Monday, March 05, 2007

Why many belief systems are so emotional

Continuing the topic of health and beliefs, I will now answer the questions: Why are certain belief systems so emotional? and What types of beliefs are associated with good health?

Why are certain belief systems so emotional? Certain belief systems come with strong emotions because of the way the brain works. The brain activity I mentioned above occurs in three regions (see, for example

  1. The “rational” part of the brain (neocortex) is where the cognitions/thoughts take place
  2. The “intermediate” part of the brain (“limbic system”) control emotions
  3. The “primitive” (“reptilian”) part of the brain activates self-preservation behavior.
So, when we have a thought reflecting a belief that something (or someone) is a threat to our well-being (i.e., appraisal of potential harm), our minds automatically trigger the “fight-flight” response by eliciting brain activity in its intermediate and primitive regions that make us feel upset and prepare us to deal with the perceived threat through release of adrenalin. While this process is vital to our survival, it can easily become maladaptive if our beliefs over- or under-estimate the likelihood and severity of the threat, as well as our ability to change or cope with it:
  • Sometimes our belief systems accurately appraise a threat as being unlikely to cause us serious harm, but we realize it will, nevertheless, bring us disappointment, frustration, criticism, inconvenience, etc. When this happens, we will feel appropriately annoyed or concerned, and focus on the right things. This means we are in the best emotional and mental state to deal with the threat. And if we believe the threat can be eliminated by changing the situation in certain ways, and we believe we have the ability to make those changes effectively, then we are motivated to take responsible action to improve things and ourselves.
  • Sometimes we exaggerate a modest threat because our irrational beliefs distort its severity. We then blame certain people or circumstance, correctly or incorrectly, for causing our problems (e.g., “This shouldn’t be happening to me …I can’t stand it … it’s their fault!!!”). When this happens, our negative emotions are exacerbated: Annoyance becomes anger and concern becomes fear.
  • Sometimes our belief system accurately appraises a threat as serious. When this happens, the sensible response is to eliminate the cause of the threat if we believe the situation can be changed, or if it cannot be changed, to avoid the threat or accept and cope with it as best we can. In either case, having control of our emotions and reactions enable us to develop and implement a realistic plan of action with a clear head and focused mind, rather than being frozen with fear or attack with reckless hostility. Being able to keep our emotions and reactions in check means having a belief system that correctly attributes the causes and our abilities to change things. It also means avoiding irrational beliefs that distort the situation and exacerbate our negative emotions. So, if we believe we have the ability to ameliorate the threat by changing the things that create the negative situation, we are more willing to take a problem-solving approach. If, however, we believe the situation cannot be changed, we can still cope with the impending threat and its aftermath by, for example, leaning to deal with the unfortunate situation with minimal distress through rational acceptance, avoidance, etc.
  • Sometimes our belief systems inaccurately estimate the severity or likelihood of the threat, incorrectly evaluates our ability to change it, and/or misidentifies the threat’s cause. When this happens, we are more likely to worsen a bad situation, or at least fail to make it better. We may, for example, (a) dismiss a serious problem as being inconsequential; (b) deceive ourselves that we can’t do anything to improve a situation, even though we actually can make difference; or (c) try to change the wrong things in the wrong ways. This, unfortunately, is the path humanity tends to follow …Our long-term survival requires a major shift in our belief systems and foci!
What types of beliefs are associated with good health? When it comes to managing our health, it’s critical that we have accurate beliefs about the severity of our risk factors and current conditions, their causes, and our ability to avoid health problems and improve our existing health status. We must have a level of emotion that motivates us to act sensibly and responsibly, and cope effectively. And, of course, we need a realistic self-management plan and a rational mind that keeps things in perspective.

Next time I’ll examine three other things that help determine how to change beliefs; they are: core relational themes, appraisal patterns, and action tendencies.