Have you ever considered the process that led you to the bag of chips, the gallon of ice cream, or to blow up at someone? The process that is keeping you using tobacco or reliant on coffee to function? There is a process that triggers our actions. Understanding that process and how it is triggered can help us move away from behaviors of impulse and reaction toward those of cognitive thought and active decision making.
Emotions are physical responses to external stimuli or triggers. These physical responses are the first part of a chain that leads to actions. There are six main emotions that produce observable physical responses. Emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, surprise, joy, and love produce physical responses such as a rapid heart rate, chest breathing, perspiration, increased blood pressure, headache, stomachache, clenching jaw, tears, flushing, skin blotches, sweaty palms, etc. Emotional responses provide you with information - they are not right or wrong - they just are. Improving emotional well-being involves being able to name and define the physical responses you are experiencing and how they were triggered.
Feelings usually follow a physical response to an emotional trigger as the second step of the chain that leads to actions. Feelings are the mental associations and registrations to the emotion triggered. For example, when we experience the emotion of fear it may register as a feeling of anxiety, worry, inferiority, helplessness, or panic. On the other hand, the emotion of sadness can register as a feeling of hurt, depression, guilt, loneliness, or grief. When we experience the emotion of love it can register as a feeling of relief, compassion, infatuation, or attraction. Unlike emotions that can’t be hidden, feelings can be hidden, avoided, or ignored which may cause them to manifest in an unwanted response. Improving mental well-being includes being able to accurately recognize, process, and express feelings in a healthy way.
Thoughts are the next step in the chain that leads to actions and includes the cognitive way we process feelings. They include all the thoughts we have all day long about what we see, feel, and experience. Thoughts include the words we say to ourselves as we process our feelings and emotions and try to make sense of them. It is important to remember that thoughts can be influenced by an internal critic which can cause them to be high-jacked and deceptive. Another part of improving mental well-being is being able to name and acknowledge when our thoughts are not grounded in truth, take them captive, and then reframe them.
Actions are the last piece in the chain and the responses because of our thought conclusions. Sometimes the action or response is a cognitive decision after mental processing. Other times it is a quick reaction to familiar thoughts and feelings after little consideration. Repeated actions are called habits that often include familiar rules and routines. Actions can have a positive or negative impact on a variety of dimensions of our well-being from physical, relationship, and social well-being to vocational, spiritual, and financial well-being.
Deconstructing the chain that led to action is a fantastic way to improve understanding of what happened and why. Start with the action and consider whether it was a reaction or a cognitive choice. Then consider the thoughts you had that caused you to make the cognitive choice or recognize that there was no thought processing but simply a reaction. Then consider the feelings that were connected to your thoughts or that tipped the action without thought. Name the feelings you find. Lastly, name the physical responses you experienced followed by naming the trigger and the emotion.
If you are interested in developing mindful awareness of the emotions, feelings, and thoughts that are leading to food and activity actions, consider taking a mindfulness journey using The Mindful Me Journey” A 40-Day Guided Journal Toward a Healthier Relationship with Food and Exercise.