Understanding emotions

When we think about how trauma effects the brain, we don’t necessarily think about emotions. We tend to associate emotions with the heart. Certainly we feel emotions in our hearts. But we also feel them in our skin, hair, lungs, muscles, gut, and throughout the rest of our bodies.

Even though we feel emotions all over our body, and despite phrases like “heartbroken,” and “butterflies,” emotions actually start in the brain. Our brains are the mainframe computer that controls everything – every itch, every sensation, every impulse.

Our brains take in everything we see, hear, smell, taste, and feel, process it, and give instructions for how to react. Our brains learn from every single experience. Until a child is stung by a bee, or watches an adult swat at bees, and child doesn’t know that it’s a threat, because a bee is a new thing to their brain. But we are smart. One experience is all our brains need to form an opinion and generate a response that lasts the rest of our lives.

In this third session in our series on how trauma effects the brain, we will learn the relationship between emotions and our brains, and what our brain is trying to communicate with us through our emotions.

What is the purpose of emotions?

Emotions are the brain’s dashboard. Our brains react to stimuli, and generate an emotional response to signal to us how to respond. If we are being chased by a bear, our brains generate fear, which activates our fight, flight, or freeze response, which (in theory) helps us respond appropriately to the threat.

Unfortunately, humankind has developed the misconception that our emotions are in charge. Over many centuries, this misconception has given emotions far too much power over our lives. Rather than informing our choices, we let emotions run the show.

Each generation passes on these poor coping skills to the next. A child who grows up watching adults throw things and punch walls when they feel angry believes that is how you handle anger. A child who is taught to envy the belongings of others grows up never being satisfied with what they have.

We feel an emotion and react in the way we’ve been taught is appropriate by culture, when in fact, when a feeling arises, we should look at it as a resource, asking ourselves, “Hmmm… My brain is signaling that I should feel fear right now. I wonder why?”  

Or, we suppress the feeling all together because culture has taught us that big feelings are bad.

When we fail to take action when we feel an emotion, we are communicating to our brain to ignore this feeling, not just in this instance, but always. If sadness is ignored or ridiculed as weakness, a child will not know how to cope with or grieve any loss.

Emotions are only an indicator of the world around us.

We say things like, “Overcome with sadness,” or “Insane with rage.” But the truth is, our feelings are signals sent by our nervous system to inform our choices.

Imagine the check engine light came on in your car’s dashboard. Would you crash your car into a tree and leave it for scrap? Would you just ignore it and then be stunned when you stalled out on the highway?

Of course not! You’d wonder, “Hmmm… What’s wrong with my car?” Then you’d explore and fix the problem so you could get back on the road. It’s the same with emotions. When anger flares a warning, our brain is telling us that something isn’t right that needs to be considered and resolved so we can get back to the business of doing life.

Reading the signals.

So what are your emotions trying to tell you? Every emotion has a job. Let’s break it down:

When an important connection is lost, such as a death or a breakup, our brain sends us a warning in the form of sadness that something we had come to depend on is no longer there.

When someone has wronged us or someone else, our brain sends us a warning that we need to protect ourselves and others in the form of anger.

When there is danger present, fear provides a warning.

Jealousy is our brain telling us that it wants something it doesn’t have.

Joy is telling us it is safe to proceed.

Action is required.

Just as the indicator lights on the dashboard of a car are meant to inform your action, our emotions are meant to provide useful information so we can make an educated choice. But ultimately, it is us who must choose the action we will take.

When your car tells you that you are low on gas, your gas tank does not take over driving for you. You go to the gas station and fill your tank. You take action. It is the same for emotions. When you hand over your actions to your anger or sadness or joy, you are giving your emotions a job they were not designed for.

On the flip side, if you ignore that warning light and continue driving until your tank is dry, your car stops moving. When you ignore the messages sent by your emotions, things in your life stop working.

Acknowledge first, then action.

In order to work properly, our brains need acknowledgement of the emotion followed by action. Here are some ways you can begin to take your power back from your emotions:

Recognize the grief over the loss (acknowledge), then reframe with resilience (take action).

Start with something small – like a disappointing change of plans. “It’s raining and I can’t go to the park. That’s disappointing because I was really looking forward to the park. But it’s okay, because I have lots of fun things I can do inside instead.”

Recognize the anger (acknowledge) and set boundaries (take action).

Speak your anger and then outline reasonable expectations based on the circumstances. “I’m angry that you are always late. Because you haven’t respected my time, I’m not going to meet you for lunch anymore.” Then, maintain your boundary. If you set a boundary but neglect to maintain it, you are not providing the brain with the action it requires to properly regulate. If circumstances change, acknowledge it out loud, and create a new boundary.

Name your interest or desire (acknowledge) and work for it (take action).

“My friend’s chocolate chip cookies look delicious. I will make my own chocolate chip cookies.” Then, make the cookies! Again, if you say it, but don’t follow through with action, your brain gets stuck.

Speak what you enjoy (acknowledge) and express it safely (take action).

Respond according to the circumstances, depending on what is respectful to those around you. If you are at a street fair with lots of open space, you might say: “I love this song! Let’s dance!” If you are in line at the grocery store you might say, “I love this song!” Then do a little shoulder shimmy that provides enough action to satisfy your brain without banging into everyone else in line.

Getting stuck

You’ve heard people say, “I just feel stuck.” Perhaps you’ve even felt this yourself. But few of us realize just how accurate that really is. Your brain is literally stuck. Just like a warning indicator on the dash of a car gets stuck, so too does your brain get stuck on an old warning.

Your brain can get stuck on or off. Two ways our brains get stuck are dysregulation and disassociation – your brain is not in a regulated or balanced state. This leads to confusion, irritation, or apathy. A commonly used term for this state is triggered.

Getting stuck on.

When a light in your dash gets stuck on, we no longer trust what it is designed to warn us against. We might not get our engine checked when it really needs it because the “check engine” light is always lit, or we might get a flat tire because the warning light never shuts off. At the same time, we are always a little on edge, always wondering… “What if?…” What if this time is the time my car will actually stop running? What if I actually get a flat tire this time?

When an emotion gets stuck on, we no longer trust what it is trying to tell us. We may feel anxious and distrustful, depressed, indecisive and constantly fearful. Or we may become jaded and cynical, thinking nothing in life ever works out. The flip side of this is when joy gets stuck on, usually when someone gets the impression that emotions such as anger and sadness are “bad” or “wrong.”

Personality types of emotions stuck on: Melancholy (Eeyore the Donkey in Whinny the Pooh), Sadist (Wednesday Addams), Fearful (Piglet), Neurotic (Monica on Friends), Cynical (Squidward), Rage Monster (Gaston from Beauty and the Beast), Ultra-Cheerful (Elle Woods)

Getting stuck off.

When we learn to ignore our emotions, they get stuck in the off position. This presents with a feeling of numbness, a void of all emotion. It can also show up in extreme naivete, falling victim to every con artist, liar, and scam that comes their way. Why? Because the emotions – the warning signals sent by the brain – are shut off.

Personality types of emotions stuck off: Unfazed (Stanley on the American version of The Office), Naïve (Pollyanna, Princess Anna in Frozen), Loser Magnet (Bridget Jones).

The good news.

This all sounds like a lot. And it is a lot. The good news is, if our brain can get stuck, it can also get unstuck. There are so many ways that we can provide new instructions to our brains. Next week we will explore ways to process trauma through and out of our nervous system, so we can live a more balanced, happy life.

Learn more...

To learn more about the Redefining Love Way, I encourage you to browse the site. Have questions? Feel free to email me at sara@sarabethwald.com, or schedule a free discovery call. 

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

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