He goes on to state that research shows that those with negative thought patterns towards their own medical condition suffer more than those with positive thoughts. He suggests that those who are able to view pain, for example, as separate from self, have less suffering. Those who see pain as part of themselves endure more suffering. The Dalai Lama suggests that it is helpful to look at negative thoughts or things that cause anger or sadness from a wider perspective, more holistically. He explains that a broader perspective compared to a narrow perspective makes a huge difference in how we feel and that it is very important to view all things as relative, to see both the negative and positive in all things. I hope you enjoy the discussion as much as I do!
This very important and exciting information about cognitive influence on emotion reveals that we can choose to no longer be slaves to feelings of anger, jealousy, or aggression and instead create emotions of joy, happiness, and contentment through our very own thought patterns. Just as it is necessary to nourish our physical bodies through proper nutrition and physical activity, we must tend to our minds with the same care and attention. We are indeed what we think.
Bear, Mark F., Connors Barry W. & Paradiso Michael A. (2007). Neuroscience, Exploring the Brain 3rd edition. Philadelphia & Baltimore. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins
Dobson, Keith S. & Dozois, David J. A. (2010. Handbook of Cognitive – Behavioral Therapies. Dobson, Keith S. Historical and Philosophical Bases of the Cognitive – Behavioral Therapies (pgs. 13 -15). Guilford Publications
“Services and Treatment.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Aug. 2014. www.nami.org