Feelings, Thoughts, And Behavior: How To Cope With Impulses: Part 1
There is much literature that explores both emotional feeling and analytical thought and which of these processes come first in the human brain. Our limbic system, with its aspects of emotional response, developed first and our intellectual brain, capable of producing abstract thought and imagination, developed later. We may often believe that our feelings and thoughts come to us at the same time, but exploring natural brain functions and how they apply to subsequent behavior can be imperative in terms of addiction treatment.
In brain function, first response and second response can, in fact, be pinpointed and analyzed. As Daniel Goleman discusses in Emotional Intelligence,
“The emotional mind is far quicker than the rational mind, springs into action without pausing ever a moment to consider what it is doing. Its quickness precludes the deliberate, analytic reflection that is the hallmark of the thinking mind.” Likewise, he states that the rational mind “is the mode of comprehension we are typically conscious of: more prominent in awareness, thoughtful, able to ponder and reflect.“
These two components must be explored in order to look at how they impact impulses and lead to behaviors.
A Continuum Of Thoughts/Feelings/Behaviors:
Feelings: While feelings aren’t facts and can often be misleading, they are instrumental in our process of living our day-to-day lives. Feelings may include such states as: happiness, loneliness, anger, sadness, frustration, fear, peacefulness, love, kindness, joy, rage, compassion, hope, melancholy, anxiety, boredom, pleasure, shock, awe, remorse, and numerous others.
Feelings aren’t right or wrong – they just are. How we respond to our feelings is what is most important. Our emotions can mislead us; for example, shame is a feeling that commonly lies about who we truly are, while guilt is a feeling that we can do something about, such as make amends and/or not do the problematic behavior again that led to the guilt.
While our behavior can be bad, most of us are not bad or evil inherently. Emotions are there to express who we are in our capacity of humanness. They enrich our lives and while many believe that there are bad feelings, such as fear and anger, this is not so, as all feelings can contribute positively to our lives and help us to grow into being the best persons we can be.
For instance, without sadness there would be no joy, without pain, there would be no acceptance. However, when we explore feelings, we are talking about the typical feelings we have, not actual mental health disorders, such as a major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. These are psychiatric disorders than need significant treatment, like counseling and/or medication, in order for the person to be able to cope with and further enjoy life.
Thoughts: Thoughts come from the younger part of the brain – the cerebrum – which is about higher level thinking. The frontal lobe, the (cerebral and) neocortex, is responsible for our intellect and complex thinking. As with feelings, thoughts are neither good nor bad, they just are. Thoughts usually come to us after feelings, although at times, it may seem that they arrive at the same time as feelings or even before the feelings. But the rational brain grew out of the lower/earlier brain and led to us becoming a species that has analytical and logical thinking processes.
The Juxtaposition Of Feelings And Thoughts: The emotional brain and the rational brain work together in order for us to maintain our connections to others and to the world that surrounds us. They are neither right nor wrong as they both have a place in our brain/neurological system.
Most of us have a balance in our emotional responses – only some of us maintain an emotional rollercoaster. Likewise, most of us have a balance in our thinking, however some people don’t have much of an emotional or thought filter – this describes our impulses. For example, someone may have an argument with their partner in the morning over breakfast. The emotion may be one of hurt and frustration, the thought may be one of wanting to get even with the partner, and the impulse may be to punish the partner by going out partying after work instead of coming home.
Impulses: Impulses may come from both emotions and thoughts, but tend to be the main output of the emotional brain. We can’t always control our emotions – they may come quickly to us as a neurological response to stimuli. Likewise, we may have impulsive thoughts but emotions may allow us more time to stop the impulse of behavior or reaction.
When our thoughts and feelings get out of balance, we must utilize ways in which to cope with these difficulties or we may end up acting on impulses that we should control. Poor impulse control may begin in childhood and carry over into adulthood. It can lead to negative consequences and have an impact on major mental and behavioral health outcomes.
Behaviors: Behaviors come from our feelings and thoughts; they are our action steps. We are constantly in motion from the time we awaken until we fall asleep. Think about your daily routine; is it one of reacting to impulses or one of self-control? Are you able to act out of power or do you lose your power by reacting in an out-of-control manner to life’s situations?
Our behaviors help define who we are and much of the time, we don’t even recognize our impulses as they surround us all day long. But we need to monitor our impulses so that we don’t act inappropriately. For example, we may have the impulse first thing in the morning to play hooky and not go to work. If we don’t interrupt this process, we may call in sick, the behavioral (action) aspect of our processes. And while this might not be a problem if we only skip work now and then, if we continue to act on the impulse to skip work, consequences will occur.
Addictive behaviors also act out of impulses, as we will see in the stories of Jerry and Alicia in Part II.
Interrupting the Impulse: As already noted, we may go quickly into an emotional state which leads us to impulses. At times, these impulses may be hard to control. While we have various impulses all day long, there may be some impulses that are more demanding than others. Our impulses may also be influenced by our thoughts – remember that the left and right sides of the brain operate together in function.
What has to happen is to interrupt the impulse before negative behavior takes place. We might be able to interrupt it at the initial level of feeling, at the level of thought, or right before we commit the behavior. Regardless, what we need to do is always interrupt the impulse before it gets to the behavior, or we may act in unhealthy ways.
Coping Skills: Our coping skills are what we use to influence feelings and thoughts and what we use to control our behaviors. Some coping skills can be problematic themselves (ex: drinking to cope with depression), but here we will focus only on healthy coping skills. What must also be remembered is that impulses may arise out of positive emotions and thoughts as well as negative ones (see part II). All along the timeline of interrupting the impulse (see above diagram) is the opportunity to interrupt the impulse with a variety of coping/distraction skills. Types of coping skills may be seen in five areas: physical, emotional, intellectual, social/alone relationships, and spiritual.
Types Of Coping Skills
Physical: exercising, yoga, relaxation techniques, tai chi and other forms of work on the body, resting and getting enough sleep, healthy eating, Reiki, breathing exercises, visiting a doctor, medication if needed, walking in nature, working at a physical job, playing sports
Emotional: positive self-talk, exploring feelings, psychotherapy, guided imagery, relaxation techniques, yoga, taking a time out from the problematic situation, meditation, prayer, artwork, music, talking to loved ones, reading self-help books, journaling, coloring books, playing, leisure
activities/hobbies, focusing on creative activities
Intellectual: reading, writing, taking classes, positive self-talk, making plans and setting goals, listening to others, problem-solving, working at a job, crossword and other puzzles, discussions, playing video games, joining a book club
Social/Alone Relationships: spending time with loved ones, leisure/hobbies with others and alone, walking in nature, meditation, working, quiet time alone, social outings with friends such as dinner or movies, playing with children, creative endeavors, music, dance
Spiritual: meditation, attending spiritual retreats, religious practices, prayer, reading on spirituality, playing, creative activities such as art and music, Reiki, being in nature, relaxation, yoga, singing and dancing, tai chi, spiritual and/or transpersonal counseling, guided imagery, volunteering, playing, participating in any healthy activity that makes your spirit soar
In Part II, we will put this information into effect by exploring the stories of two people with impulse control issues, Jerry and Alicia.