Sunday, November 21, 2010

Feelings as Habits

So I made it through the wedding and I actually really enjoyed myself.  When all the hubub died down I was emotionally drained.  During the days following the wedding I wavered between feeling exhausted, happy, anxious, and at peace.  When I first noticed myself feeling anxious I was confused.  Why would I be anxious?  After all, most of the excitement had died down and things were starting to go back to "normal" (whatever that means).  I did a brief inventory of what was going on in my life and ultimately determined that I had addressed everything that needed to be addressed and that there was not really anything in particular that I needed to worry about.  I immediately felt better after making this determination.  Still, several hours later I noticed myself feeling anxious again.  I did another mental assessment, determined that all was well, and again felt better.  I repeated this procedure several times a day.  After a few days it occurred to me that I'd been feeling so anxious for such an extended period of time (maybe starting two or three weeks before the wedding) that feeling anxious had become a habit of sorts.  My mind was simply resorting to the state to which it had become accustomed.  It took another week of reminding myself that I had nothing to be anxious about before my mind started to catch on.   

The fact that emotional states can become habitual is significant because I think that people often maintain a negative emotional state for no other reason than the fact that they've become used to feeling that way.  Research supports this observation.  Many studies have shown that, for example, feeling and expressing anger breed more feelings of anger.  Feelings of depression often lead to negative thoughts that create more feelings of depression that lead to more negative thoughts.  Any given emotional state is self-perpetuating,  In other words, feeling any given way becomes a habit.  When happiness breeds more happiness there typically aren't any problems.  When the self-perpetuating emotions are negative, however, they can be very disruptive.

I want to stress the importance of paying attention to your feelings.  Sometimes people interpret feelings of anxiety as a sign that something is wrong and they begin looking for things in their lives to worry about.  And of course if we look hard enough we can all find something in our lives to worry about.  The reality is that feeling anxious does not necessarily mean that there is, in fact, something to be anxious about.  That is why it is helpful to ask yourself, "Is there anything in my life right now that seems to be causing my anxiety?"  If the answer is no then recognize that there is no external cause for your anxiety and that it is most likely coming from some biochemical process taking place in your brain.  This gives you permission to stop looking for things to worry about...which is always a huge relief.

2 comments:

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  2. So very true and insightful, thanks for sharing.

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