For those who are not enjoying their ride in life and for those who can’t comprehend how anybody can possibly say “it’s all good,” may I recommend that you start using your emotional system as it has evolved to be used. You will get to a place where, “Yea, I can understand how that makes sense, it IS all good.” It is very unfortunate that the most influential people in a person’s life may have imparted an impoverished attitude about life. But attitudes can change. The neuroplastic brain can grow new circuits of understanding and awareness and provide you with new understandings, awarenesses and abilities to meet the challenges of life – if you put in the effort. When I came to the point in my life that I understood “where I am is not my fault but it is now my responsibility,” that is when life started getting better for me. It takes effort. But if you have the desire to improve and empower your own life, start using your emotions, and understand that if a thought doesn’t feel good, it’s not. If what you are doing in life doesn’t feel good, it isn’t good, for you or anybody around you. You have to become your own ‘superhero.’
Cognitive-physiological-emotional well-being means: 1) having the ability to evaluate one’s own cognitive activities with one’s own emotional system, 2) having the ability to STOP…and respond to this evaluation, 3) switching from emotionally-negative cognitive activities to those cognitive activities that will elicit positive emotions and, finally, 4) using these new emotionally-positive thoughts as the basis for constructive action. Cognitive-emotional therapy is about developing the cognitive skills and habits necessary to harness the emotional guidance system for the purpose of attaining mental and physical well-being by gaining new perspectives of people, places, and events. With this new perspective, new opportunities to act and function will be unveiled that were previously masked by old and emotionally negative cognitive habits. And most importantly, such revised cognition causes a person to actually feel better.
Negative emotions are very important, in fact, they are fundamental parts of the healing equation. Negative emotions are the lower steps of the emotional staircase. Positive emotions are the higher steps. Negative emotions bring an awareness of that which is not wanted (bottom steps) and are used to identify that which is wanted (top steps). The problem and the solution are part of the same staircase. Engineers, for example, have problems to solve. But engineers don’t fixate on what’s wrong. They have the unique ability to use what is wrong and not wanted to generate solutions. Solutions become more apparent after silently exhaling and quieting the knowing and fixation upon that which is wrong. “Be still and listen…”
The objective of cognitive-emotional therapy is to attain mental and physical health and well-being. This starts with learning how to feel better emotionally. The role of the caregiver is to help pave the way for the patient to move up the emotional path. How far along the path a patient travels depends on his or her motivation to take another step: take one more step just to feel a little bit better. One step may take a month. It may take two. But no matter the time, the cornerstone role of caregivers is to help patients take that next step with the promise that when they do, they will feel better. At first, feeling better may simply translate into feeling less pain. Eventually though, over time, with the development of new cognitive habits, emotional feelings will transcend from negative to positive.
8.1 Motivation to Feel Better
The answer to the question “how do you feel” depends on what that person is dwelling upon mentally. Questions such as “tell me, what is going on,” “what is happening” or “what’s up” coupled with follow up questions such as, “how do you feel about that” or “how does that make you feel” are appropriate questions to ascertain the current emotional-thought correlations. The reason for asking these questions is to help a person begin to understand and acknowledge the correlation between emotions and mental activities.
Answers to these questions will also help the therapists find the desires within their patients’ mental-emotional jungle. These desires can be harnessed as motivation to alter a patient’s current, negatively-charged patterns of thoughts and actions into patterns of thoughts and actions that feel better. The question “what do you want” develops focus. An answer demands a “fearless sifting and winnowing” (ref. 8-1) of thoughts, experiences and desires, and a focus on that which is wanted and its associated positive feelings.
Whatever a patient’s desire may be, there is an underlying desire to feel good, to feel better. This desire is an important motivation to do the work necessary for improvement. Feeling good is also needed for activating the underlying neuroplastic changes in the brain that will lead to a new, different and improved life style (ref. 8-2).
