How do our emotions actually affect our behaviors and thoughts?

What’s the source of emotion?

To be human is to experience emotions. We feel them in various parts of our bodies including our brains, where we experience them as connected to our thoughts. Do you wonder about the relationship between emotions, thoughts, and behaviors?

From a scientific standpoint, three distinct areas of the brain are involved: The amygdala, the insula (insular cortex), and the periaqueductal gray (a structure in the midbrain). To break it down, the amygdala handles our emotional behavior and motivations. The insula uses physiological signals (like a bad odor) to create subjective feelings and emotions. For instance, a bad smell creates a feeling of disgust. The periaqueductal gray area of the brain is responsible for pain perception. It is also where anxiety resides. These three areas are how we interpret, navigate and respond to our environment. The foundation of this scientific analysis can allow us to have more conscious choice in this process.

Black and white image of a black man sitting at the corner of the couch

Why do emotions exist?

Historically through our evolution, emotions have been important for human survival. We get hungry, yet there’s an emotional drive that attaches pleasure to the physical need to eat. For example, eating pumpkin pie in the fall is nostalgic and comforting; it’s not just logic and the need for calories to survive that motivates us. 

Feeling safe is an emotion that accompanies the logic that keeps us inside on a freezing evening. The feeling of sitting in a cozy room next to a fire is pleasurable. These examples are emotions working to keep us safe and alive. We continually process emotions and tend to forget the functionality of these signals telling us how to stay safe and alive. 

How do all these emotions affect our behaviors and thoughts, and how can you expand your choices?

There are three components to emotions and how they affect your behavior: Subjective, physiological, and expressive. The subjective is how you individually experience emotions. Getting ready for a vacation might make one person anxious and another person joyful. Your physiology handles what happens in your body when feeling an emotion. With that same vacation, the anxious person may experience nausea the week before the trip. The joyful person may have more energy while prepping for the trip. The expressive component drives you to take action based on your emotions. If you’re anxious about your vacation, you may pack a week before leaving. This is how we individually process emotions.  

The relationship between our emotions and our survival instinct is deeply rooted in our behaviors and thoughts. Based on your past experiences, an external situation can trigger an emotional reaction that changes the way you think. Emotions are then reactions triggered by events or thoughts and can impact your behavioral response. If you were attacked by a dog as a kid and a dog runs up to you on the street, your thoughts will be much different than someone who grew up with friendly dogs.

Here is the opportunity to pivot and make new choices based on this scientific look at how emotions create behavior:  Our reactive thoughts and emotions frequently provide incorrect information. They often raise false alarms, which create feelings and thoughts reacting to something that isn’t an alarm. What can you do about this?  

This is key to understanding that you can shift your perspective and choose what you want to feel.  Pausing to consider whether this emotion is reasonable for the situation you are experiencing, is the first conscious choice you can make to move into a more neutral mode of observing. You can even become skillful at detaching emotions from memories so that the memories only contain thoughts as information.

Start simple and find your smile.

Navigating and managing our emotions is part of the complexity of being human, yet there’s a life hack that can help you immediately gain a handle on emotions that are not your first conscious choice. And it’s as simple as a smile.  

This seems a little too easy, but science backs it up. Psychologists have conducted studies and found changing your facial expression can impact your feelings. Science doesn’t expect this to cause any extreme changes, but it’s the first step to shifting your reality. Your brain receives the “happy” signal from your muscles when you smile and encourages you to see the world positively. Science goes further with studies that have also found that smiling more can even lower blood pressure, so your reality is providing evidence to you that this works.  

Think of smiling as back-engineering.  You know emotions affect your behavior; what’s the first step to begin to manage yourself with this? A simple grounded and physical behavior change can lead to positive emotions.  

This is an easy first step that anyone can do to explore the relationship between emotions, feelings, and behavior. If you are interested in discovering more and want to step onto a path toward creating more happiness and whatever else you want in life, we can help. Our Level 1 Program is a great place to start. The Foundation membership includes Level 1 with basic guided energy exercises to help you become grounded. It provides you with more opportunities to choose how you wish to feel. It includes 14+ hours of self-paced instructional videos and audios and a private learning community of friends to ask questions, share experiences, and connect with on your journey. Begin to take ownership of your emotions and gain more choices in managing your feelings and behavior. 

Explore Level 1 Start in Foundation

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