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Week 3: Write a history of your emotion, part 1

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Week 3 of your journey of positive change!

We hope that you have started to catch the episodes of your unhealthy negative emotions and to understand how typical triggers, thoughts, bodily sensations, and behaviors work together to make these emotions repeat over and over again.

Profiling your emotion is a challenging task, so do not worry if it doesn’t go very smoothly. It takes time and practice to train the skill - the more you do it, the better you get to be at it. If you need additional help and convenient printable worksheets, please subscribe to the weekly Homework Workbook.

And now let’s proceed to the Week 3 tasks.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on the “here & now” principle of change, meaning that the change is done by observing and acting upon your patterns in the present moment. And this is what you have been doing since last week.

However, the search for solutions requires understanding how your problem developed in the first place. That's why you need to go back to the roots - and write a history of your emotion.

Deal with depression, anxiety, anger by getting to know how they developed. Join BrainPerpetuum mental health self-help blog.
Write a history of your emotion


Can our brain (un)learn emotions?

As you now already know, the purpose of basic emotions is to get us to do what keeps us alive and functional. Some of the “instructions” for our minds and bodies to develop emotions are already “packed” within the genetic code of our species (the instinct) and of us as individuals (available at birth, waiting to be triggered). However, these patterns are only primordial – it takes much more information from the environment, for an emotional pattern to be precisely developed by the brain.

So, can the brain learn and unlearn emotions during our adult lives?

Find out in the video below.

For more videos, subscribe to our youtube channel.

So we can learn and unlearn emotions. But how is this done and what does this depend on?

It depends on:

  • the precondition that makes learning negative emotion easier - increased arousal of our brain (by personality or by the ongoing life circumstances), and

  • the specific learning mechanisms (classical conditioning, instrumental learning, and cognitive learning).

So, let's go.

The personality

During childhood and adolescence, your brain learns how to be specific about your life. It combines the effects of your genetic information and the effects of your early experience (with caregivers, with the world) to produce a set of “programs” that will work in a consistent way when faced when inputs in the future.

This set of programs are the traits of your personality.

A number of personality models involve several different personality traits that may all be associated with how we emotionally react to stimuli.

We will mention the two most elementary ones that most scientists agree on (discovered by Hans Eysenck, almost 50 years ago).

One trait (Extraversion-Introversion) refers to how talkative, sociable, interacting, and outgoing you are. This trait depends on how “awake” or aroused your rational brain usually is. If it is less awake (less aroused) then you will have more of the aforementioned characteristics and be more of an extravert. If your brain is usually more awake and aroused, you will have fewer of these features and be more of an introvert.

The other trait (Neuroticism) refers to how emotionally sensitive, anxious, worrying, and insecure you usually are. It also refers to how much your body reacts to stress (e.g. how often you get to feel a faster heartbeat, trembling, palm-sweating, etc). This trait depends on the reactivity of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that is stimulated by our emotional brain. If your ANS is more reactive, then you will be more emotionally sensitive. If it is less reactive then you will be more emotionally stable.

When these two traits combine on a coordinate system, we get four types of temperament that Eysenck found to correspond with the ancient Greek personality classification (see below).

People who are introverted and emotionally hypersensitive are found to be more prone to developing anxiety and depression. Since both their rational brain and ANS are easily aroused, it is much easier for them to learn fear. They are more prone to the "flight" part of the "flight-or-fight" response of the hyperaroused ANS.

People who are extroverted and emotionally hypersensitive, on the other hand, may be more prone to short-tempered reactions and outbursts of anger and aggressiveness. They are more prone to react with the "fight" part of the "flight-or-fight" response of the hyperaroused ANS.

However, these divisions are only rough guides, since all people can have all emotions, and different emotions may appear together in the same person (for e.g. a depressed or anxious person can be angry).

We can't influence the genetic part of our personality, but if we are aware of our tendencies, we can learn to control our reactions better, which helps to better rewire our brain and partly buffer the negative effects of our genes.

Ongoing life circumstances

Some circumstances in life can specifically increase the arousal of our rational brain.

Imagine being in a relationship with your boyfriend who is very loving and protective, but overly jealous. One part of you wants to stay in this relationship for feeling loved and cared for. The other part wants out because you always feel monitored and judged for your contact with other men. Should you stay or should you go?

