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.
Before we begin on more serious matters, I have some observations to make.
Observation #1: I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning. I am taking this as a good sign. We may soon be able to return to regularly scheduled programming–as in, I might stop boring you all with my in-depth descriptions of jet lag. Let’s see.
Observation #2: WordPress knows where I am and has decided to enforce what I’ve thought of in the past as UK spelling conventions. However, I am not in the UK, so it might be more appropriate for me to think of it as everywhere else spelling. At any rate, I have decided to comply: I have also thrown in capitalization conventions for good measure.
Observation #3: The light switch for the loo has stopped administering electrical shocks to me as punishment for using it. This is by far the most important of the three, as this particular switch has given me a phobia that only in-depth therapy is likely to cure.
Now, continuing on with today’s topic….
The hot-cold empathy gap
I’ve mentioned the hot-cold empathy gap before. The hot-cold empathy gap is a psychological phenomenon taken from behavioural economics in which we fail to appreciate what our decisions are likely to be in other states: specifically, it’s our inability to understand what our thinking is likely to be when we are either more or less psychologically aroused than we are now.
When I’m rested, it’s hard to appreciate how it feels to be exhausted. The reverse is also true. Memory is state-dependent: we remember things best when we are in the same emotional condition as we were when they occurred originally. So, part of the reason we have difficulty understanding how we will feel and think in other states has to do with finding it difficult to remember what it was like being in a different state to begin with. We might know we were angry or tired or having nicotine withdrawals, but that’s not the same thing as remembering what it was like to be in that state.
What is most often said about this gap is that we fail to anticipate the intensity of our feelings during heightened states, but I think it’s more than that. The more significant difference is in our thinking processes, and I think it’s the difference in our thinking that we fail to anticipate.
In cold states, we balance our desires in the present with our plans for the future. At night, I might set my alarm early for some before-work exercise because I have a long-term goal of improving my fitness and overall health. I do know I’ll be sleepy and that the sleepiness will be uncomfortable, but I also know that I’ll get used to the routine in a few days and the overall benefit of better health outweighs the discomfort of a few sleepy mornings. However when I really do wake up the next morning, it’s not just that I’m sleepier than I expected to be, but that the future has shrink in importance.
Hot states don’t plan. The present is their primary concern: our hunger must be satiated, our thirst slaked, our cravings satisfied, and that must be done now. The future be damned. It isn’t just that we lose control, but that our goals change. It’s a problem, and like most other problems, I think there are solutions.
One of these approaches involves trickery, and it’s one of my favourites. During a particular bad patch some years ago, when I had some especially intense urges to self-harm, I wrapped all the really sharp knives in paper and hid them from myself under some other things under the bed. Because I’m easily hypnotized (that’s part of dissociation), I also told myself that I didn’t know where they were.
It was quite surprising to find them all still there when I packed up my apartment and moved out last week. I had forgotten all about them.
I think one of the difficulties of being a trauma survivor is that, until the trauma is resolved, you spend so much time in hot states, it’s hard to feel like a competent adult capable of planning well for the future. There are several ways trauma takes a toll on your self-esteem, but I think that’s one of them, and delay has been a very helpful strategy for me.
Hiding the knives introduced delay. Of course, there were other ways I could harmed myself if I’d really been intent on it, and I also did know where the knives were. All I had done is make myself wait 30 seconds–either to locate the out-of-reach knives or think of something better. And 30 seconds was all I needed.
Because what is on your side with hot states is time: hot states don’t last forever. If you’re lucky, your hot states may even be very short-lived. Mine usually are. Unfortunately, if you are borderline, you will need to stall longer than the rest of us: your hot states have more staying power. But it’s still a worthwhile approach.
Delay is the wisdom of counting to ten when you’re angry and hitting “save” instead of “send. It’s also the reason my alarm clock has been in the kitchen for the last eight years. If I delay getting back in bed and falling asleep again long enough to walk across my apartment, I may wake up enough to see the wisdom of getting up on time. And usually I do.
There are other ways you can use delay to help you make use of the transience of hot states to improve decision-making. I try never to make major purchasing decisions when I’m standing right in front of the object, because of course if it’s right there I want it. I’m in a hot state. But if I leave the store and do something else for a bit, and I find the purchase still seems like a good idea later, then I know I can go ahead with it.
Not long ago, a friend of mine shared with me that the Persians–back when they had an empire–considered all important decisions while both drunk and sober, in other words, in both hot and cold states. “Sleeping on it” is the same kind of approach. And there’s something to be said for it.
Avoidance is another possibility, and it’s probably what we are doing unconsciously when we avoid reminders of trauma: we are trying to stave off a hot state. There is such a thing as too much avoidance, but it’s not all a bad thing. On the plane, one of the desserts they gave us with dinner with chocolate mousse. Now, I have some food allergies, and mousse is not on my list of approved fruits. But it was sitting there. And it continued to sit there, and I continued to want it. I finally broke down and ate half of it, but I really didn’t think eating all of it was such a good idea.
And yet it sat there, and I kept wanting it. I could feel myself breaking down, losing sight of the future and its accompanying stomach upset, and becoming consumed by the present and its rich, chocolatey yumminess. At last, I covered it with a piece of foil that had covered the entree. Problem solved. If I can’t see the mousse, I don’t want it. Avoidance has its place.
“Affect influences virtually ever aspect of human functioning: perception, attention, inference, learning, memory, goal choice, physiology, reflexes, self-concept…” George Loewenstein.
We want different things when we are in the grips of a strong emotion than when we are calm. It seems, in fact, that things are different. And the difference isn’t just between being in “hot” (emotional) states and “cold” (calm) states, but between different hot states.
The world looks different, and we are different, when we feel angry than when we feel infatuated. And there is the same degree of difference between being sad and being angry. It makes sense really that borderlines–who are almost always in a hot state of one kind or another–have “identity disturbances.”
One of my earliest life lessons was, “Keep calm.”
When the enemy is the people charged with your care, you need to stay alert. You need to be able to think, and you need to be able to think clearly. You need to keep calm.
Calm gives you the best chance of making decisions that you might actually like later. And one of the first things I really remember working at in a way that I was somewhat conscious was the fine art of delay. If you’re upset, sometimes the best course of action is to do nothing. Act only when you are calm. So, as long as you are in deep distress, find ways to do nothing. Walk away from conflicts, distract yourself from the craziness in your head, keep your mouth shut, hit “save” instead of “send.” Delay, because no matter what has happened, it’s almost impossible not to calm down eventually, and I like the results of what I do in a calm state better that might I might choose to do in a hot state. At least, I like it better the next time I’m calm.
Everything is different now. It has been different for a long time, but sometimes change is hard to really take in.
Getting out of an abusive situation is like returning to civilian life. The stakes are suddenly so much lower. A bad decision is unlikely to end up with me dead. I don’t need to stay calm.
I’ve been thinking about that lately. because part of working with the trauma has meant finding even more ways to keep calm, so that I can approach the trauma without becoming overwhelmed–and there was so much I needed to approach, and so much I still do.