States of mind


States if mind and emotions are like weather–variable and transient.

We have states of mind we don’t care for. And they can come upon us very suddenly.  For example, I can feel upbeat, competent, sitting with a client feeling completely “adult” and “sane.” Let’s say my sister calls me and chews me out for having forgotten to do something I agreed to do.  Suddenly I an in an unwanted state of mind–that of a bad little girl.

What happened?

Each of us has subjective states–which are based on experiences we’ve had. Those experiences lay down pathways in the brain.   If you were habitually criticized growing up, that track is going to be well established.

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If you were humiliated, then that’s a familiar path.  If you were praised when you tried new things, then you’ll feel that good feeling.

Many years ago when research was just beginning to discover the secrets of the brain, the Wall Street Journal published an article that described how certain habitual cascades are triggered.  It used the example of an eagle flying over a rabbit.  The rabbit is hard-wired with a pathway that the shadow overhead triggers a panic cascade:


The rabbit senses the shadow overhead as threatening, and it goes into a survival-based response.  If you have a pet rabbit, and you pass a pad of paper over its head, causing a shadow to fall on the rabbit, it will go into a response as if a predator was overhead.

Our brains behave in the same way.  Events that approximate or suggest a previously experienced danger will trigger a response AS IF it were the real old danger.

We can’t stop being triggered.  What we can do is differentiate whether the situation is an eagle overhead or a pad of paper,  We can figure out if the state of mind that was just triggered and the cascade that follows matches the current here-and-now situation.  Often we find that the reaction is bigger than what the current situation calls for.  That’s one of the most helpful clues in identifying those automatic cascades of emotion and state of mind.




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