What drives your actions? (A brief thought on emotions and behaviours)

There are many theories about what drives our behaviours and I will only focus on one aspect in this entry from a basic level, the impact of emotions. A lot of research has been done on negative emotions and how they impact our behaviours, and recently a focus on positive emotions. What always comes to mind in reading these papers is that we need to be aware (as possible as we can be) to what we are reacting to, meaning, our emotional state and how it impacts our actions.

A lot of research says that emotions trigger a specific reaction. For example, you feel fear by seeing a threat, your action repertoire (the behaviours you think of doing) narrow to typically run and escape. When the emotion of fear is happening, you probably won’t be thinking about what you want for dinner or happy thoughts. The thing a lot of these articles forget to mention is this fear can be real, or imagined. Imagined fear or threats I consider to be all the things inside your mind that your brain tells you. For example, related to my previous post someone with social anxiety might have the imagined fear that they are going to choke up in public when asked a question. There is no actual scenario happening at the time that can cause fear, but as they vividly see it in their mind, their body reacts the same. These images, thoughts and sounds that we create can have just as much power as a real threat. So we imagine something scary, our body has a natural physical reaction to it, and it creates more scary thoughts. Not only do emotions therefore influence our behaviours, our reaction can also be mediated or interrupted by many factors such as culture, social expectation, coping strategies, previous experience and others.

So we have emotions which turn into a physical, sometimes behavioral reaction, which is mediated by many other factors. Taking the time to sit and ask yourself what is actually informing your behaviour (e.g., yelling, running, staying in the house, etc) can be very informative. Are you reacting due to an imagined fear that hasn’t come to pass? Are your values getting in the way of the emotion and the physical reaction and changing it? Perhaps you are having a normal day, but you get home and react in anger towards your partner and don’t really know why. It could be that when you saw the house wasn’t cleaned (and you expected your partner to do this) you got angry, but often see this as something that should not upset you, so it doesn’t enter into your thoughts right away. Instead of understanding what was triggering your frustration and evaluating it, you go onto autopilot and react. This is why it’s important to evaluate what is going on, is it an emotion changing a behaviour, or is the emotion trying to inform you that something else is being triggered like a value, expectation, hope, etc. Though there are many ways to do this, a basic starting point is to write down and notice when you have strong emotional reactions or behaviours you do not like, and then ask yourself “what was going through my mind?”. What thoughts were you having, what might you be responding to? What perceived threat might have been around you, real or imagined? This can help you to a. realize you have more control over your reaction to your emotions, and b. be aware of what is actually going on for you. Though this is just a first step, it can often help get the process started of changing your reactions to the person you feel you are, versus acting and then disliking your behaviours.