Updated: Nov 4, 2022
As a result of heightened emotional events we’ve experienced throughout life, we’ve become conditioned creatures that process and respond to trigger situations in a certain way. This conditioning can often be unhelpful. Before we go down this rabbit hole, let's look at what emotions actually are:
Technically speaking, emotions are amplified chemicals, hormones and energy generated within the human body and pumped throughout it, to mobilise responses to heightened situations. So, when you come across the word ‘emotion’, think ‘Emotion = Energy In Motion’.
Subjectively speaking however, emotions are something that we feel and strike at the very heart of what it means to be alive and human.
They vary in measure and complexity. When we’re in love, all sensibility goes out the window, and we find ourselves in the slipstream of oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin. When we’re anxious or terrified, we might find ourselves frozen in a wall of indecision, feeling dread or fleeing from an anxious scene, as the cascade of cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine take over.
In short, emotions are so powerful that they can ignite us to take action we didn’t even know we were capable of, or they can completely debilitate and immobilise us. With each emotional experience however, our behaviour becomes conditioned and our decisions largely predetermined. We are where we are in life right now, because of the decisions we’ve made.
Now let’s look at this thing called The Emotional Response Conditioning (ERC) Loop.
Our senses are constantly steaming information to our brain for processing. When we encounter a challenge or significant event, that stimulus gets filtered rapidly in various parts of our brain, such as the hippocampus, responsible for long-term memory and against the backdrop of our subconscious program.
Our subconscious was largely laid during the first seven years of our lives, when our brain was doing things for the first time. It’s during this period that foundations were laid for our view of the world, beliefs and self-identity. When these are challenged, an emotional response ensues because our very understanding of how ‘reality’ works is under threat.
This processing takes place in milliseconds and culminates in a thought or belief that usually comes in the form of an inner narrative and summarises our position. For instance, let’s say you’re at a networking event and make the observation that the majority of attendees hold a polar opposite view to yourself on a controversial topic. You’re then asked by the host if you can step in for the MC who has fallen ill and address the attendees on the topic. After processing the situation, your inner narrative might be: “There is no f#*king way I can do this!”
Now because that inner narrative derived from your subconscious program, it will have a prior emotional signature attached to it. This may have come about from a previous experience where you had to do something similar and felt a rush of negative emotion arising from adverse judgement, embarrassment or ridicule. This in turn formulated into a limiting subconscious belief that perhaps you’re not a good public speaker.
So now that the inner narrative has been reinforced with a limiting belief, there are a whole range of internal mechanisms starting to galvanise. Your central nervous system and glands like the pituitary and amygdala have been activated and all of a sudden, you’re experiencing a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol pumping through your bloodstream, acting as an alarm and protection mechanism. This energy in motion is the emotion associated with fear.
In the midst of experiencing this fear, a state of mind or ‘mindset’ develops. A mindset is simply the culmination of how we’ve processed a situation, our belief on the subject and the corresponding attitude or position we adopt in regard to how we’re going to deal with the situation.
Our response to the challenge now starts to take place. Depending on how our subconscious program is wired, this response will differ from person to person. Some face fear, while others flee or freeze in the face of it. It’s handy to think of the primary emotion of fear as an acronym:
Face Everything And Rise or Forget Everything And Run!
The fight, flight or freeze response served our ancient ancestors really well, so well in fact that our species wouldn’t be here otherwise! Upon experiencing the stimulus of a predator for instance, their limbic part of the brain (the most primal part – where the amygdala and hippocampus reside) aroused their fear response, which drew blood and energy from vital organs in their body (including the frontal lobe region of the brain which helps to regulate social behaviour and make rational decisions), and sent this energy to major muscles, like their buttocks and thighs, to empower a physical response that equated to their survival.
The problem for humans today however, is that whilst we don’t have any life-threatening predators hunting us down, we continue to experience the very same internal fear response, which sees the rational part of our brain hijacked when it comes to the things that we’ve become ‘conditioned’ to be afraid of, such as; getting covid, dealing with confrontation, work and social commitments, or giving a speech.
We have never before been exposed to so much external stimuli and as the influx of technology continues, we are becoming more susceptible to attention fragmentation and to the subconscious being triggered. This is resulting in a continual secretion of cortisol into our circulatory system, leaving little to no time for our parasympathetic nervous system (our rest, digest and detoxification mode) to do its job and bring our hormone levels back to homeostasis. This slow secretion of cortisol into our bloodstream is what neuroscientists refer to as ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
Back to the ERC loop: Once we’ve responded to the stimulus that challenged our subconscious program the ERC loop closes, and our brain creates a reference point via an emotional signature that has been created and captured in the body and logged in the brain. Upon perceiving and processing that stimulus, the brain takes a snapshot of everything in our environment – from the expression on people’s faces, right down to the temperature we’re feeling at that time, so that whenever our senses pick up on any like situation in the future, we not only have a reference point to compare it to, but a compelling emotional signature ready to be replicated to take us to the same response.
When this process occurs again and again it reinforces and cements our conditioning in regard to this and other like significant events. So, you could say that our responses to certain triggers are predetermined. The ERC loop is responsible for this process.
So, if we’re conditioned by these emotional signatures and they’re responsible for the same pattern of behaviours and responses, is there any way we can break this loop to recondition our subconscious and start creating new responses? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’!
Psychologist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said that:
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The first step required to break the ERC loop is to amplify levels of self-awareness to become conscious in this space between stimulus and response. We have the power to draw out that space and to cognitively challenge any negative or limiting inner narrative and consider alternative responses. We also have the power to regulate our emotion and leverage responses that exist beyond the parameters of our conditioning.
This is of course no easy feat, as we’ve had years of conditioning but can nevertheless be accomplished. In The Open Mind Institute’s mindset & performance coaching program for instance, we use evidence based modalities such as mindfulness based exercises that strengthen the pre-frontal cortex region of the brain and cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to elucidate conditioned inner narratives and eventually replace them with empowered ones to encourage new behavioural responses in real-time.
We’ve found on average, that after 6 weeks our coaching clients are able to amplify their awareness in the stimulus response space and inject their new empowered narratives and associated beliefs, to create new responses in real time – which becomes a very transformational and liberating experience for them.
Parallels can be drawn to what American psychologist Abraham Maslow refers to as ‘Self-Transcendence’, which entails accessing a higher level of development to transcend conditioning that has become a hindrance to personal development. Self-transcendence also results in peak experiences because conditioned behaviours have been replaced with new inspired behaviours and responses that lead to new possibilities beyond the parameters of the conditioned self, to a place where a new reality emerges.
Understanding how the ERC loop works is tantamount to understanding how we function as conditioned emotional creatures. When you appreciate that emotion is at the cornerstone of our conditioned responses to challenging situations, you’re in a better place to leverage higher cognitive functions like attention control and emotional intelligence. From this platform you’re in the driver’s seat to adjust awareness and regulate emotion to execute responses beyond the parameters of your conditioning, to ultimately achieve positive outcomes.
Conditioned behaviours are habitual behaviours. The Open Mind Institute have developed a 5 step guide to overcoming limiting habits. If you would like to access this free guide, click on the link below.
Paul Pitsaras LL.B B.Int.e Bus.
Founder & Managing Director
The Open Mind Institute
Click below to access our FREE 5 step guide for overcoming limiting habits!