To feel good, to feel better, to get well, to have a life and to enjoy work and play requires a person to use his or her own emotional system to change current habits of thought. Work and action are necessary to not be angry, sad, disappointed, depressed, and to lessen the emotional pain and move out of the depths of despair. Do you want to feel better? If the answer is yes, then here is where you can start: do something for yourself everyday – something constructive – that helps you feel a little better.
Exercises in Cognitive-Emotional Rehabilitation (Your Superhero Toolkit)
All these tools are methods for changing destructive and aberrant cognitive activities into constructive and useful cognitive activities. Emotions act as a guide because emotions give cognition feedback via their perception of the body’s physiological and biochemical state of being. These body conditions are generated by the cognitive activities of the reptilian and mammalian brains. Awareness of whether emotions are basic responses to reptilian cognitive activities or responses to complex mammalian cogitative activities, aids in the understanding that some tools will be more effective than others. Rather than understanding the differences in basic and complex emotions, it is far more important to develop an awareness of what is working and what is not working for you to feel better.
- Focusing on that which is wanted
“What do you want” is a question to bring focus and to identify a subject of desire and to bring forth positive emotions. A person knows when he or she dwells upon ‘that which is wanted’ when positive emotions come forward. Negative emotions come from ‘looking at’ or ‘dwelling upon’ such people, places and events a person doesn’t want. “You have told me what you don’t want; now tell me about what you do want.” The presence of positive emotions within the conversation may be attributed to success in changing the subject from the ‘lack of that which is wanted’ to the ‘presence or refocusing on that which is wanted.’ Continual discussion around these emotionally positive subjects lays the foundational touch stones for moving up the emotional staircase where more joyous and healthy activity resides. At first these touchstones may be just less painful. Yet, with continual work, movement up the emotional staircase will eventually bring emotionally positive results.
Individuals can’t focus on what they don’t want and simultaneously have positive emotions. We may use positive words, but if the emotion behind our words is still negative, nothing changes. When words and phrases are positive but the emotional state behind such words remains negative, mental activity is still negative and unhealthy. The emotions connected with the mental activities are the guiding factor or, more precisely, the physiological biochemical alterations produced by cognitive activity that consciousness perceives as emotions are the guide. Focus and awareness need to be on the emotional state. When it changes from negative to positive, positive-sounding words become honest and in harmony. The conversation revolving around a subject now leads towards health and well-being. The challenge is to continue to modify the attributes of the conversation in this healthier direction and to bring forth more and more positive emotions.
But the engineering mind and the gamer mind (as in chess) seem to develop positive emotions while identifying and holding a problem in stasis, while searching for and allowing solutions to ‘come to mind.’ The design of the prefrontal cortex seems to be integral to this process. It functions by holding ‘what’s not wanted’ – which stimulates negative emotion – in the right prefrontal cortex and the desired outcome of ‘what’s wanted’ – which stimulates positive emotion – within the left prefrontal cortex (ref. 8-3). The precise nature of these prefrontal cortex activates needs further research.
- Reframing and Appreciating
To appreciate a person or persons means to find something of “value” within them to focus on, which stimulates positive emotional responses. To appreciate a situation means to find something of value within the situation to focus on. Appreciation means to make the effort to dwell on some emotionally positive aspect of a person, place, or event that brings about good emotional feelings. “This rain means we can’t go for our walk, but we can catch up on our reading.” The subject matter doesn’t change. It hasn’t stopped raining, but the rain’s positive attribute is brought forward and the emotional state improves. Or as the saying goes, make lemonade out of lemons. The issue is found in the lack of understanding within these common phrases: ‘it is good’/ ‘it is bad’ or ‘it makes me happy’/ ‘it makes me sad’. All these common phrasings misplace the responsibility ‘I’ have in creating ‘my own’ emotional state of being.
