Tag Archives: emotion

Why we react and then think

Human brain parts during a fear amygdala hijac...

Human brain parts during a fear amygdala hijack from optical stimulus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever wonder why? Check out this quote by Richard McNally¹ about the role of the amygdala,

LeDoux discovered two pathways for activating the amygdala, a subcortical structure integral to the experiences and expression of conditioned fear. One pathway rapidly transmits sensory input about fear stimuli to the amygdala via a subcortical route, whereas the second pathway passes through the cortex, taking twice as long to reach the amygdala. Subcortical activation of the amygdala makes it possible for a fight-or-flight reaction to begin even before information about fear-evoking stimulus has reached conscious awareness via the cortical route.” (p. 178, emphases mine)

If this is true, then in anxiety and intense emotion-producing events our brains begin the reaction phase prior to any thought processes. If true, then we might consider

  1. The goal of trauma treatment or anger management is NOT to avoid having reactions but to more quickly reach cognitions and alternative emotions that help moderate a negative reaction
  2. the empirical evidence for the clinical process whereby a client adopts a neutral reaction as opposed to a negative reaction is quite lacking. There are a number of models that process to “cool down” the amygdala, but these treatments often lack serious empirical support.

So, the next time you instantly react in a way that bothers you, don’t be so hard on yourself. Instead stop yourself, take a deep breath, work to analyze the situation and to lean into a post hoc truth. We have our hands full enough with what we know we need to do, we don’t need to worry so much about our first reaction.

¹McNally, R.J. (2003). Remembering Trauma. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Filed under anger, Anxiety, counseling, counseling science, trauma

Does sympathy require action?

Can you experience true sympathy towards another but do nothing in response? When you watch people suffering the effects of famine, hear of genocide, see a homeless person begging for money, can you feel sympathy but not do something about the problem?

Consider these opening words of Octavius Winslow, 19th century preacher (in the US and London) in his The Sympathy of Christ with Man: Its Teaching and its Consolation New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, pp iii-iv.

Much that passes for sympathy, and is really so, as commonly understood, is deficient in this one essential element, and needs to be remodeled. There is poetry and there is beauty in real sympathy; but there is more- there is action. True sympathy may exist impotent to aid, we concede, and its silent expression may not, in some instances, be the less grateful and soothing; but the noblest and most powerful form of sympathy is not merely the responsive tear, the echoed sigh, the answering look- it is the embodiment of the sentiment in actual help.

In this book he takes up the action oriented sympathies of Christ. We have a high priest who sympathizes with our state AND acts to do something about it.

Does true sympathy lead to action?

I believe so. Now, I want to be clear that it does not always lead to removing the suffering. It does not always mean immediate and direct help. There are times where the help is indirect. Consider the Scriptures in that the Lord hears the cries of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and rescues them…some 400 years later. We can’t say that his action was deficient.

Our sympathies may lead to,

  • speaking the truth in love
  • comfort
  • pursuing justice
  • educating others who can do something
  • praying
  • not rescuing someone too quickly from their own tragic choices
  • inviting another to get some help

So, if you feel sympathy and helpless about doing something of value. Think again. What action does the Lord enable you to do “at such a time as this”?


Filed under Christianity, Insight, Psychology, Uncategorized

Narrative Therapy and Emotion: Meaning Making

Continuing with our summary of Working with Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy (by Angus and Greenberg) we come to chapter 2. Here the authors attempt to lay out how we make meaning. But before we try to describe their model, consider how you make events and feelings mean something to you.

What data do you use to make something mean something? You use your body, your culture, your emotion, your reason, your previous meaning making (and the messages you receive from others). Consider this example. You pull up to a light and you glance over and see a person in the car waiting in the next lane. They wave a finger towards you. What does it mean? Well, it depends on your culture and your previous experience with that finger way. Is it a curse or a point to something else? The answer depends on where you live and what your lived experience of that finger wave.

The authors slow this process of meaning making (and meaning changing) down by considering facets:

1.   Bodily sensations. These do not exist by themselves but are connected to a sequencing of events. So, you have a feeling and then you immediately put it into a sequence. “I feel this way because…” The goal of therapy is to work to accept, tolerate, and “explain” or narrative emotions in a healthier way.

