Emotions are the brain’s dashboard

Strong emotions aren’t the bad guy. We all have them, and they serve an important purpose. All of our emotions, including those considered “negative,” are there to communicate messages we need about the world.

Emotions are our nervous system’s way of telling our bodies how to react. Joy tells us that this is a circumstance where we can feel safe. Excitement tells us that we are safe, but we also need to be alert.

Fear is a warning that there is danger present. Guilt is a warning that we may need to change our behavior. Anger is a warning that it’s time to set some healthy boundaries. Sadness is a warning that something in our world has irreparably changed.

Emotions are not “bad” or “good.”

Emotions just are. They serve a purpose. It is our culture that categorizes emotions as bad or good, positive or negative. Big feelings are very useful tools to help us navigate life. But when they malfunction, they can diminish our quality of life by generating shame, bitterness, anxiety, and depression.

Our nervous system is a complex computer.

The human nervous system uses energy and electrical currents to communicate with the rest of our body’s system, similar to how the electrical system in a car communicates messages to the rest of the machine.

And just like a car, sometimes maintenance is required. When we experience trauma or long periods of stress, our body’s internal communication system gets stuck. I look at it like a car’s dashboard.

Have you ever had a warning light in your dashboard malfunction? It stays on all the time, even when there’s nothing actually wrong with your car. It’s not that the warning light is a bad thing. It’s there to warn us, and keep us safe. Most of us don’t have the knowledge necessary to fix it ourselves. So we take our car to a mechanic, who will reset the system.

What causes our brain’s dashboard to malfunction?

Our brains are made up of an intricate system of nerves and tissue that all work together to keep our bodies moving, our emotions regulated, and our soul aligned. Just like a computer, if even one circuit is blown, or one wire is crossed, it can affect the functioning of the whole machine.

Big experiences, particularly negative ones, can sometimes cause our nervous system to short-circuit. We call this trauma. This response can come in many forms – big traumas, small traumas, one-time traumas, ongoing traumas.

Like everything else, trauma is relative.

Why do siblings who grow up in the same house have different memories of the same event?

Why do some soldiers from the same unit suffer from PTSD, while others appear to integrate back into civilian life with ease?

Why does one witness to the same violent crime go on with life as usual, but the other is plagued by nightmares?

We are all born with our own distinct temperament, strengths, weaknesses, moods, and personalities. We’ll call this your “default” or “factory settings.”

Everything that we experience from the moment we are born are downloads that fundamentally change the way our nervous system processes information and communicates with our bodies.

Since every one of us has a unique lived experience – what country you’re born in, what religion your family practices, your socioeconomic circumstances, nutrition, birth order, rural versus urban, etc. – it makes sense that every individual comes to react differently to external stimuli.

Every nervous system is unique.

And thus, everyone is going to react to trauma differently. An incident that wreaks havoc on one brain might not affect another brain much at all. (And of course, we know that just because someone seems to “have it all together,” it’s quite possible that they are suffering silently.)

This is why it is so crucial that we not compare our own reactions to life’s hardships with someone else’s.

You’re not “crazy.”

We are only in the very early stages of understanding the human nervous system. The human brain, and how it relates to the rest of our body, is still in many ways a mystery. The more we learn, the better equipped we become at healing from trauma.

We don’t know much, but we do know that much of what our culture has dismissed as “crazy” or “antisocial” is actually that individual’s response to trauma. This is huge, because it allows us to give grace and offer support, rather than push trauma survivors to the outer rims of society with institutionalization, isolation, and incarceration.

We still have a long way to go in this area, but it’s heartening to see a shift away from condemnation of mental health struggles towards a more inclusive perspective of healing and support.

We are living in an exciting time.

Neurologists are finding ever increasing ways to heal our brains from trauma. There are so many more tools in the healing toolbox than there used to be.

