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Secondary Emotions

Regardless of your occupation,

self-regulation is a key component of resilience and performance under stress. 


Self-regulation has an immediate effect, in that it helps you direct your cognitive function and make better decisions in difficult situations. 

In the medium-term, it helps to modulate circadian rhythms, prevent burnout, and manage energy and recovery. 

And, in the long-term it helps to build beneficial secondary emotions so that we have strong, adaptive, reflexive behaviors in the future. 

Our decision-making is strongly influenced by our emotions, including secondary emotions.

Secondary emotions are what we feel in response to other emotions, and they can be much more complex than being happy or sad. They’re more like the subconscious internal drives that pull us or push us around. Those internet memes that start with “That feeling when…” are describing secondary emotions. 

When our secondary emotions work out well, we call them instincts. When they cause us to do stupid things, we shrug and say “I was in a weird place I guess” or “It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”

The survival expert Laurance Gonzales writes about the role of secondary emotions in high-stakes situations.

In one example, a fighter pilot was coming in for a landing on an aircraft carrier, and he was too slow and too low. Everyone on the flight deck signaled him to pull up, go around, and come in again. He ignored them and fixated on the deck and landing his jet. He crashed into the end of the carrier, tearing his plane in half and instantly killing his co-pilot.

The pilot was being driven by a well-developed secondary emotion – that the deck of the carrier meant safety. In an intensely dangerous moment, his ability to reappraise the rapidly changing situation was impaired and he reverted to what had worked for him in the past and what he had emotionally associated with safety and the resolution of danger: getting the plane on the ground. The pull of that emotion was so powerful that he couldn’t resist it, even when his circumstances at the time made it an inappropriate, dangerous impulse. The pilot was mentally tough” and fixated on his goal, but was incapable of updating his mental map in response to a rapidly changing situational territory. 

Secondary emotions aren’t always dangerous. In many cases, they’re the instinctive reflexes or drives that keep us alive and moving forward toward our goals in moments when we may have limited information and have to make quick decisions under a lot of stress.

For this Sherpa, the secondary emotion that underpinned his capacity to carry massive amounts of weight up Himalayan trails was the association between his hard work and the satisfaction of ensuring his family’s wellbeing.

For Demetrious Johnson, it was knowing that pushing through the daily grind of training for years while holding down another job to pay the bills was the path to success. He took pride in that struggle. Every step of it put him further down the path to becoming a world champion. 

Brad Overstreet, the freediver, has developed the reflexive instinct that the first step in any process that happens under the water is to self-regulate and quell any urge to panic. Brad clears his mind and instantly shuts down his stress response in order to think calmly and rationally in the same way the rest of us pull our hand back from a hot stove.

Like any other skill, shaping the development of our secondary emotions is not magic. There is a sequential, knowable process by which it occurs. 

The primary means through which you learn self-regulation and shape your secondary emotions is by using stress inoculation as your framework. 

Stress inoculation somewhat mirrors the stages of motor learning, and has several goals:

  • to help people recognize and understand their own natural stress responses;
  • to help them learn to control these responses when they emerge;
  • to gradually increase the level of difficulty and challenge; and
  • to do this in a controlled, relatively safe training environment before exposing students to real-life, more threatening situations. 

You do this while keeping these criteria in mind:

  • People must learn and become familiar with the stressors that could be part of a given situation, such as the mental and physical impacts of extreme fatigue.
  • Those stressors must be progressive and cumulative — difficult enough to challenge the student, but not overwhelming.
  • Each stage of training should prevent or manage the build-up of anxiety.
  • Each training activity should develop the required technical skills (such as movement quality and positioning or control of stress responses) and not interfere with the development of those skills

Think of a common situation in your life in which you regularly make rapid, subconscious decisions, especially if those decisions are made under pressure or fatigue. 

This could be almost anything, such as:

  • The toughest moment of a workout when you choose to either push harder through discomfort or fade back and go through the motions just enough to finish
  • A difficult moment at work when you have so many projects to complete that you want to say “screw it” and let them all fall by the wayside
  • When you arrive home late after a long day and realize you don’t have anything ready to go for dinner

In these moments, what do you feel impelled to do? In what direction do your secondary emotions start to nudge you? 

The decisions we make in these moments add up and have a strong influence over the course of our lives. And those decisions are driven by our secondary emotions. 

Remember here the concept of self-herding: Our decisions don’t just reveal our preferences. They also shape them. If we use self-regulation in a difficult moment to better focus ourselves and make better decisions we can, over time, shape our secondary emotions to make that decision our default impulse.  

To do this, look at your decision-making in the personal situation of your choosing. 

Ask yourself:

  1. What is my natural stress response here? 
  2. What emotional drive is triggered by that stress response?
  3. Does that emotional drive push me toward doing what supports my long-term goals and the person I want to be? 
  4. If not, how can I improve it? 

From here, every time you’re in this situation you have an opportunity to practice. You can’t directly control your emotions, but you can control your stress response by focusing inward and paying attention to the factors that are under your control such as your breathing and your thoughts. 

Your most effective lever for change here is often in your thoughts and beliefs that underpin an emotion. Your next steps are:

  1. Use the ABC drill to help identify those thought patterns and redirect them. 
  2. Then use the 3R drill to help you practice a more effective response in the future. 

When you’re next in this situation, run through this quick sequence:

  1. Identify your stress response – What are you feeling, what is your body doing, and what is happening in your mind? 
  2. Use a specific skill to regulate your stress response (start with controlling your breathing, with a focus on deep, slow exhales, and then see here for mental skills to apply)
  3. Identify the secondary emotion triggered by this situation + your stress response – What do your impulses drive you to do at this moment? 
  4. Work to execute the desired response that you mentally rehearsed in the 3R drill previously. 

Once the moment has passed and you’ve got some perspective, your final step is to run a feedback loop:

  1. Ask yourself how it went, how well you were able to regulate your stress response, and how effectively you were able to act in the way you had planned for. Remember that we learn by making and correcting errors at the edge of our ability, so look for mistakes and places to improve. Refer back to the principles of SIT and keep in mind that you may have to adjust the intensity of the situation to keep yourself just on the edge of your ability where success is challenging but possible. 

Thoughts make feelings, so by regulating our stress response well enough to gain control of our thoughts, we’re able to steer the direction of our emotions and our decision-making. With practice repetitions, this helps to reinforce more effective secondary emotional drives so that when we’re tired, overwhelmed, or under intense pressure, the urge that wells up in our minds pushes us toward the decisions that align with our values and goals. 

Want to learn more? Download a free chapter from our book, Building the Elite:

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2 thoughts on “Secondary Emotions”

  1. Awesome guidance – Hey OAFnation seems to have been taken over by crack-addled monkeys, and it’s impossible to find your articles, specifically ABC and 3R drills, on their site any more.
    Any other way to access them?

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