Coping Skills

Seeing things through the lens of an emotion

When I’m sad about one thing, I often get sad about everything there is to be sad about. I’ll see a painting my grandmother made, get sad and miss her… and then spiral into being sad about how I’m not close with many of my friends from high school anymore, and how my uncle died too, and how mental illness has made years of my life so much harder, and how my dad hasn’t been the same since the accident, and how it’s a dreary day, and etc etc etc.

Being sad makes me think about other things that are sad, and then suddenly I’m dealing with the weight of 10 sad things at once instead of the weight of one sad thing.

This happens to me with other emotions, too. If someone treats me unfairly and I get angry, I remember every other time in my life I’ve been treated unfairly and every thing I have to be angry about. If I’m happy, I notice the beauty in the trees and flowers, think about the good times I’ve had with my friends, and daydream about how great my life will be in the future.

“Seeing things through the lens of an emotion.” Image description: a drawing of a blue-tinted magnifying glass illuminating blue blobs among blobs of many colors. 

It seems like the emotion puts me in a frame of mind where I am more likely to think about times I’ve felt the same way. It’s like the CBT Triangle:

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(Image description: CBT Triangle: thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a triangle with double-ended arrows between them.)

CBT says that emotions influence thoughts, and thoughts influence emotions. (And also that emotions influence behaviors, and behaviors influence emotions. And that thoughts influence behaviors, and that behaviors influence thoughts.)

Maybe when I’m having an emotion, my brain is flooded with certain neurotransmitters. And then that abundance of neurotransmitters makes similar thoughts more likely. It’s like, if there’s a pool of sadness in my brain, then all the sad memories will become dislodged and float to the surface. I don’t know if it’s exactly like this (I don’t know much neuroscience), but this is how I imagine it.

It can be difficult when this happens with a strong, negative emotion. This means I can spiral quickly and start seeing the world in all-or-nothing ways, forgetting all of the not-this-emotion things I was feeling before. I think that one solution is to be mindful of this when it is happening and to trace it back to what caused the original emotion. Then I can try to just deal with that one thing, and focus on what is happening right now in the present.

Does this happen to you? What do you do if/when it happens?