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Thinking emotionally

By on September 30, 2014
Courtesy Stuart Miles and

In this blog post we will be talking about emotions as thoughts. This may sound strange, after all aren’t emotions and thoughts different? The answer, surprisingly is yes and no. Emotions are not the same as thoughts, but there is a specific type of thought that we call an ‘emotion’. To learn more read on.


Your hypnosis client comes in to your office. They have applied for a new job in a faraway city and have, to their surprise, been called for an interview. If they get the job they will have to sell their apartment, move to a new place, make new friends. And they tell you, “I feel afraid, very afraid…”

How to respond:

What you client is saying is that they feel strong emotions in their body.

They have chosen to label these emotions as fear, but who says this s the correct label? Your job as hypnotist is to relabel this emotion. After all, who is to say they are not actually feeling excitement rather than fear?

“I remember when I first moved to New York. Everything was so new, so strange, almost overwhelming. At first I thought I was afraid, until I realized I was actually excited by the challenge!”

NLP theory and neuroscience:

It turns out, emotions have two aspects to them. The first aspect of an emotion is the actual feelings, the sensations, in your body. These feelings are caused by chemicals released by the brain to put the body in the ‘ideal state’ to deal with the situation at hand. Unfortunately this ideal state is typically chosen by the unconscious mind, and the unconscious mind is more concerned about us being eaten by sabertooth tigers than giving good presentation at work. This results in us feeling fears and stress in situations that are not physically dangerous at all.

These chemicals, adrenaline for example, create changes in our internal organs. Our heart rate may speed up, our digestion may close down as blood is pumped to our major muscles. Our heart and belly then send messages to the brain, telling the brain that the signals have been received and the body is ready for action. This is the emotion as felt in the body, or a so-called ‘somatic emotion’.

When these signals from the body reach the brain, the brain has to interpret them. It has to label them. Now it’s important to realize that a fight or flight response in the body is not in and of itself ‘fear’. It can just as easily be labeled ‘anger’, or even ‘excitement’.

When the brain relabels a somatic emotion with a new label, a new name, it changes the meaning of that feeling. Someone who is ‘afraid’ of roller coasters will probably avoid them, while someone who is ‘excited’ by roller coasters will undoubtedly seek them out to ride them. For each of these people the somatic emotion, the sensations they are actually feeling in their body, may be identical (or at least as identical as two feelings can ever be). But the labels are different, which means the person’s responses are likely to be different.

Putting it into practice:

There are many ways to deal with ‘negative’ emotions. One is simply replacing that emotion with another one, see for example the blog post on ‘Who’s driving the bus?’

Another approach is to focus on the somatic feelings in the body (see the blog post ‘The thinking body’).

A third way is to keep the somatic bodily feeling the same, but to relabel it. After all those feelings MAY be just what the client needs in that situation, as long as they are given a new label or meaning.  Of course, this does to mean we should let an emotion stay that is not useful to the client. But we should not be too quick to change an emotional response just because the client has given it a negative label.

So once again the steps are:

  1. Ask the client what they are feeling.
  2. Ask them where in their body they are feeling it and what it is like. Consider whether this somatic feeling could be useful
  3. If the somatic emotion could be useful, reframe it as something positive and see how that changes the client’s experience of the situation.

Other applications:

You can use this simple technique of relabeling emotions, in many different situations. Here are just a few:

  • Relabel ‘fear’ as ‘excitement’.
  • Relabel ‘anger’ as ‘passion’ or ’reestablishing boundaries’.
  • Relabel ‘jealousy’ as ‘admiring envy’.
  • Relabel ‘resentment’ as ‘creativity’.
  • Relabel ‘dislike’ as ‘curiousty’.

You can also help your client to access more positive states by building up a vocabulary, and therefore a repertoire, of positive states. I play a game with a colleague of mine whereby the first time we see each other each day, one of us asks, “How are you?” and there other has to respond with a combination of verb+positive-state, “Dancing in delight!”, or “Stepping on sunshine!”. This gets our brain into the habit of labeling positive states more easily.

Courtesy Stuart Miles and


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