One type of reframing is to step back from the emotionally negative subject of a discussion and to take a more general view. Instead of looking at the overwhelming task presented by the thought that ‘my whole house is a mess,’ reframe the massive task of cleaning the whole house into a practical task of cleaning one room or one corner, or even to start with a drawer. A rose is a very beautiful flower but if you only see the thorns it is an entirely different plant.
Listing the emotionally positive attributes of persons or events requires the work and effort needed to use emotions to guide one’s focus from emotionally negative aspects to emotionally positive aspects. But once these emotionally positive attributes are identified and they become first in a series of thoughts, the actions and events which follow will become healthier. Remember, the primary goal in these exercises is to bring about emotionally positive cognitive activity which correlates with a healthy lifestyle. Appreciating nature is a wonderful method for extricating oneself from the harsh ‘realities’ of a negative world and into another, no-less-real ‘reality’ of the beauty and marvel that also exist in our world.
Any object can be a reminder of an emotionally positive moment. Pictures, for example, are very common keepsakes, as are cards and clothes. Songs and music have a special way of activating thoughts and mental activities and their emotional responses. Helping a person to understand how objects can draw out emotionally positive thoughts is but one aspect of emotional rehabilitation. But objects, events and even certain smells can also quickly bring back memories of a painful experience. The opportunity to stop old habits of thought and to develop new habits of thought presents itself many times throughout the day. Years may have been spent building an emotionally negative vortex of depressing thoughts and behaviors. Daily negative flashbacks are a burden. But each flashback is an opportunity to take another step up the spiral staircase and to develop healthier habits of thought.
- Acts of kindness
A healthy lifestyle means to live – and to act from – an emotionally positive place. An emotionally positive action develops a pathway to a healthier lifestyle. One method to bring up the emotions of a positive lifestyle is to perform acts of kindness. This extends the mental exercise of appreciation outward and into the world. It begins the unveiling of a new life of well-being. A kind act may be as simple as petting a dog or a cat, smiling at a waiter or waitress, cleaning a room, or washing a car. The good feelings of a kind act toward others make the reality of an emotionally positive world more real. It stands as a great contrast to the emotionally negative world that a person is trying to leave behind.
Sometimes reframing may be too difficult. Then, instead of continuing to fixate on a subject of angst that is just too unyielding to remold into a better feeling accord, it may be time to step away from the subject and to mentally dwell on something else. The object here is to radically change focus and to completely distract the mind and its current unproductive activities onto something that provokes emotionally positive feelings. Go to a movie. Read a book. Enjoy a bike ride or a walk in the park. If the emotions improve then the distraction is working. The subject of angst can then be re-approached with a clearer head.
An odd correlative approach is to go to a more emotionally negative movie. The old unyielding cognitive activities have now been displaced onto a different scenario – the movie – from which it may be easier to emotionally reframe into more positive emotions. But this could also go the wrong way…
Going to a bar for a few drinks with friends may seem be a very effective means of distraction, but much too often this distraction, just like drugs and medications, may be seen as the final solution, and the subject of angst is never re-approached and resolved.
Meditations, of which mindfulness is one type, are healthful activities whose function is to remove consciousness from the mental chaos generated by daily life. Some meditations, like focusing on one’s breathing or on a spot on one’s forehead, work on slowly quieting the thought processes. The key is not to latch on or fixate upon a thought but to allow a thought to pass through the mind. More mentally-active, guided meditations take place when someone leads the thought process. Yoga and tai-chi are even more active meditations that involve the body. Running, biking, and rowing are activities that may also have the meditative quality of quieting the mind. Monitoring the emotional state is the key to the effectiveness of any meditation.
These methods of calming the mind and ‘emptying it of thought’ are a means to allow more emotionally positive thoughts to replace the old. A person will feel better because mental activity has been removed from the subject of angst, but the real fruit of this labor comes when new, more emotionally positive thoughts are allowed to grow and prosper. It is always necessary to quiet the mind to allow room for these new ideas to sprout and grow.