As a culture, we are finally starting to accept that mental health maintenance is as important as physical health. If one healing modality doesn’t work for you, don’t give up! It may be that there’s another option that could help. And just because something worked fantastic for one person doesn’t mean it’s the right method for you. Remember – every nervous system is unique.

Timing is everything.

It’s important to find the right sources to help heal your trauma. If you try to tighten a flathead screwdriver with a Phillips, you’ll quickly get frustrated and exhausted, and you’ll still have a screw loose.

When I look back at my own healing journey, I can see how different therapists and different modalities helped me at different times.

When I first started in therapy in the middle of a contentious divorce, I needed practical, immediate solutions to a very high-stress situation, and I needed an objective person to offer perspective to help me manage fear and stress.

Once the divorce was finalized and my life had resumed a predictable rhythm, I needed to dig in and figure out the why and how of the first 30 years of my life. How on earth did I screw everything up, and why did I allow myself to be treated so badly? It took many years to find those answers.

Once I understood the why and how, it was time to apply what I’d learned and create a healthier new reality.

I've had four therapists who served four very different purposes.

The first was a hard-nosed, plain-spoken realist who could objectively help me deal with the unraveling of what had been my reality for 30 years. It was incredibly terrifying to realize that my entire life had been a fabrication. It was a little like stepping into the Matrix, and without help and support, it would have been impossible to get my bearings.

My first therapist was the one who pointed out that my dashboard was broken.

My second therapist was a soft-spoken, introspective woman who walked me through the hard questions. She was trained in diagnoses and healing modalities, and knew how to hold space for me to process all the big feelings that accompany facing hard truths. This was a lengthy, arduous process. I saw her for eight years.

My second therapist was the one who pulled off the dash face, fiddled around, and diagnosed what was wrong with my warning light.

The third therapist was practical and matter-of-fact. I was ready to set boundaries, but I needed an objective outside source to reinforce my new reality and hold me accountable when I slipped into old, unhealthy patterns. She gently eased me out of my comfort zone without pushing too hard or too fast.

The third was the one who reconnected the wires and got my warning light working properly again.

I am still actively in therapy with the fourth. Now that I’ve had healthy boundaries in place for a few years, I’m ready to grow beyond mere emotional maintenance and create a new, joyful, empowered reality that is entirely my own.

My current therapist is teaching me how to trust my brain’s dashboard. After a lifetime of second-guessing myself, it’s time to realize that I’m a well-oiled machine, capable of great things.

How do you know what you need and when?

It can be overwhelming to try to find the help and support you need to heal your trauma. Because every individual is unique, there is no hard and fast guide to finding the right therapist or coach. This is why community is so important.

Surround yourself with healthy, growth-minded people. You can’t grow in the same toxic soil that poisoned you.

In my experience, and in what I’ve seen in others, once you step outside of the toxic cycle and begin making relationships with others who are focused on healing and growth, the right people start flooding your life.

Don’t do it alone!

Trauma survivors learn early on that trusting people can be dangerous. The trouble with this is, we need community to survive. Humans were not meant to live in isolation. We are pack animals. We are tribal. We need others to rely on in order to survive.

However, if our tribe is toxic, it’s time to find a new one. The only thing you need to do at first is begin asking for help. 

This doesn’t mean you have to cut all your current people out of your life. (Maybe that will be a part of your healing journey, but also maybe not.) But if everyone in your life is telling you you’re crazy, that it’s all in your head, that it’s all your fault, or “you brought this on yourself,” and not offering any tangible ways to change and heal, then it’s time to ask for help outside your tribe.

One step at a time.

You don’t have to have all the answers. Author Glennon Doyle says, “Just do the next right thing.” One moment, one decision, one step at a time is all it takes. You can do this. Your tribe will help.

If you aren’t sure where to start, email me at sara@sarabethwald.com. I’m happy to help point you in the right direction. There’s no charge for first consultations. My goal is to help you find your people. It might be me and the Redefining Love Community. But it might not, and that’s okay.

For more information on how to join the Redefining Love Community, please visit redefine-love.com/coaching.

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