2. Words. Putting feelings into words tends to “[diminish] the response of the amygdala and other limbic regions to negative emotional images.” (p. 21). Thus, as they say, “…the person is having the emotion rather than the emotions having the person.” (ibid). “…naming an emotion integrates action, emotion, and meaning and provides access to the story in which it is embedded.” (ibid).

3. Naming is construction. “Conscious experience is not simply ‘in’ us and fully formed but instead emerges from a dialectical dance” (p. 22). Thus clients can learn how their own construal of emotions (the words, the meanings) shapes ongoing feelings

…understanding how a condemning self-critical voice leads to feelings of shame and helplessness helps clients to recognize the role they themselves play in maintaining their feelings of depression. (p. 22)

Thus, the goal is to encourage reflection of one’s common interpretative themes to see how they tend to organize and categorize their lived experiences.

4. Change the story. How does a person go about changing narrative themes (e.g., challenge and re-write feelings of shame)? How does one re-interpret shame feelings as sadness? Note the that goal is not to deny the feeling or reject it in any way. Rather, the goal is to interpret the feeling in a more constructive way. Consider this example:

I offer my son some advice. He does not take it but goes on to do the opposite. I might feel rejected? Further, I might go on to remind myself that no one ever respects me and listens to my ideas. I might feel insignificant and unloved. With the help of a counselor, I might re-name the feelings as sadness rather than rejection (e.g., I feel sad that he didn’t take my advice and recognize he might face certain consequences that he might have avoided if he had listened to me). Part of the transformation requires that I live with limitations. I am not capable of making my son choose what I want. I suspect that part of what leads us away from sadness and towards anger and feelings of rejection is our unwillingness to live with feelings such as sadness and grief. These things shouldn’t be this way if  others would just treat us right!

5. Reconstruct identity. Its one thing to re-write a narrative of a single event. It is yet another to write a new narrative about our self or about others. The authors say this, “Constructing a sense of self involves an ongoing process both of identifying with and symbolizing emotions and actions as one’s own and constructing an embodied narrative that offers temporal stability and coherence.” (p. 25)

What might a counselor do to facilitate reconstruction? The authors go on to give a brief overview of 4 phases of “narrative-informed EFT.” I will cover them in the next post.

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Filed under counseling, counseling science, Uncategorized

Narrative therapy and emotion 1

This month, Richard Smith and I are teaching an on-line class entitled, Christian Counseling in Postmodern Culture. Dr. Smith is managing the culture side of things in this class and has students thinking about the impact of consumerism, the “empty” self of the modern era, and “infantilist ethos” (from Barber’s 2008 Consumed)

This week Dr. Smith gave the class this quote:

At heart postmodernity [is] the same anthropology: both see humans as primarily units of consumption for whom choice is the defining characteristic… The difference between modernity and postmodernity is not that great looked at in this way: The cult of the autonomous ego, an endlessly acquisitive conqueror and pioneer devolved into a commodious individualism characterized by an unencumbered enjoyment of consumption goods and commodities.  (Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat).

A mouthful? Boil it down to this…postmodernist philosophy is very much concerned about the self. Not all that new. Now, postmodernism is much more than that and NOT all bad. But my point here is this: a counselor working in this culture must be able to connect with the client and help them construct/reconstruct their story rather than just give them lists of universal truisms to apprehend. Not that there isn’t universal truth but that the approach to them must  done in a dialogical and storying manner.

Enter narrative therapy.

Thus, I intend to blog a bit on this topic during the rest of August by summarizing and commenting on Working with Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy: Changing Stories, Healing Lives, by Lynne E Angus and Leslie S. Greenberg (APA, 2011).

Chapter one begins with this statement:

Being human involves creating meaning and using language to shape personal experiences into stories, or narratives. (p 3)

Do you agree? I would argue there is much truth in this. We shape our sense of self from our retelling of our experiences (both in words and in unspoken thoughts/emotions). But, we do not re-tell all of our experiences. Rather, we collect some and ignore others. Part of counseling is to dialog with the clients about how they shape their own narrative.

