Hack Your Unconscious: Why Negative Feelings Linger
Part I: Three reasons why negative emotions get you so worked up.
Posted Nov 07, 2019
Have you ever made a mindless mistake at work and ended up knee-deep in quicksand of irritability, fear, and embarrassment for a full week? Or felt the exhausting “emotional hangover” of anxiety, vulnerability, and frustration following a fight with your significant other?
If you have, you are not alone. You've also probably noticed that negative feelings can get us pretty worked up. The more intense they are, the harder it is to shake them off. And what’s worse, we rarely ever experience only one feeling at a time. Rather, they attack like a pack of wolves: anger mixed in with shame, fear mixed in with sadness, and so on. They can quickly render us feeling overwhelmed, out of control, or completely shut down.
There are biological reasons why negative emotions get us feeling so beside ourselves. Deep within the unconscious mind are implicit processes—faculties of the mind, so to speak—that ensure our survival, yet have a complex impact on emotional regulation. In our new book, The Unconscious, Dr. Joel Weinberger—a national expert in the study of unconscious processes—calls them normative unconscious (or implicit) processes. Rather than being pathological or conflictual (like Freud’s unconscious), they are normal (normative) and present in all of us. Knowing about them may help us learn how to better manage our emotions more effectively. Three such processes, affective salience, ironic processes, and embodied cognition can help us better understand why emotions are so powerful.
Affective Salience: The Power of (Negative) Emotions
Affective salience (initially called affective primacy) is a theoretical and research framework that argues that human beings are much quicker in processing emotions than in processing concrete information. Intensely emotional stimuli, in other words, have a primary place in the hierarchy of information processing. It appears that we have evolved to much more quickly categorize stimuli as pleasant (approach) or unpleasant (avoid) than to cognitively recognize and organize them in categories (brother can be a sibling or a brother in arms, bank is where you deposit money or a river bank, etc.).
This faculty of the mind seems to be a pretty robust one. In one area of research called “binocular rivalry studies”—i.e. studies in which one stimulus is presented to one eye and another stimulus to the other eye—researchers (if you are curious, check out the research lab of Georg Alpers at the University of Mannheim) have found that:
- Emotional content dominated over non-emotional scenes
- Negative emotional scenes dominate over neutral ones
- Negative facial expressions elicit response over neutral facial expressions
Even patients with blindsight (the ability of people who are cortically blind to register and respond to visual stimuli they do not consciously see) have demonstrated an ability to correctly react to facial expressions, while at the same time denying having seen the face, let alone the individual facial expressions (e.g. Tamietto & Gelder, 2010)!
When we study the way in which humans direct their attention to complex scenes (rather than the simpler stimuli in the above binocular rivalry studies), it becomes clear that we are much quicker to focus on emotionally charged aspects of the situation than on information-bearing ones.
What is more, there are differences in attention allocation based on the intensity and valence of the emotional stimuli. The more highly negative they are, the more we fixate our attention on them (Niu, Todd, & Anderson, 2012). Or, as everyone in the entertainment industry knows, sex and violence sell movies. We just can't seem to tear our eyes away from them!
This makes evolutionary sense in terms of survival. It is much more important that we swiftly start running (avoid! Avoid! AVOID!) when we see a mammoth, than to categorize it as a mammal from the genus Mammuthus.
However, it also explains why we have such a difficult time letting go of negative emotions. We are biologically inclined to “fixate” on the stimuli in our environment that produce these emotions. In reality, biology does not categorize emotions as good or bad in the same way as we do. They are simply useful clues for reacting in a certain way.
Biologically, then, we should be able to stop experiencing a negative emotion as soon as the mammoth (ahem, stimulus) in the environment is gone. Unfortunately, sometimes the accumulation of past adverse and traumatic experiences leave our nervous system on high alert and we are unable to so quickly return to homeostasis (our normal state).
And then, there are ironic processes. You have probably never heard of them, even though (ironically) they take place in your mind every day, sneakily getting in the way of things like sticking to your diet, quitting smoking, and, yes, redirecting attention away from upsetting thoughts and emotions.
In "It’s Not You, It’s Your Unconscious: Why Therapy Takes So Long To Work," we explained how our brains conduct a number of processes simultaneously, effortlessly, and outside of awareness. Some of these processes pertain to such well-rehearsed associations, that they have become automated, from something as simple as the steps it takes to drive a car to extremely complex social and relational patterns like holding biases and choosing partners that are unavailable. Affective salience, discussed above, is one such automatic unconscious process: we do not consciously know that our minds are processing emotions so much faster, nor are we privy of how they do that.
Ironic processes are another type of automatic process that is the mind’s “monitoring system,” so to speak. Let’s say you want to change a certain automatic behavior, like raising your voice every time your child whines, or to stop feeling a negative emotion, like shame, immediately after you yell at your child.
In order to do that, though, you have to monitor your automatic behavior and override it by superimposing a different one on top of it (take a deep breath, calm your voice, use measured language to set a boundary for your kid). In other words, a voice in your mind has to tell you, “Don’t do this (yell)!”
But here is the irony of it: As soon as your mind says “Don’t do THIS!,” THIS pops into your mind. So all the associative networks around THIS, whether it is the yelling that you don’t want to do, or the cake that you don’t want to eat, are now activated, very much pushing you to think and do the exact thing you are trying to avoid. And this is why the very process of monitoring for unwanted feelings and behaviors increases the risk of engaging in them… ironically! Hence, transformation takes time and effort.
So far, it becomes clear that negative emotions (and emotions, in general) have some priority in both popping up into our minds and staying there longer. Unconscious processes at work make sure of it. In Part II of this article, we will talk about how these processes are, in fact, not confined to our "minds." In fact, there is a growing amount of research that supports the notion that our thoughts and cognitions are very much in our bodies, making them that much harder to change. This, in turn, has significant implications for how we manage our emotions, attached to these thoughts. Continue to Hack Your Unconscious Part II: My Thoughts Are In My Body?
Weinberger, J. & Stoycheva, V. (2019). The unconscious: Theory, research, and clinical implications. New York: The Guilford Press.
Tamietto, M. & de Gelder, B. (2010). Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals. Nature Review Neuroscience, 11, 697-709.
Niu, Y., Todd, R., & Anderson, A. K. (2012). Affective salience can reverse the effects of stimulus-driven salience on eye movements in complex scenes. Frontiers in Psychology, 3:336