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Emotional Reasoning

by Beverly Ward

July 17, 20022

From Science: This week we are looking a fifth cognitive distortion, emotional reasoning.

(Cognitive distortions are unhelpful thought habits that are unrealistic and create unhelpful emotional and behavioral responses.) Emotional reasoning is one of the most overlooked cognitive distortions and one of the most important. Emotional reasoning is when we confuse feelings with facts and take them as proof that something is truth. An example of emotional reasoning might be when we feel afraid and therefore believe, at least in part, that we are in danger. You could you use the formula "I feel like X and therefore X is true", for many possible emotional reasoning distortions. These distortions often create a downward spiral. Negative thoughts cause negative emotions and this fires up more negative nerve circuits in the brain, leading to increased negative thoughts and so on (we call this "circular causality"). On the other hand, positive thoughts, if you believe them, create positive feelings and this can create an upward spiral. Emotions reinforce thoughts. When we let our feelings shape our beliefs, truth can become distorted in the same way our reflection is distorted when we look into in a fun-house mirror.

Dr David Burns, tells us that, in its infancy, psychotherapy believed that the road to healing came from deeply sharing feelings. He says that, while sharing your feelings is a vital part of therapy, it alone is not enough to get to the healing. Dr. Burns shares that the road to healing comes through changing our unhelpful thought habits by developing skills to challenge and shape them. Feelings are an important and essential part of life and in no way should we take all of this information to say that feelings are bad. Emotions are the heart of life but, when deciding what we believe, emotions can not be taken as fact.

When we are drawn to reason from our emotions, the correction comes by backing up to the thoughts that lead to the feelings. There are many Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques to help us become more aware of our thoughts and to challenge them. We can examine the evidence, put thoughts on trial, use Socratic questioning, try an experiment, use the survey technique, use the double standard technique, keep a mood log, and more. All of these methods ask us to think differently about our thoughts and emotions. They are truth-based techniques.

From Scripture: The two emotions mentioned most often in scripture are love and anger, each being mentioned over 500 times from Genesis to Revelation. We are encouraged to abound in love and not to give vent to anger. Scripture instructs us that some emotions are good and to be leaned into, Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance." and in Romans 12:15, we are told to "rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep". Other emotions are not good for us and we are not to yield to them. Proverbs 29:11 cautions us that, "A [shortsighted] fool always loses his temper and displays his anger, but a wise man [uses self-control and] holds it back.". James 1:20 tells us that "...the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God."

The scriptural message about emotions seems to correlate with that of science (or rather science is falling in line with scripture). We are to step into our helpful, godly, emotions. We are to love, laugh, and weep. We are to apply our minds to reshaping our destructive, unhelpful emotions. We are not to give vent to or act on them but rather take them captive using our ability to reason and think. In Proverbs 29:11, God tells us, “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life". We are told to keep our hearts by keeping watch over our thoughts and taking captive those that do not agree with God's Word. If we can catch our mistakes at the level of a thought and manage it, we will not step so often or so fully into wrong emotions and behaviors.

Steeping our minds in scripture supernaturally improves our thought life. Hebrews 4:12 tell us, "...the word of God is living and active and full of power [making it operative, energizing, and effective]. It is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating as far as the division of the soul and spirit [the completeness of a person], and of both joints and marrow [the deepest parts of our nature], exposing and judging the very thoughts and intentions of the heart".

Action Plan: The first step in managing emotional reasoning is to become more aware of our thoughts leading to the intense emotions. Because intense emotions make clear thinking difficult, we need a way to catch the emotions at a low level of intensity. We can think of emotions like waves in the ocean. Water that is calm and peaceful begins to ripple and that ripple swells into a wave of unpredictable height, but the wave always falls (remember that when you are in an emotional tsunami - the wave will fall). It is also very important to realize that thoughts can take the form of images. A picture or scene that flashes in your mind is a visual automatic thought.

When you first feel your emotions beginning to shift for the worse, ask yourself "what was I just thinking (remember to consider your visual thoughts)?". Write down any cognitive distortions and try challenging them. This takes time and lots of practice to become highly effective, but it works and helps us reshape thoughts and beliefs that are causing us to live a lesser life (any life other than our best life).

The Lagniappe:

A therapist explaining emotional reasoning

"Steady My Heart" by Kari Jobe


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