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Where Did That Come From?

Monday, July 12th, 2021

by Douglas L. Anderson, PsyD.


You have had this experience.  I have had this experience.  We suddenly react in an unusual way to a stressful or difficult situation or relationship.  Maybe we get surprisingly angry or suddenly extremely anxious and fearful, and words come out of our mouths as if controlled by some other source.  And we say to ourselves, “Where did that come from?”  

The psychological explanation is actually quite simple, although the process of addressing these issues can be quite challenging.

We have what I describe as an underground aquifer of affect always running just below the surface.  That is, we have all sorts of moments in our past that have deep emotions attached to them.  Although those past moments are indeed in the past, the emotions that were attached to those moments remain present for us.  They are outside of our awareness, however.  They remain tucked away in our “aquifer of affect.”  It’s like an underground river that is always flowing deep within us, and that sometimes gets tapped into or triggered by current events, current moments, current experiences in our lives.  

Betsy was having a fine day.  She was working on an important project and she sent a draft of her report to her boss early in the day.  Just before lunch her boss stopped by her office and showed her a mistake she had made in her report.  One mistake in a seven page report, but the boss said nothing about the many good and useful parts of the report.  Even though it was an initial draft, Betsy folded up internally.  She felt suddenly anxious and vulnerable, and she spent her lunch hour sitting in her car weeping.

This surprised her.  She didn’t understand why this particular moment was so difficult for her and why she was weeping and feeling anxious and afraid.  She was self aware enough to recognize that this experience was rather common in her life, and she decided to step into a relationship with a psychotherapist who could help her explore these unexpected and rather uncomfortable emotional surges.

In therapy she began to uncover past painful experiences that she had never worked through  before.  Over time she began to better understand how the emotions connected to those past experiences remained present and active just under the surface, and how current experiences sometimes seemed to reach down into her underground aquifer of affect and pull painful emotions to the surface unexpectedly.  This helped her immensely over time.  The frequency of painful emotions being triggered went down.  The intensity of her reactions lessened significantly.  And recovery from those moments often took only minutes instead of days or hours.

We all have moments when our own behaviors and reactions surprise us.  But if it happens quite commonly in your life, consider reaching out to a therapist who can walk with you as you explore your own history and gain a deeper awareness of what makes you tick and what triggers your reactions.  

We all need healthy relationships where we can fully trust and confide in someone else.  Sometimes a good therapist is exactly what you need.  If you want to explore your history in more detail , consider a therapist at River Counseling Services and Sioux Falls Psychological Services where we meet you where you are, offering hope.  You may schedule an appointment with the Platte office at 605-337-3444, or meet with one of our Sioux Falls Psychological Services therapists from your own computer or smartphone.  To schedule an appointment please call 605-334-2696.