Within the educational curriculum, organized sports provide great opportunities to promote lifelong mental health and well-being in addition to the obvious benefit to the body. For most student athletes, performing well is their top priority and focus. Enhanced physiology for peak performance is a function of feeling good which correlates with a cognitive knowing of strength, vigor, and adeptness and an actuality of strength, vigor, and adeptness. Feeling good means adherence to a strict protocol of utilizing the emotional guidance system to evaluate one’s own mental activities. Although over excitement may bring forth good feelings, it is indicative of a new biochemical physiology that has yet to be integrated into a harmonious synergy of mind, body, and emotions needed for competition. Negative attitudes and nervousness hinder an athlete’s performance potential. Negative emotions indicate an altered neural circuitry and a diminished biochemical balance from that found within the natural performance-enhancing attitude of feeling good and the presence of strength, coordination, and empowerment. Record-setting performances come from a physiology found within emotionally positive states of being. An athlete’s whole life will benefit from the cognitive skills and training developed to utilize the emotional system for physical performance enhancement during athletic competition.
- Music and the Arts
Training in music and the arts is significant in that these disciplines reach into the emotional system and give emotional perceptions an outward expression. The processes of reaching in and identifying emotional states is a significant step toward working the cognitive/emotional symbiotic relationship. Music can provide an opportunity to bypass confused and convoluted cognitive activities and make available a direct link into the inner harmonies of
well-being. Music and the arts can distract the mind into a better emotional place. In some cases, they can also promote agitation, anxiety, nervousness and apprehension. But most importantly, music and the arts can activate and promote pathways towards a sense of peace and connection into a more harmonious, healthy, and useful consciousness.
- Stop going there
Maybe a subject is so vast and unyielding that the only solution is just to ‘not go there.’ There is no solution, view point or aspect that elicits positive emotions. Avoidance may not be ‘how I was brought up’ or ‘politically correct’ but it may be important for a person’s health and well-being. “That is not your problem” may be the best advice a therapist can give for developing a patient’s health. There is an important lesson here in valuing personal health and well-being and the role of the personal emotional guidance system over the values imposed by society and others. For example, fixating on world hunger can become overwhelming. If a person isn’t able to view or evaluate such a subject and emotionally feel good about the ‘good’ they can do, perhaps it is a subject for that person to put aside.
- Having Compassion for Self
Many people can manifest compassion for a person or animal that is having a difficult time, but they fail to feel compassion for themselves. “Give yourself the same compassion you give to others and stop using your own mind to beat yourself up. Do these thoughts feel
good? If not, let us work together and find ways to stop this self-inflicting torture.”
- Using Religious Ideals
There are many aspects of the world’s religions that pertain to easing the mind of its burdens. There are the Sufi dances of peace; there are the Hindu practices of yoga which means union with God; and there are the Buddhist meditations for enlightenment to reach Nirvana and the cessation of suffering; and the songs of Jewish cantors or Christian chants have a similar effect. Religious practices can be explored with patients who are so inclined. Personal emotional awareness and wisdom are important because within religion are also ideas and beliefs that, rather than bringing about an experience of salvation and peace, simply invite “hell on earth.” Emotional guidance is about controlling one’s own activities, not about controlling others.
