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How Thought triggers Emotion

July 23, 2012

Remembering an event or situation can activate a wide range of emotions. This is equally true when we speculate on the future outcome of a situation or simply consider our present circumstances. Certainly there is a long history of research that demonstrates how thoughts can trigger emotion, just as the activation of emotion can create cognitions. In previous posts I’ve discussed the interaction between the cortex, the limbic system and the hindbrain so that we have a neuroscientific platform for enquiry. Now let’stake a look at psychology.

Albert Ellis was a psychoanalyst who broke away from conventional psychoanalysis because he felt it did not provide sufficient help for his clients. He is regarded as one of the main forerunners of the now widely used system of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which assists people to become aware of the connection between thoughts and psychological states. Ellis developed a system which he called RET (Rational Emotive Therapy) and illustrated the basic idea of this theory in his ABC model:

The ABC of CBT
1. The A stands for activating agent — any situation or stimulus that prompts a reaction.
2. The B stands for beliefs – any thoughts, images or perceptions that we draw from A.
3. The C stands for consequences — either feelings or actions.
Ellis concluded that people often make the incorrect assumption that C is caused by A where in reality C is caused by B. To clarify, people often attribute their behaviour to an external stimulus rather than their own internal interpretation of that stimulus. In the updated REBT – Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy – A stands for adversities and B for belief-behavioural system. The theory identifies thoughts that usually underlie emotional disturbances:

4 Core Dysfunctional Thoughts
1. Shoulds, Oughts or Musts
Shoulds turned inward create depression, shoulds turned outward create anger and oughts or musts create a demanding, rigid rulebook for life with a low frustration threshold (Ellis used the term “musturbation”).
2. Awfulizing/Catastrophizing
We interpret events and arbitrarily decide that they are outside our capability to cope with them, ie “my swollen glands might be cancer”.
3. False Self-Worth beliefs
Self-worth is made contingent upon arbitrary criteria, ie “I’m only worthy if my boss likes my work”.
4. False Needs
Many supposed needs are based on emotional perceptions rather than realities, ie “ I need my friends to call me every day”.

In particular he observed the following specific issues {Ellis, 1979b in Corey, 1991} :

6 Issues of RET
1. People condition themselves to feel disturbed, rather than being conditioned by external sources.
2. People have the biological and cultural tendency to think unclearly and therefore to needlessly disturb themselves.
3. Humans are unique in their capacity to invent disturbing beliefs and keep themselves disturbed about their disturbances.
4. People have the capacity to change their cognitive, emotive, and behavioural processes; they can choose to react differently from their usual patterns, refuse to allow themselves to become upset and practice this approach so that they eventually experience a sustained and highly significant reduction in life disturbances.
5. Humans are self-talking, self-evaluating, and self-sustaining.
6. Emotional disturbances occur when preferences (desire for success, approval etc.) are turned into dire needs.

6 Principles of RET

1. Cognition is the most important and proximal determinant of human emotion.
2. Dysfunctional thinking is the major determinant of human distress.
3. Changing thinking is the best way to change determinants.
4. Multiple factors are related to the etiology of rational and irrational thinking.
5. RET emphasizes the present rather than historical influences on behaviour.
6. Beliefs can be changed.

So now we have a foundation for the discussion of how thoughts may trigger emotions. I will continue to add further information in future posts.

Spencer Joseph

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