The Emotion-Behavior Connection

In my last article, I introduced the fundamental problem with treating symptoms, rather than resolving the underlying causes. Most health care professionals, especially physicians, are either unaware or willfully ignorant of three key insights that – once understood – make treating health conditions much easier.

The Emotion-Behavior Connection

First, it is the irrational, short-term-oriented, subconscious mind that generates the emotions that drive behavior (both are symptoms). Second, focusing on conscious-level behavior modification is usually a waste of time and energy when emotions are involved. Third, it is possible (and often easy) to change subconscious programming that affects both emotion and behavior, but conventional healthcare professionals are not trained to do it. What’s more is that I never learned any of this useful information during my undergraduate psychology courses, a knowledge deficit that sadly extends to many doctorate level psychology programs.

My eventual realization of these key insights ultimately led me to become a hypnotist in 2007. In the early years of my new career, many clients sought my subconscious skills to reprogram their minds to eat less and make healthier food choices. While my results were much better than a nutritionist armed only with good advice, I was still frustrated by the large proportion of clients who seemed to sabotage their progress or unconsciously resist my help altogether.

Even with all of the hypnosis trainings and scripts designed to instruct the subconscious mind to think differently about food and eating (or smoking, alcohol abuse, or other addictions, for that matter), I believe that many hypnotists are still missing the mark. After all, an excellent sharpshooter is excellent only if he focuses on the right target. Therefore, even hypnotists with excellent technical skills will be limited if they don’t focus on the root issue.

Those of us who realize that emotional distress is an obvious and significant cause of unhealthy behavior must continue to dig deeper. An emotionally compulsive behavior provides momentary pleasure or temporary relief from discomfort, and often both. Despite one’s conscious desire to resist this behavior, the subconscious and immediate “need” to avoid pain or seek pleasure usually prevails. This internal conflict explains why willpower usually fails to change habits. It also explains why smokers who quit smoking often begin overeating and gaining weight. If the emotion that drives the behavior doesn’t change, new behavior that meets the same emotional need will often replace the old one.

Since habitual instant gratification amounts to little more than scratching at a persistent itch, any relief or pleasure is short-lived. As a result, the behavior must be repeated indefinitely, and it becomes a habit. Repeatedly scratching the emotional “itch” to eliminate stress, fear, loneliness, frustration, or sadness becomes futile, because the itch is merely a symptom of the actual irritant or proverbial thorn – the disempowering thoughts, beliefs, memories, pictures, and sounds we generate and regenerate in our mind.

How Beliefs Create Emotions

For example, if we have a disempowering belief such as “I’m not safe,” “People are always trying to cheat me,” “Life is unfair,” “I’m not good enough,” or “Losing weight is impossible,” we’re likely to experience fear, sadness, grief, anxiety, phobias, or anger, which are the symptoms or effects of those thoughts or beliefs. Quite often, the beliefs that limit or damage us, in the long run, are intended to protect us in the short run. The belief “I’m not safe” can cause us to feel and act in ways that help us avoid the risk of perceived danger, even if the belief is incorrect. Consider the fear of flying. The subconscious mind’s positive intention is to protect us from immediate discomfort or harm, even at the expense of our long-term goals.

Ultimately, our task as hypnotists is to help our clients change their limiting beliefs and habitual thought patterns to preserve the subconscious positive intention and align it with the conscious mind’s goals. If we address only the overeating or the stress and ignore the underlying thought pattern, we’re likely to be unsuccessful at facilitating lasting change. The more we target the actual cause, the more thoroughly and quickly we can resolve all of the symptoms or effects.

Unwanted emotional and behavioral habits are conditioned responses to learned beliefs and perceptions, which means all of them can be unlearned and deconditioned. Starting before birth and throughout life, we experience a variety of mental and physical stimuli through our senses and imagination. The associations and meaning we attribute to these internal and external stimuli account for much of our learning, which takes place primarily at the subconscious level.

At some point, often years later, we realize we have developed an emotional or behavioral tendency that affects our health, relationships, or finances. We might wonder how, when, and from where it all started, but that is not critical. In fact, many of our undesirable coping strategies, like most learning, evolved without our awareness. So, speculating about the point of origin in the past or the “cause” is useful only to determine a starting point towards the resolution of the presenting issue. I have found that a valid starting point and direction for intervention can be determined in a single conversation, not weeks or months.

Next time, I’ll discuss the simple reason why conventional talk therapy fails so many people, and I’ll share a memorable analogy for understanding various forms of emotional and behavioral interventions.