This continuous dwelling creates a conflict inside yourself, a conflict between the attractive and non-attractive goals. This is the exact type of internal conflict that sets your brain on fire and makes you susceptible to "catching" a negative emotion such as anxiety.

Now imagine that you are enthusiastic about some creative ideas at your work. However, your boss does not allow you to bring them to life. You keep on trying to convince your boss, but you keep getting get rejected and limited. This continuous trial-rejection creates frustration that increases the arousal of your brain and makes you prone to acquire negative emotions.

We sometimes get consumed by our lives and problems so much that we don't even notice the conflicts and frustrations that contribute to our negative emotions.

For dealing with unhealthy emotions, it's very important to become aware of these malignant loops that get in the way of us feeling better.

The mechanisms of learning

Emotions, their corresponding thoughts, and behaviors are actually trained. Each one represents a pathway in the brain that gets thicker and signals quicker through repeated use.

Each of the emotional response elements can be directly affected by a specific learning mechanism (see below).

Classical conditioning

Some stimuli are potent to unconditionally, automatically provoke biologically relevant responses (for e.g. food elicits salivation), and are called unconditioned.

Other stimuli are not potent to elicit such biological reactions (for e.g. the bell ring does not elicit salivation) and are called neutral.

However, neutral stimuli can start to elicit biological reactions if they are PAIRED with the unconditioned stimuli (see below).

Therefore, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus, and a new response becomes a conditioned reflex (Pavlov's reflex, according to the scientist that defined it).

This is how unhealthy fear/anxiety is directly learned, by developing associations between naturally AVERSIVE stimuli (that automatically elicit fear) with NEUTRAL stimuli (that normally do not elicit fear).

These associations are represented as new pathways created in the brain, that had not initially existed.

Here's an example.

Imagine being on a crowded bus, on a very hot summer day. You were tired, hungry, and thirsty. The bus is not aired enough, there are too many people, no place to sit down. Suddenly you start feeling very dizzy, your heart's beating fast, you feel sick and lightheaded and start to fear that you will faint. You get out of the bus as soon as the doors open.

The next thing you know - you find yourself scared to enter the bus again.

What happened here?

The aversive body sensations and feeling like fainting can naturally elicit fear (the unconditioned stimulus), while being on the bus itself never induced fear before (neutral stimulus).

However, being in the bus (neutral stimulus), is paired with aversive sensations (the unconditioned stimulus) and becomes the conditioned stimulus, i.e. starts inducing fear on its own in future situations.

The way to unlearn the fear of fainting on the bus is to provide your brain with an opportunity to UNPAIR these two stimuli.

If you escaped the bus, there's no opportunity for the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli to be unpaired, therefore the fear goes on.

This is how fear is maintained, and that's where instrumental learning kicks in.

Instrumental learning

There is one very important basic principle that our brain functions with.

If the responses produce a COMFORTING effect in a certain situation, they are MORE likely to occur again, in a similar situation.

If the responses produce a DISCOMFORTING effect, they are LESS likely to repeat in the same situation. (Law of effect, Edward Thorndike, 1898)

This principle is the core of instrumental learning (or operant learning, or operant conditioning), which refers to learning from the consequences of our behavior.

The behavior is increased if the consequences are comforting (adding a satisfying stimulus, or removal of an aversive stimulus), and this is called reinforcement.

The behavior is decreased if the consequences are discomforting (adding an aversive stimulus, or removal of a satisfying stimulus), and this is called punishment (see below).

Instrumental learning and anxiety

Now let's go back to our example with the bus.

Imagine you had the almost fainting aversive sensations described and then got off the bus before your aimed destination. This is how you escaped the feared situation on the bus.

Tomorrow, you decide not to use the bus, you get to walk to your job instead. You avoid the bus.

Or, since it's too far, you decide to go by bus, but you bring your friend with you, to help you in case something bad happens on the bus (security behavior).

Or you go by bus by yourself, but you keep checking your plus the entire ride, to predict if the aversive fainting sensations will happen again (reassurance).

All of these behaviors are regarded as avoidance behaviors, i.e. the behaviors aimed at avoiding the danger and seeking relief from anxiety. This serves as a negative reinforcement - which further increases the avoiding behaviors.

