I used to feel I had no control over my emotions. Overcome by the strength of feeling, unstoppable tears would roll down my face. At other times, paralysed by fear, I was returned to a helpless, childlike state.
As human beings we like to rationalise our thoughts and to base our actions on reason. For those plagued by anxiety and depression, one of the most distressing and confusing parts can be feeling that you are not in control of your own thinking. Expression of strong emotion can also be frowned upon culturally. Social norms have taught us that crying in public is weak and that getting angry is wrong. Being overly ‘emotional’ is seen as a negative characteristic.
Feeling shame over my childish, emotional outbursts, I began to ask some questions. Could my emotional overreactions be helped? How had emotion taken over my entire thinking? With my therapist, I began to explore the fundamentals of emotion and to see it less as something I needed to control but more as something with a useful purpose.
To understand emotion, we need to look at its origins. I remember my therapist asking me to name what I thought were our ‘basic emotions’. Fundamental, animalistic reactions; try it now.
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Most people start with happy and sad. Some will also think of fear and anger. The others are a little less obvious. There is some variation in which emotions are included in the core list but most commonly, 6 basic emotions are acknowledged:
My therapist asked if I noticed anything about these emotions; I stated that only one seemed to be positive. However, from an evolutionary perspective, each of these emotions is key to survival. Whilst happiness acts as a reward system for activities that keep us alive (eating, reproducing), fear protects us from danger and disgust keeps us away from things that could make us ill (like rotten food). Pretty useful stuff. Still think emotion is bad?
We share these emotions with our mammalian cousins. Each is also linked with a distinctive and universal facial expression, suggesting fundamental and biological differentiation that is more than just linguistic labels.
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So, specific triggers cause specific emotional responses for a purpose. If this is the case, how can emotions become so all over the place? Well, life was simpler back in the jungle and the brain (or should I say brains) is a complex thing.
Brains, plural; three in total, closely linked but distinct. It’s over-simplistic to think of the brain as one organ. As we evolved, more sophisticated structures were built around those already there.
Connected directly to the spinal cord at the brain stem is our most primitive, ‘Reptilian’ brain. This subconscious brain is responsible for our survival and instincts. It keeps us breathing, our hearts beating and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response when faced with a threat. Some situations trigger a reptilian response – it’s quick and it’s powerful. It has to be, the point is to keep us alive! The reptile is an aggressive, dominant beast that attacks fast and is unable to consider consequences. Never fight a crocodile.
The next oldest brain is the Limbic System or ‘Mammalian’ brain. It regulates emotion, memory and learning. It probably evolved to provide balance to the reptilian brain and to further success. Without it, we would still behave territorially and ritualistically, never learning from our mistakes. Associating emotion with events makes them memorable, meaning that mammals can quickly learn to repeat actions that are pleasurable or successful and to avoid things that caused pain, sadness or fear. This part of the brain may be influencing your behaviour more than you would like to think; people tend to act on feelings over logic. The chimp within us is difficult to overpower.
The newest part of the brain, the Neocortex, is the ‘thinking’ brain. It is responsible for higher level processes including language, logic and reasoning and creativity.
I like to think of ‘inappropriate’ displays of emotion (like aggressive or tearful outbursts and avoidant or impulsive behaviours) as a disagreement between our three brains. Our thinking brain is easily overpowered by the brains beneath it. It can think clever things but is a slow running computer in comparison to emotion and instinct. So when faced with danger we rely on impulse to survive. Assisted by learning and memory we can react quickly in a reflex-like manner. During times of perceived threat, your neocortex practically shuts down, meaning that you react automatically. This could save your life. It could also leave you a slave to emotion.
You can see even from this brief explanation how emotion can go wrong. When we feel anxious, the reptilian brain is highly activated and the limbic brain backs up its response with emotion, perhaps linking in memories or creating new ones. The problem is where this anxiety response is out of proportion. Our neocortex has the ability to think logically around the problem and to assess the threat and weigh up options. Unfortunately, when we are really anxious, our thinking brain is impaired and it becomes difficult for it to calm the powerful animal within. Anxiety symptoms may develop and with chronic activation, these may lead into depression.
Our more primitive brains, especially the emotional one, may be naturally more powerful than our thinking brain, but we are still responsible for them. We do have some control over our emotions and we can learn to see threats differently and therefore to change our reactions. I consider an important aspect of any good therapy to be the strengthening of the neocortex. The more we recognise feelings for what they are, the less influence the emotional brain will have over us and the stronger our thinking brain (and ourselves) can become.
In the words of my therapist:
‘It’s not meant to be easy, it’s wonderful evolution!’
Images: heartfulness.be & managementmania.com