Feelings vs. Thoughts

The 15 Second Feeling

In his book “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” Dan Millman describes going to the scene of a fire, where a close friend of his mentor Socrates owns a restaurant.  The friend walks up to discover his restaurant, his dream, and his life, burning up in front of him.  He drops to his knees with a wail and pounds his fists on the ground.  Then he arises, turns to his friends and begins talking about his next restaurant.  

When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross came to Portland we had a variety of wonderfull conversations. The one that stuck with me the most was her insistence that emotions last about 15 seconds. 15-second emotions.  Imagine having your emotional feelings lasting only 15 seconds.  It probably seems impossible, or unnatural.  Certainly, it is out of the realm of experience for most of us.  Yet I want to propose that it is normal.  Emotions should only last for about 15 seconds.

First let’s define two words:  common and normal.  Common means prevalent, in plentiful supply.  Normal, however, means in accord with nature or free from restriction, dis-ease or abnormality.  Having emotions last only 15 seconds is not a common experience, by any stretch of the imagination.  But it is, I believe, the normal experience of the human nervous system.  In fact, of any living being’s nervous system.

How can that be?  From a biological perspective, it can be more easily understood.  The nerves in your body transmit signals through pathways.  As each nerve gets the signal it contracts, temporarily disconnecting from the incoming channel and sends that signal out to the next nerve in the chain.  It takes time for that nerve to relax and reconnect with the chain of other nerves.

Perhaps an image will help.  Hold up your right hand and then put the first finger of your left hand on the palm of the right.  Imagine a chain of hands, connected by one finger touching the palm of the next hand.

Now, imagine someone poking the middle finger of your right hand.  As the fingers curl into a fist, the pain sensation travels to the palm and out the finger of the left hand.  The left-hand clenches as the pain signal travels to the palm and out to another finger.  At each step, the fingers of this chain of hands clenches as the signal enters the fingers and passes on to the next.

This is a simplistic image of nerve action.  Each nerve contracts as a signal enters the dendrite (finger) and that signal or feeling is sent through the cell body (palm), down the axon and to the dendrite of the next nerve.  The nerves, like our imagined hands, clench and unclench each time a signal passes. P.S. the Synapse is the gap between the axon and the next dendrite nerve.

Now, if the nerve unclenches and there is no new signal, the nerve relaxes.  If the pain signal is still there it re-clenches, sending another signal down the chain of nerves.

Image result for axon dendrite connection

In the same way, we have an emotion, whether of anger or fear or joy, etc.  That feeling lasts as long as it takes to travel through the nervous system to the brain and as long as it takes for the chemicals (adrenalin, corticosteroids, etc.) to be recognized by the mind/body.  I suggest about 15 seconds. Our minds process this emotion and make associations.  If there are past associations or traumas, the mind shifts to these older memories/feelings and the chain is retriggered.

This may seem a bit complicated or abstract, but as we explore our experiences you may see how this works in every-day life.  You are having a discussion with a friend or spouse and get angry.  This anger, and all feelings, are completely normal. However, if you continue to be angry you will probably notice thoughts along the line of “He always does this…” or “She’s just like my mother….”  What the mind does with emotions is to find similar patterns or feelings and makes associations.

This habit of making associations is important.  It is why we learn and understand our world.  We make these connections, look for similarities and patterns from past understandings to make sense of new information.

With emotions, however, what happens is that we tap into previous, unresolved emotions, and stack them on top of the current emotion.  Many people report that their argument escalated to an old issue and that they didn’t even remember what the original conversation was about.

I want to suggest that the healthy, “normal” nervous system doesn’t have unresolved emotions or traumas lying in wait to be triggered.  We can, if we truly seek emotional honesty and clarity, release these reservoirs of unprocessed feelings. We can get clear of the old emotions and then, free of the past, respond cleanly to life as it presents itself.

Imagine a wooden kitchen match.  Strike its tip and it bursts into flame.  That flame will burn out in a few seconds.   If you want to have it burn longer you tip your hand so that the wood begins to burn.  You can get another match, or some paper or wood and keep the fire going.  

Image result for kitchen match

What is happening?  To get the fire to burn longer you must add fuel, in this case, the match stem.  The fire will continue to burn as long as you add more fuel.In our emotional lives something “lights our fire.”  After some seconds that emotion will fade unless we have more fuel to add to that feeling.  The fuel?  Thoughts, often thoughts of similar, unprocessed emotions from past traumatic events.

In my next missive I hope to address the challenge of stopping persistent and unwanted thoughts.


Published by Jim Hussey

I am a licensed professional counselor, working in a hospital setting. I have been a meditator and teacher for 47 years, a therapist for 28 years and married for 29 years. My secret vice is golf.

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