Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
Please Note: I will use emotions & moods interchangeably throughout this article.
In the 1st article of this 3 part series, The Mental Herpes Effect: High Cognitive Reactivity – Part 1, we looked at the psychological research that led to the discovery of a powerful mind-tendency that impedes our recovery from depression and anxiety disorders.
Psychological research indicates that this mind-tendency is one of the major factors that makes you significantly more vulnerable to relapsing back into a depressive or anxious mood disorder if you have ever had a single episode of either (for life if left untreated).
It’s the High Cognitive Reactivity mind-pattern (HCR).
HCR: the conditioned mind-tendency to react to small changes in mood with large changes in negative thinking.
“A problem well-stated is half-solved.”
-Charles Kettering, famous inventor and head of research for GM
1) Emotions – The Most Powerful Learning Stimulants
Emotions (and their lingering moods) are the major learning catalysts that fire up your mind to make new associations & connections to thoughts that intermingle together within the same environment.
Example: How your Mood Matters – Making Connections with Thoughts & Memories
If you were to go to the grocery store in an ok/neutral mood and
-went through your usual list of things to buy,
-put what you needed into your cart,
-paid the cashier and went home;
then the thoughts & emotions that co-occurred on your trip are not likely to become powerfully linked to each other.
It is likely, that after a short period time, you would have difficulty remembering this particular grocery shopping event.
If you were to go to a grocery store in an anxious mood and
-forgot your item list of what to buy,
-berated yourself with nasty self-critical thoughts that made you feel more self-conscious,
-experienced increased anxiety while waiting in line,
then your anxious mood has a high probability to get linked to the negative self-critical & self-conscious thoughts that coincided with it.
It is also highly likely that you will remember this shopping event for a long time.
2) The Vicious Negative Thought – Emotion Cycle (NTE – Cycle): Learning Reinforcement & Amplification
Scenario B: continued…
After you pack your groceries into your car, you start to drive home. While you are driving, your mind begins to rewind and reflect on what happened at the grocery store – kickstarting a vicious negative thought – emotion cycle (NTE – Cycle).
Your thinking programs obsessively review the recent negative events inside the grocery store over & over again. Each round through the NTE – cycle acts like a learning repetition that reinforces & amplifies your anxious mood and its connections to increasingly negative self-critical & self-conscious thinking.
Side Bar: The Power of Negative Emotions: The emotions that are elicited by potential threats (RAGE/FEAR/ANXIETY) and potential losses (GRIEF/PANIC/SHAME) are the most potent stimulators for learning & remembering new connections & associations.
Side Bar II: Associative Learning: Connecting the Emotionally Charged Dots
Your mind is biased towards scanning for and picking out potential cause & effect relationships among the different factors & mental processes that co-occur within your experiences.
The most fundamental form of cause & effect learning is called Reflexive Associative Conditioning (RAC)*
RAC = learning process where your mind creates an automatic link between objects (including mental objects such as thoughts and emotions) that occur closely together that signal an emotionally significant event.
How closely two things are related by space & time + the intensity of the emotional experience they trigger, influences if and how strongly your mind creates a new associative connection between the two objects.
Once an association between 2 objects is made, each repetition of this connection fortifies their bond together.
Classic RAC example: Pavlov and his dog
Pavlov’s dog is a classic example of RAC. Ivan Pavlov trained his dog to learn to salivate when he rang a bell.
He did this by pairing the ringing of a bell with giving his dog a treat right after.
After a few repetitions of this sequence – ringing the bell followed by giving his dog a yummy treat – a new connection between the bell ringing & receiving a treat becomes imbedded into his dog’s mind.
Consequently, when Pavlov rings the bell, his dog now begins to salivate.
*RAC = Classical Conditioning
3) The Emotional – Thinking Dance: The Mood Congruency Effect (MCE)
When you experience negative mood states, they bias your mind’s thinking and memory programs towards generating & accessing more negative content.
Think of your mood as a background chord that generates waves that ripple outward. These waves flow into and amplify your thoughts and memories that resonate with the chord’s frequency.
Simply stated, the MCE = the mind-tendency for your mood to shift your cognitive functions to generate content that aligns with its feeling tone.
2 factors that increase the MCE are:
MCE Illustrated: If you are in an anxious mood, it will influence your cognitive programs to shift towards:
1) generating more worrisome thoughts
2) providing easier access to fear-based memories.
In addition, dissonant thoughts & memories (ex: thoughts that are peaceful or calming, memories that are reassuring or soothing) are pushed away into the background and become more difficult to access.
Side Bar: MCE & Cognitive Biases
MCE is a fundamental mind pattern that is involved with a powerful cognitive bias often seen in people who tend to get depressed called: Accentuate the Negative, Eliminate the Positive. This important cognitive bias will be described in my upcoming article – Cognitive Biases: Your Mind’s Fundamental Bullshitting Patterns.
Example: Partying with Anxiety
Imagine being at a party experiencing a moderately intense anxious mood state. Your mind’s MCE kicks in and biases your thinking into emphasizing and prioritizing anxiety-based content.
Your thinking programs begin generating a variety of “what if” scenarios that don’t end well for you and your memory programs give your mind easy access to a large library of fear-based experiences. This amplifies your anxious mood, making you feel progressively more self-conscious & uncomfortable.
You decide to leave the party early.
4) The Connection between the MCE & the NTE – Cycle
Your anxiety based thoughts feed back into your anxious mood amplifying its intensity & extending its duration. This intensifies your mind’s MCE which in turn magnifies your negative thinking igniting a self-perpetuating NTE – Cycle.
Side Bar: The Worry Workout: Thought Branching & Intensification
With each turn through the NTE – Cycle, your anxiety-based thoughts begin to branch out and penetrate into more and more areas of your life.
You may start noticing scary thoughts about driving or flying – which has never happened to you before. You may start worrying about your relationships with people that normally would make you feel calm & connected.
Your worries begin to spiral and feed into each other – amplifying their intensity. You begin to imagine more dire situations and feel more powerless in your ability to overcome them.
Think of the NTE – cycle as a potent negative mental conditioning workout where each turn around the cycle acts like a powerful learning repetition that fortifies the connection between your anxious mood with your anxious thinking.
5) Thoughts Move Faster Than Your Moods
In general, your thoughts move faster and are more mobile than your mood states. These differences allow your thoughts to amplify more rapidly and more intensely compared to your mood states.
Thus with each repeated negative mental conditioning workout your thinking programs tend to shift into more exaggerated negative states more quickly than your negative mood does.
Each prolonged negative mood experience = 1 mental conditioning workout
1st Mental Conditioning Workout: Anxious mood intensity shifts from 2 to 4 – Negative thinking intensity shifts from 2 to 5.
2nd Mental Conditioning Workout: Anxious mood intensity shifts from 2.5 to 4.5 – Negative thinking intensity shifts from 3 – 6.5
3rd Mental Conditioning Workout: Anxious mood intensity shifts from 3 – 5 – Negative thinking shifts to 4 – 7.5.
The next time your mind shifts into an anxious mood that rises to a level 4 intensity, it triggers your negative thinking programs to rapidly move up to a level 7 intensity.
Consequently, after repeated bouts of these negative mental workouts – smaller upward shifts in your anxious mood tend to trigger larger shifts in fear-based thinking.
This is the birth of the High Cognitive Reactivity (HCR) pattern.
Once HCR develops, it often confers increased lifelong vulnerability to both depression and anxiety disorders.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
In the final chapter of this 3 part article series, we will explore several potent strategies to deconstruct & breakdown the HCR pattern – allowing you to achieve complete recovery and freedom from the clutches of depression & anxiety disorders.