Hill (2015) writes: “Affect is at the core of our being, a measure of our heart. It excites and deflates us, connects and distances our relations with others. It organises and undoes us”. When affect is regulated we are at our best – adaptive, engaged and self-possessed. In the regulated state we are alert and all our psychological resources are available to us. Attention goes where it needs to go, we have the capacity to reflect and a background sense of self-mastery. Authenticity, presence, agency and well-being characterise our experience. We are available for interpersonal connection and for play and exploration. There is a feeling of goodness. When we feel safe, we are regulated. We are flexible and can respond adaptively to the demands of the environment and our own needs. Being regulated means being in homeostasis and functioning optimally.
Primary affect is “the somatic representation of the state of the organism – a sensorimotor, physiological representation that generates a felt sense” (Hill, 2015, p5). There are two aspects to affect – arousal and hedonic tone (pleasure or displeasure). “Primary affect is fundamental: the nonverbal representation of the state of the body”. Categorical affects, by contrast, are what we usually refer to as an emotion (anger, fear, sadness etc.). These may be evaluations of primary affects in different contexts. A somatic experience becomes a cognitive-affective experience. Finally, writes Hill: “Affect is the conscious or nonconscious registration of the ebbs and flows of energy infusing the organism- an expression of the body read by the mind” (p6).
The limbic system is mapping the state of our organs on an on-going basis. It registers the status of the heart (central to affect), the digestive system, the lungs etc. Affect is information from the soma that signals the level of arousal of vital organs. It is the physiological experience of what is happening in our autonomic nervous system and vital organs. It has two dimensions: hyper and hypoarousal and positive and negative hedonic tone. Regulating affect is regulating the body.
Categorical affects (explicit or discrete affects) are primary affects that have been subjected to higher level cognitive appraisal (Hill, 2015). It is making the nonmental mental. A physiological experience migrates to a word in the mind. Primary affect is processed and regulated in the right brain nonverbally. With categorical affects right and left brains work together to make something intelligible out of a somatic experience. Affect creates our relationship to the object, including its meaning for us. Primary affect does this in a primitive way knowing whether it is positive or negative, whether to approach or avoid.
Mentalization allows the subjective meaning of the object to be known with greater precision. Through this process the object relationship is gotten right in the secondary, verbal processing of affect. The mentalizing system regulates affect by identifying it initially which provides a ‘cognitive grasp’ that can help contain the intensity and bring the experience into focus. Naming the affect can give a sense of relief. After this elaboration takes place when the initial take undergoes (re)evaluation. We fine-tune the meaning of affect. This requires focusing of attention on the affect and imagination to do the cognitive appraisal. Elaboration regulates affect by changing the meaning. Mentalisation involves the thinking through of feeling while the affect is live. The left brain is fed affects processed previously by the right and makes further sense of it using reflective-verbal processes so good hemispheric integration is required to think about feeling and feel about thinking. When left brain cognition is fused with felt affect that we create cognitive-affective blends of thoughts about emotions, emotions about thoughts, emotions about emotions.
There is a close relationship between mentalisation and agency. A sense of mastery emerges from mentalising affect (from both primary affect regulation and secondary affect-regulating). The sense of responsibility builds with the capacity to refine meaning which adjust arousal and modifies the tone of affect. The affect and the object relations it determines are woven into a coherent narrative. Reflective processes are deactivated in dysregulated states and in dysregulated-dissociation the affect is not available for conscious processing. Mentalization is too slow for real time events but allows us to reflect on what did happen and what might happen. The multiple assessments available allow us to correct or confirm reactions of the primary system and gain a more nuanced understanding. They provide more flexibility, complexity and stability. The primary system regulates affect from the bottom-up, like in other mammals. The secondary, top-down process has been referred to by Fonagy as our highest achievement. However, the secondary system depends on the primary system for its functioning.
Hill, D. (2015). Affect regulation theory: A clinical model. W. W. Norton & Company.