Emotional Refractory Period

Have you ever been in a conversation where something a person said to you just threw you off balance? You could possibly not recover from it long enough to respond to the person? If yes, the state into which you went is called an Emotional Refractory Period or ERP, for short.

It is the duration of time when an emotion has gripped you. It shifts your perceptual filters to make you focus only on what conforms with your current emotion. For example, when you fall in love with someone you only see good things in them. Somehow their negatives don’t even exist. Or, when you buy a car and get on the road you tend to notice other people driving the same car wherever you go. This is how our filters shift to take in only what we want to look at. Another common example of this is when we are disappointed with someone. We can go on at length about their negatives and would find it very difficult to come up with even one positive quality of theirs. Almost like they are all bad and no good.

Firstly, we need to understand how our state of mind shifts during an Emotional Refractory Period (ERP). When we are faced with a situation that is emotionally charged (positively or negatively) the first thing that happens is our conscious mind checks out. The reasoning part of us, which accesses our memory and makes logical decisions, leaves. Information that otherwise would have been on our fingertips is suddenly unavailable to us.

Has it ever happened to you that you were in an argument. When you came out of it, suddenly you thought of a smart thing that you could have said and didn’t say?

This is an example of how an ERP works. It shifts your conscious state of mind. It takes away memory access and puts you in a feeling state that could be unresourceful. Knowing all this does not help either. A shift into an ERP doesn’t come with a warning. It’s like falling into an inconspicuous pit. You won’t realise where you are till you are in it.

In an ERP, a person seeks very hard to confirm his belief rather than challenge it. Every thought, every observation of the outside world, every act of others will be interpreted in a way as to confirm the current standpoint. There is no use trying to provide contradictory evidence. It will mean that the person is wrong. The emotional grip of an ERP is so strong that he/she wont be able to handle the thought of being wrong.

Emotions change how we see the world. During a refractory state, we evaluate what is happening in a way that is consistent with the emotion we are feeling, thus justifying and maintaining the emotion.
-Paul Ekman, psychologist

What does one do when in an Emotional Refractory Period?

  1. First, if it’s a negatively charged ERP it’s better to not talk to anyone or take any decisions. These are the things we say or do that we regret later. Take some time off. Once you feel like you have cooled down and can think straight you can go back into evaluating the situation. Meanwhile, it helps to tell others that you will get back to them. Similar care can be taken if the ERP is a positively charged one. Like someone has fallen in love and can’t think of anything or anyone else. It’s better not to take any decisions, like marriage, till the phase wears off (I am hoping this is self-explanatory :-))
  2. It helps to try consciously to fight your perceptual filters and find some evidence to disprove your current belief. If you think someone is wrong, find things that you once found right about him. If you can’t do it on your own you can take the help of a trusted friend or therapist to challenge your beliefs.
  3. Work on breathing, meditating, walking or any other activity that will de-stress you. It important to control the duration of an ERP. One that lasts for a few minutes is harmless but when it becomes prolonged it can lead to distortions in our thinking that could damage our future beyond repair.

What sends us into an ERP?

Our past experiences create triggers for us which send us into these emotional refractory states. So, our reaction in the present is largely governed by unresolved feelings from the past.

Scripts imported from the past distort reality and lengthen the refractory period.

After effects of an ERP

When an ERP stretches beyond a few hours or days something strange happens. The more amount of time you spend in the grip of an emotion the further you go away from the way things really are. For instance, if a person gets distressed and remains in refraction for a few days his thinking is most likely to be distorted permanently. He will think of the initiating event in a light that only makes others look far better or worse than they actually are and create a twist on what happened to confirm the way he is feeling. This condition only gets worse with time. It’s in our best interest to work on the feeling right away.

People with prolonged ERPs could end with distorted world-views that are seldom useful to them

Next time you get upset with someone and wonder why you couldn't respond appropriately, don’t blame yourself. Most people in an ERP are not able to. Support yourself through the phase and you will come out feeling much better about yourself. Also, if someone is mad at you it helps to wait it out. At least till the ERP has worn off otherwise everything you say could put the person back into the original state. Understanding ERPs helps in emotional state management (ours and others).

(for more information on Emotional Refractory Period please read the book, ‘Emotions Revealed’ by Paul Ekman, an eminent psychologist and an expert on decoding body language)