When individuals are faced with challenging situations or circumstances, they oftentimes become victimized by their seemingly uncontrollable emotional responses. Depending on how a person perceives an experience, they may react impractically due to feelings of anger, fear, sadness, or embarrassment. One individual may angrily lash out at a loved one and later regret their actions, another individual may miss a golden opportunity to improve their life because they were overwhelmed by fear, and still yet another individual may avoid a beneficial social situation due to feelings of embarrassment, inadequacy, or sadness. Unfortunately, reactions such as these are often the culprits that create additional emotional disturbance and lead to more debilitating mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
There is no doubting the fact that severely troubling emotions will overwhelm many of us at some point throughout our lives. In the United States, for example, it is estimated that 40 million people live with some sort of anxiety disorder, which is a byproduct of fear, and that over 3 million citizens deal with depression on an annual basis, which is a byproduct of emotional sadness. Seemingly even more disheartening is the fact that one out of every four adults around the world will suffer from a mental disorder during their lifetime.
In order to overcome emotional disturbance, regardless if it is acute or chronic, we can blend valuable insights and practical advice from the worlds of psychology and spirituality.
Today, in the western world, one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), offers valuable insight into the relationship between an individual’s cognitions and emotions. By understanding how this connection affects our personal wellbeing, and integrating ancient spiritual wisdom into a strategy for overcoming troubling emotions, we can begin to dissect our thoughts in way that frees ourselves from the feelings we dislike most.
How Cognitions Affect Emotions:
Since its conception in the 1950s and 60s, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has become one of the most popular forms of psychotherapy because it focuses on learning, problem-solving, and patient initiated change. CBT is largely based upon the assumption that an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors affect each other all of the time, and that severe emotional disturbance is largely the result of faulty cognitions. By understanding the relationship between an individual’s thoughts and emotions, CBT therapists aim to create behavioral treatment plans that resolve individuals faulty cognitions.
Beyond being based upon the notion that our cognitions, emotions, and behaviors continuously affect one another, CBT also presumes that there is a distinctive process that leads to emotional reaction. It is believed that after an individual experiences a particular activating event, that they will assign meaning to the situation or circumstances they find themselves in. Once they have perceived the situation to be either negative or positive, they will then react to their perception in an emotional charged way. For an individual to develop a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression, their emotions, cognitions, and behaviors would have to negatively influence one another on a continuous basis until they spiraled completely out of control.
Based upon the basic constructs of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we now know that an individual’s cognitions largely play a role in creating emotional disturbance. Therefore, we can focus our attention on working directly with our thoughts in order to overcome negative and troubling emotions.
Spiritual Wisdom Integration:
Within the religion of Hinduism, there are a number of indispensable spiritual truths that can help us realize the deeper nature of ourselves and the thoughts that cause us to react emotionally. In the estimation of great Hindu seers, it is believed that there is a truer part of yourself, and everyone else, that becomes concealed by the illusion of the self.
You may come to believe that the combination of your physical body, societal roles, and mental-makeup makes you the person that you are, but you are in fact much more. These ego dynamics, as well as our thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, are impermanent in nature, constantly changing, and dependent arising. Masked behind these personal characteristics, however, is an individual’s most innate quality of present moment awareness or pure consciousness, which is believed to be the true self. To improve our understanding of this complex concept, we can look at a clever spiritual analogy that helps to differentiate an individual’s most intuitive nature from their ego:
The true self of an individual resembles an expansive blue sky, while their cognitions, feelings, and beliefs represent the ever-changing weather. While negative thoughts, emotions, and sensations have the potential to be painfully strong, it is considered universally impossible for them to stay too long.
From a spiritual perspective, it is assumed that we, like the mystical blue sky, are much greater than our thoughts, emotions, or internal weather.
The truth is that you are beyond your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. This becomes easy to realize by objectively observing how these ego characteristics continuously arise, change, and pass away. Mystical Hindu sages, after coming to understand and accept this truth, told us that we should aim to develop acceptance of our thoughts and emotions, non-judgmentally allow our internal weather to continuously pass, and remain only concerned with returning ourselves back to the present moment.
Dissecting Thoughts to Overcome Emotional Disturbance:
The analogy of a blue sky being masked by passing weather shows us the truth about our true-selves, however, doesn’t answer the question of how we should deal with oftentimes nasty emotional disturbance. Through the practice of meditation, one can come to realize their most innate nature and work towards clearing their internal skies, but this is a process that can take years to materialize. Spiritual gurus advise us to treat every thought, emotion, and sensation exactly the same way by labeling them as nothing more than waves of perception that aren’t inherently linked to the true self. Yet knowing this truth doesn’t immediately make the process of overcoming emotional disturbance any easier.
By using the CBT framework, which shows us how emotional disturbance starts and progresses, to determine that cognitions are the culprits that lead to negative emotional reactions, and realizing that we are in fact more than these cognitions, we can begin the process of dissecting our negative thoughts and eventually freeing ourselves from emotional distress. Whenever we get the inclination that emotional uneasiness is on the way, we must heed the advice of the great Hindu sage Paramahansa Yogananda, who told us:
Modern man takes pride in his scientific approach to reality. Let me then make this proposal: that you analyze life itself, in a laboratory, as it were. Americans love to experiment, so why not experiment on yourselves,” before adding “In physics and chemistry, if a person wants the right answers he must as the right questions. The same is true also in life.”
In order to overcome emotional disturbance, we can use our deeper awareness to observe and dissect our thoughts until they are broken down into nothingness. Just as a scientist works to dissect a frog or rat, we can work towards breaking down our thoughts in a way that reveals their truer and deeper nature. For example, if there was an individual who became frustrated and angry with how their life was going, they could ask themselves ‘what is frustration?’ and determine that it is a feeling. They could then ask themselves, ‘what is a feeling?’ and determine that it is a reaction to a thought or perception. Next they would ask themselves, ‘what is a perception?’ and come to realize that their perceptions are nothing more than neurological synapsis, containing information about experiences, being sent to and from various parts of the brain. Finally, they could ask the question ‘what are neurological synapses at the smallest level?’ and come to discover that they are in fact nothing more than small particles of energy moving together in a synchronized way. With this idea in mind, the question then needs to be asked:
What are the cognitions, that cause our emotional reactions, at the most innate level? The fact of the matter is that they are nothing more than wavelets of energy working together in a manner that is so sophisticated that we often become emotionally victimized by something that isn’t truly there.
At the deepest level of your being, you have the ability to use this process of dissecting your thoughts, dissociating yourself from them, and overcoming both acute and chronic emotional disturbance. To get to this place, you will have develop self-awareness and come to realize yourself as being nothing more than pure consciousness. You can start the process of moving towards both of these things through the practice of meditation. Over time, you will unquestionably develop the strength to see every emotional disturbance the same way and not allow yourself to become overwhelmed by them.