Motivated states—mental states where we feel very strong emotions or very strong desires—influence our thinking. How it influences our thinking depends on the kind of motivated state it is. Anger makes us more certain and anxiety makes us notice details more. They usually make us more impulsive.
They are adaptive changes in our thinking for the most part, but when you spend a lot of time a hot state because of a traumatic past or because there is just something really wrong with your present (as in, it’s abusive), it usually doesn’t work out so well.
But if you are too “cold,” too uninfluenced by emotions in your thinking, you make bad decisions too. People lack emotions because of a brain injury can’t even gamble sensibly.
The best decisions are made in a “warm” state.
I’ve found, too, that the key to healing from trauma is trying to stay “warm.” For years, I practiced doing nothing in the grip of strong emotions. It was very useful later when the trauma work got really underway. Reducing impulsivity was terribly, terribly important, because once stuff is out of the dissociative box, you never know what you’ll get. It’s usually “hot” though, and it usually makes me think I want to do something I don’t want to do. Not doing it is just so very important, especially if it turns out to be a lot “hotter” than I expected or am prepared for.
And recently I have worked at getting things to stay “warm.” “Warm” seems to be magic. My brain stays on, it can start to make sense out of the memory, and it can link up various parts of the past and present that go together, including the emotions. It can’t do that in a hot state—it stops thinking properly then. It can’t do that in a cold state—I lose the emotions then. It has to be warm.
So the memory pops up—something triggers it out—and I just try to keep it warm. I try to dial it down, not through an act of will, which is what dissociation is to an extent—but by comforting myself and creating a calmer mood.
What comforts me might not comfort you. What comforts you probably won’t comfort me. This is something I have learned. I spent a long time trying to calm myself by grounding myself in the present. It doesn’t work for me—it triggers more trauma. Instead, I look into the past and I use what calls up those moments in the past when I felt safe—or safer than I am in my traumatic moments. That works.
Trauma work is really, really hard. Honestly, I don’t think there is much that might be harder. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s simple: you learn how to do nothing and you learn how to stay warm. Once you have those two things, everything else flows out of them.