The authors then make this statement about the work of counseling,

As therapists, it is when we listen carefully to our clients’ most important stories that we gain access to how people are attempting to make sense of themselves in the context of their social worlds. In this way, psychotherapy is a specialized discursive activity designed to help clients shape a desired future and reconstruct a more compassionate and sustaining narrative account of the past. (p. 3-4)

Here they are telling us that our stories we tell are shaped by our emotions and at the same time make sense of our emotions.

What is EFT? It is a therapy that sees emotions as “centrally important in the experience of the self.” (p. 6). It was developed (principally by Les Greenberg) out of humanistic and Rogerian ideas of self-actualization and of counselor activities of being with, following the client and guiding. Throw in some F. Perl’s empty chair techniques as well. EFT focuses on emotions. Adaptive emotions are “the most fundamental, direct, initial, and rapid reactions to a situation…” (p. 7). Maladaptive emotions “…usually involve overlearned responses based on previous, often traumatic, experiences.” By this they mean emotions such as shame and abandonment sadness. They define secondary emotions as those reactions that are intended to protect the primary or most vulnerable emotions. Finally, they define instrumental emotions as those expressed for a motivation to achieve an aim.

Why the focus on emotion? Because they seek the goal of being emotionally congruent and adaptive. In this book, they focus on empathic attunement and changing client narratives.

How? Clients identify, experience, explore, story, make sense of, and flexibly manage their emotions (their words). Therapists notice “meaning markers” that reveal client confusion or conflict with the self.

This book will explore the narrative approach to EFT. “Critical life events must be described, reexperiences emotionally, and restoried before the trauma or damaged relationship can heal. New meanings must emerge that coherently account for the circumstances of what happened and how the narrator experienced it…” (p. 11)

Finally, they say,

…no form of psychotherapy is likely to have a big impact on basic temperament traits, but a client’s specific strategies, adaptations, and their internalized life narratives (i.e., macronarratives) have as much impact on behavior as do dispositional traits. (p. 13)

That is an interesting quote and puts the act of storying as more important than disposition.

So, what we will look at in the remaining 7 chapters is how the authors help facilitate new meanings and change their own narrative. The question for us is whether or not the narrative or re-storying approach to therapy is (a) effective in remediating problems, and (b) fits with Christian faith.


Filed under christian counseling, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized

Some thoughts and emotions on justice

What is justice? How do you go about determining what is just and what is unjust?

If you are like me, you’ve had a number of conversations and thoughts about justice in the last 48 hours. I can only believe that such conversations about justice are good, especially if we apply our philosophies to ourselves as well as others.

So, how do you answer my first questions? Do you lead with your intellect or your emotions? Let’s consider each (even though we can’t really separate these two parts of our being)

The intellectual approach to determine what is just

1. What is legal? Lawful = just. This works if you assume that those who create the laws are just lawmakers. But, we all can point to some draconian laws that we would not consider just.

2. What is deserved? Justice = penalty fits the crime. If you get what you deserve, an eye for an eye, then you have been served justice. Of course, if we follow this thinking, it could be just to walk up to a pedophile and castrate him. This would be illegal whether he was tried and convicted or not.

3. What is adjudicated fairly? Justice = blind adjudication. If you are accused of a crime, then justice is served if you receive a fair trial. However, justice does not hold exactly the same meaning as fair. It more accurately means righteous. One could have a fair trial and still get away with murder.

The emotional approach to determining justice

If we are truthful, our emotions tell us what is just. We hear of someone getting their due and we feel relief. Or, we hear someone who got his due but we hear that the one measuring out justice did so in a vicious or destructive way…and we feel conflicted if not downright sickened. Some of our thoughts on justice reveal certain values that we have yet to articulate. Consider the following options from an emotion perspective:

  • Law enforcement attempts to capture a killer but uses deadly force because they thought they saw him reach for a gun
  • A soldier kills an opposing soldier on the battlefield
  • A soldier kills an opposing soldier who was unarmed and running away
  • A soldier kills an opposing soldier who had dropped his weapon and raised his hands in surrender
  • A mass murderer who was not given a final time to give self up before being shot to death
  • A mass murderer killing another murderer who had only killed once

I suspect we could argue that in each case, the killing was legal, even deserved. But does it pass the emotional smell test?