“Let go and let God” or “trust in Allah” are just a couple examples of how religious beliefs can be used to bring about emotionally-positive cognitive activities. The subject of forgiveness may be about someone and their transgressions but, most importantly, forgiveness is by and large for the injured. Forgiving someone is an act of letting go of a past experience so that a new life may begin. Forgiveness is a way for a person to move on with life so that he or she may be “reborn” into a better existence. Other words of comfort may include:
1) “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” Lao Tzu (brainyquote.com)
2) “May God console you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem (Ha’makom yenahem etkhem betokh she’ar avelei Tziyonvi’Yerushalayim).” (myjewishlearning.com)
3) “Sadness is the heart telling you to find Allah. Depression is not listening to your heart. Comfort is remembering Allah is always there.” Yahya Adel Ibrahim (islamicquotesdb.com)
4) “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Psalm 23 (King James Bible)
5) “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” Confucius (goodreads.com)
6) “Happiness radiates like the fragrance from a flower and draws all good things towards you.” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (brainyquotes.com)
7) “There is no path to happiness: happiness is the path.” Gautama Buddha (quoteideas.com)
8) “Before becoming a Sikh, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Christian, let’s become a human first.” Sri Guru Nanak Dev Ji. (https://beartales.me)
8.3 Cognitive-Emotional Wisdom in Therapy
Emotions have value. They are important. But to have value and to be important emotions must be used as they have evolved. The presence of negative emotions did not evolve to add fuel to the fire and escalate emotionally negative situations accelerating the emotional downward spiral. Like a runaway train down a mountain, there is not going to be a good outcome. The question is, can a person become the observer-self? Can the person separate him or herself from the pathos of the moment….and STOP (ref.8-4, 8-5)? Can the therapist help a person become empowered to stop, and act upon a negatively-charged situation in a more emotionally positive direction? The quicker one realizes that they are on a run-away train, spiraling out of control, the easier it becomes to stop the downward and emotionally-negative train of thoughts and actions and to start back up the emotional staircase.
Much of a person’s negative emotion comes from dwelling on the undesirable actions of others. Try telling someone who is angry at someone to look at what thing want in order to feel better and that angry person may reply, “I will feel better when I punch him in the face.” Or, “when my brother stops doing that, then I will feel better.” That is, when the proverbial “they” stop doing “whatever,” then “I” will feel better. To depend on someone else’s behavior changing in order to feel better is a trap. It requires that every person in the world who doesn’t do as you like must change. Is that really a reasonable expectation? The need for action can and should be satisfied, but action from a positive emotional place is far different and more effective than action taken in anger.
Cognitive-emotional wisdom isn’t only about moving up the emotional staircase when circumstances and events are conducive to upward movement, it’s also about having the discipline and fortitude to resolve the internal struggles and to create the mental and emotional harmony necessary for action when circumstances and events are not conducive to upward movement. Too many people have the unfortunate life circumstance in which the motivation for stopping the emotional-downward spiral into self-destruction only develops from having already personally followed this path into a barren, despondent wasteland. It is the fortunate few who work and regain their evolutionary roots and relearn how to act from an emotionally positive platform.
A person may have to focus only on a very narrow and constrained view of the world in order to access and use his or her emotional guidance. A person’s world view may be limited to a back yard or to the shadows on the bottom of a pool of water. But as healing occurs, broadening the understanding of how to use emotional guidance in an increasingly vast and complicated world becomes possible and necessary. Developing the cognitive-emotional ability to function in society is one measure of health. A greater measure of health and sanity is to actually enjoy the opportunities society offers. Tens of thousands of years of human evolution have developed within our species the capacity to use our emotions to guide our cognitive behaviors towards a life of health and well-being.
8-1 Sifting and Winnowing. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sifting_and_winnowing
8-2 Gorwood, P., Corruble, E., Faliissard, B., Goodwin, G.M. Toxic Effects of Depression on Brain Function: Impairment of Delayed Recall and the Cumulative Length of Depressive Disorder in a Large Sample of Depressed Outpatients. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Philip_Gorwood/publication/5470592_Toxic_Effects_of_Depression_on_Brain_Function_Impairment_of_Delayed_Recall_and_the_Cumulative_Length_of_Depressive_Disorder_in_a_Large_Sample_of_Depressed_Outpatients/links/0912f507856970f314000000.pdf
8-3 Davidson, R.J., Begley, S. (2012). The emotional life of your brain. New York, NY: Hudson Street Press.
8-4 Dubuc, B. The Brain. Retrieved from http://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_03/a_03_p/a_03_p_que/a_03_p_que.html
8-5 Goleman, D., Davidson, R. (2017) Altered traits. New York, NY: Penquin Random House LLC