More avoidance - less opportunity to unpair the conditioned and unconditioned stimuli - stronger pairing between them - stronger the anxiety.

There goes the perpetuum mobile.

So, fears get to be directly learned by classical conditioning and maintained by instrumental learning.

The way out would have to involve exposure and elimination of all the avoidance behaviors.

Instrumental learning and depression

From a behavioral perspective, depression may be seen as a specific response to continuous stressful events (punishment) that can't be controlled by finding escape (due to personal vulnerability and lack of skills). This makes you learn to be helpless and has even been shown in a series of experiments with animals. These animals learned that escape was not possible no matter what they did, and this kind of learning actually made them not try to escape even when escape was there (Seligman, 1967).

How does this look like in real life?

Imagine you have a boss who aggressively criticizes you very often, making you feel very anxious. You have tried ways to escape this - improved your workload, did your best to accomplish the company goals, but it's all for nothing because the boss always finds something to criticize you for.

You can't afford to lose your job, so you start to feel there's no way out, and gradually stop trying. You feel helpless, and since you can't find any other solution, you start avoiding your boss, not socialize with colleagues, and at some point just stay in bed and not go to work or do any activities. You feel depressed. No activities and socializing - no chances of positive reinforcements - no feelings of self-accomplishment - feeling even more depressed - behaving even more passive. Here's the perpetuum mobile again.

To break this vicious process, you would have to start by finding at least a glimpse of positive reinforcement (for e.g. some pleasant activity).

Instrumental learning and anger

The behavioral expression of unhealthy anger usually refers to some form of aggressive behavior. These behaviors have the function of fighting the threat; however, they also have a function of discharging a considerable amount of almost unbearable upsetness. So, we can think of hitting the door in anger as a way of avoiding the aversive feelings and seeking relief.

According to the law of effect, this acts like negative reinforcement and increases the aggressive behaviors in the next similar situation. The more you keep punching the door when you are angry at your family members, the more you will do it in the future since your brain learns this is the way to release this negative energy.

And because your aggressive behavior will probably elicit aggressive defense in people around you, they may seem even more like a threat, which pushes your buttons for another round of anger. The perpetuum mobile at work again.

The solution to this neverending process would have to start with - stopping your aggressive behavior before it happens.

Stopping aggressive behaviors in anger, starting to find the positive reinforcements and solutions to stressors in depression, and eliminating avoidance behaviors in fear and anxiety - these are all easier said than done. And this is where we need the help of cognitive learning, to replace the old, dysfunctional beliefs with the new functional ones, that will push the change on all levels. We will continue about that next week.

To summarize…

  • Unhealthy negative emotions get to be learned and unlearned by our brain.

  • The preconditions to this are specific personality traits and life circumstances that are associated with the increased arousal of our brain.

  • The mechanisms involved in the process of acquiring and eliminating negative emotion are classical conditioning (affects emotions directly), instrumental learning (affecting the behaviors and therefore maintaining emotions), and cognitive learning (affecting our beliefs and thoughts and therefore affecting the emotion).

  • It is important to understand how you learned your emotion in order to unlearn it.

  • It is important to learn how to use all your tools (thoughts and behaviors).

For your homework …

In the following week ...

  • ... continue to practice catching your negative unhealthy emotion whenever it happens, and track the thoughts, body sensations, and behaviors associated with it. Do not forget to measure the intensity of your emotion, as well as how much you have believed in your thoughts at that moment. Use the Emotion Monitor.

  • Try to write the history of your emotion, by answering the following questions:

  • Do not forget the 9 rules to follow this blog for the best practices.

For homework reminders and printable weekly workbook materials ...

... please subscribe.

Use your tools and have a successful week!

Yours sincerely,



NOTICE: Please note that this self-help blog program is for informational purposes, and cannot replace mental health treatment. Research has shown more potential in CBT self-help if using such a program is guided by a mental health professional throughout the process.

If you have been experiencing significant distress, mood challenges, behavioral dyscontrol, or similar mental health dysfunction, please contact your mental health service provider without delay. Mental health diagnosis and treatment can only be done after conducting a one-on-one clinical examination of the client by a mental health professional. The owners of this website and the writers of the content provided do not take any responsibility for the mental health outcomes of readers.

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