Think this is a new issue? Then check out Habakkuk in the Old Testament. He raises a complaint to God about the sinfulness of his own people, Israel. God answers him and tells him that a heathen group of terrible sinners will bring just punishment on Israel. Habakkuk, as you might expect, struggles with this. “You are going to you THEM? Why they are the WORST!” God answers and tells him that he, God, is going to act in righteous and mind-blowing ways. And Habakkuk responds in only the faithful way he can: I see your fame, I see your Glory and I stand in awe. You are just in all you do. And even if there is no food to eat, I will yet praise you.”

Justice, it turns out, doesn’t always make sense to us. It may be easier to tell what is not justice than what is. For example, we ought not promote pragmatism (e.g., killing someone because jailing him will cost too much) or vengeance (e.g., eye for an eye…since bin Laden didn’t warn 9/11 victims, we ought not warn him).

We cannot go on human laws alone, intellect (as good as it is), or feelings. God’s view of it surpasses all of these ideas. And even when we come to terms with justice, we recognize that justice, without mercy also, is something none of us want to see. We will treat others better than they deserve. We will rejoice when evil men may no longer harm. We will be thankful when governments deliver justice and yet hold them to higher standards than those they judge. We will not return evil for evil. And we will mete out justice yet knowing that we too will face our day of justice as well. And so we will ask God for the grace to live justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly!


Filed under news, News and politics, Uncategorized

Practicing new ways of feeling?

As you fall asleep, do you have a common thought or feeling pattern? As you wake up? In the shower? We are creatures of habit in this regard–we maintain our perceptions (of self, of the world) even in the light of contradictory information or experiences. This is why a pessimist always expects the worst and a narcissist always expects to be right. If you could categorize all your thoughts and feelings, what would your perception pattern look like? Hypervigilant? Discouraged? Embittered? Hopeful?

Now, can you change this pattern? For example, if you are not inclined to be hopeful, can you practice hopeful responses–even when things really do go south? And if you can change the pattern, what does that change look like?

Here are some of my thoughts…I would love to hear from you about what you do to practice something other than your usual way of looking at the world.

1. It is possible to re-write our narratives. How we talk to ourselves about an event either will solidify a feeling or begin to change it. For example, my wife recently had a sleepless night. She was able to use that time to talk to the Lord even while she was feeling out of sorts. In the morning, she had a positive, if also tired, way of feeling about the night.

2. Change does not look like zero experiences of an old narrative running through our head. Change looks like being able to recognize the old but also a new pattern as well. This change is not merely talking yourself out of one schema and into another. Rather, mindful awareness of threads of your experience that have been there all along get more play and so therefore become more salient over time.

3. Change isn’t permanent. Just as a professional athlete cannot go without practice, we cannot expect effortless maintenance of a new way of feeling.


Filed under counseling, Mindfulness, Psychology, Uncategorized

Emotional Arousal: Too much or too little?

I am doing some prep for my upcoming class on the treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). [Links: summer institute brochure, and CEU information for LPCs] Many theorize that BPD is really a problem of emotional (over) sensitivity resulting from a combination of psychological factors (trauma, loss, attachment injuries, or chronic invalidation) and biological predispositions (high base-line emotional experiences, slow return to baseline once activated, and chronic and inappropriate scanning environment for danger).

If a person is prone to intense emotional experiences, they are likely to get the message that their emotional expression is out of line. Thus, they may either try to avoid emotions (leaving them less aware of how they feel and maybe more likely to be taken advantage of) or give in and respond out of their full expression (leaving them less likely to be able to solve the problem given their high state of arousal).

Are you a person of high emotional arousal? Do you know or live with one? Do you struggle with thinking that high arousal is wrong? Theoretically, most of us do not think strong emotions are wrong. But practically those who experience their own intense emotions and those who live with them do think they are wrong. “I shouldn’t feel this way…she shouldn’t feel that way.”

Counselors do not seek the goal of eliminating or even tempering emotions. What they seek is to avoid the “why” or “because” that often follows the strong feelings. It appears that the big problem is not the feelings but the beliefs and interpretations that one holds during and after the emotional experience. I feel this way because…(I’m stupid, a loser) or because…(others hate me) leads to cementing emotions and beliefs together in such a way that lead to more easily experiencing invalidation.

Looking to get into this a whole lot more in a few weeks (July 30-31)!


Filed under counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology, Uncategorized