The Affective system works at two levels – the active processing of our experience – the emotional charge, in the moment, and the background of emotional tone through which we experience things – the mood state.
The Affective system puts a positive or negative charge on incoming information and outgoing responses. This charge motivates attention and behavior. Whatever has the strongest net charge, positive or negative, is what happens. If it’s incoming information, we either attend to it or ignore it. If it’s a response, with either initiate it or inhibit it. Without a charge, we don’t do anything. If an event in the environment (the outer world, or the inner world, our mind – a thought, or body) has no emotional significance at all, we do not notice it, and we do not respond to it.
Many times, events are familiar, and they have an emotional charge already attached to them, through memory of our prior experience. The event is stamped with the charge. Sometimes it is a very powerful charge, such as when we have a fear of something, or even a phobia. We may have a scary experience, and that negative charge gets generalized to similar events that we encounter in the future. Similarly, things get stamped with a strong positive charge – we love donuts, for example. In addition, some substance becomes so positively charged that it overrides everything else we experience – food, relationships, safety, and destroys our life.
We often need to reprogram this stamped emotional charge because it is not real, not current. We may have been afraid of the dark when we were little, but as we get older we feel more comfortable, we know that everything is still there even though we can’t see it, and nothing scary that wasn’t there in the light has suddenly materialized. So hopefully, we learn and we grow and we change our understanding of things, and this changes our emotional reaction to things. And hopefully, we can reduce our negative emotions – our fear and our anger, and increase our positive ones, fine-tuning them so that they are associated with experiences that are also healthy for us.
The other element of the Affective system is mood state. A mood state is a more pervasive emotional charge that results from our internal, body processes rather than from our sensory or cognitive experience (thoughts and memories). It is a neurochemical state that is influence by our immune system (inflammation), our endocrine (hormones) system, our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), and so on. We all have experienced fluctuations in mood state – sometimes we are very positive about things, sometimes gloomy, sometimes irritable – everything annoys us, we’re cranky, or we’re angry – we want to break something. These states can be triggered by something – something sends us into a mood, but often it arises on its own, and we are stuck in it.
A mood state is like a filter through which we see things, and we cannot see them clearly. The filter distorts things, because it filters out some of the information we would otherwise have access to about the event or the situation. For example, in a depressed mood state, there is no positive charge on anything. There is no hopefulness, there is no pleasure, and there is no motivation to do what we need to do. It is very hard to do anything, plan anything, decide on anything, in a depressed mood. In an angry or irritable mood state, everyone is annoying or stupid or mean, and everything they do is wrong, and all of our distress is their fault. In an excited mood state we may think something is a fabulous idea, even though it carries significant risk.
In a balanced mood state, we can see things more clearly. We can see the nuances, the different facets of things. While we may have decided yesterday that our job or our relationship was intolerable, today we can see that it has some good points along with it’s challenges. Today we may see that great idea or opportunity may not be as good as it seemed.
Our vulnerability to mood states is partly hard-wired, or genetic, and partly the results of our early experience. Some of us are subject to powerful emotional storms, dark mood states that blow in and stay, clouding our perceptions and poisoning our thoughts. Others are more prone to anxious mood states, a general sense of worry that hovers over us, making us doubt ourselves, our actions and our choices.
Some of us feel emotions very powerfully, both positive and negative, while others have less of an emotional response to things. It is possible to be deeply emotional without being subject to mood states, but it may take a bit more work, a bit more learning and practice, to sail smoothly through the storm.