Understand your “emotional brain”

emotional brain

Shame prevents people from obtaining the help they need in what concerns mental health. Nobody is ashamed of having cancer, diabetes or cardiac diseases: Nobody should be ashamed of having depression, anxiety, bipolar or other cerebral problems.

If we see it as a medical problem, the stigma, shame e guilt will lose their power and can be replaced with compassion and hope.

The thing here is that the brain is a very complex organ. It cannot be repaired by a single or even a set of medications.

The neuro-connections in our brain result from years of experiences, conditioning, habits, physical problems, biochemistry, genetics, traumatic events, family interactions, intimate relationships, teachers, friends, the place you live in, the culture you were born in, and the toxins you were exposed to.

It is not an organ like any other and the problems we face are not like any other. To treat the brain, we need to consider the person’s experiences, life context, and history above and behind the diagnosis of “diseases”.

Our brain is sensitive, delicate and extraordinarily fragile. The fact that we are able to evolve in a world that is sometimes hostile and not very understanding in relation to our needs is due to a vast number of automatic mechanisms – mechanisms created particularly in order to allow us to survive on an enormous diversity of hazards in the environment, caring for and restoring health when illness and physical disabilities threaten us and learning from our experiences in order to improve our ability to survive.

The brain contains millions and millions of cells. Each of these cells has something like five million links to neighbouring cells. Every minute, every hour, every day, these cells and connections are busily picking up information. Information never ceases to arrive. Even when we are sleeping, continuous traffic of news rushes to the brain.

The Triune Brain

Our brain can, in a very simplistic way, be divided into three main parts:

The Brainstem and cerebellum have a critical role in regulating certain involuntary actions of the body, including heartbeat, breathing, blinking, etc. It’s our basic functions brain.

The Limbic System deals with emotions and memory. It regulates the nervous system and the release of hormones in response to emotional stimuli and also is involved in reinforcing behaviour, especially when it comes to behaviours we need for survival. The limbic system helps the body respond to intense emotions of fear and anger by activating the fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s our emotional brain.

The Neocortex is the centre for higher brain functions, such as perception, decision-making, and language. It is the source of our highly developed cognitive functions and enables us to rationalize, observe ourselves, have creative thinking and verbally communicate. It’s our rational brain.

The triune brain
The Triune Brain (Paul Maclean)

In reality, these regions are interdependent and the brain networks work together; instead of purely “emotional circuits” or “cognitive circuits,” the brain uses interconnected networks to optimize the maintenance of the body’s internal state, emotion, and cognition to adapt to continuously changing needs.

Pattern Matching and Meaning

When you experience anything in life, your brain tries to make sense of it by matching it to something similar in the past, to give you the right emotional response, and we call this a “pattern match“.

Aiming for stability through change the brain is hardwired to predict future needs and conditions, emphasising our ability to anticipate and adapt to diverse environmental forces to balance internal needs and external demands. The brain is continuously evaluating our internal and external environments based on previous experience, predicts what is likely to occur, and then determines the best course of action based on this available data.

As the predicted needs of the moment demand, the brain can then quickly reorient its attention between internally and externally directed activities. For example, the interoceptive system informs the response to hunger, temperature, illness, or serum sodium concentration. Through the exteroceptive system, we know if there is food available (an opportunity) or if a predator is looking at us as food (a threat). If we become aware that food is available through our exteroceptive systems, we can put our energy into obtaining that food to meet an existing or predicted internal need. If a predator threatens to eat us, however, we will deprioritize our need to eat and instead focus our energy on fight or flight. Our ability to respond to and coordinate, attention to external vs. internal stimuli is crucial to survival [1]

The brain needs to select what is important and what needs to be ignored, otherwise, we would be overwhelmed by divergent communication and opposite instructions.  But how does the brain know what to retain and what to ignore?

As soon as sensory input comes into your brain, it’s interpreted. You assign a meaning to it.

This is really important because this happens so fast that you aren’t even aware of it. The interesting thing is that as soon as meaning is assigned, you have an emotion. You create a feeling about it.

In the morning, when you wake up, you might think, “It’s going to be a crappy day . . . There’s going to be traffic . . . Doesn’t anybody else take the rubbish out?”

Sounds familiar?

Or, if you’re as lucky as I am to be happily married, it might even be “Good morning, handsome! What’s your plan for today?”

Bottom line? Whatever the stimulus is, you will give it meaning, you will have an emotion, and those emotions generate your reactions and your reactions generate your results. So, stimulus to meaning . . . meaning to emotion . . . emotion to action… action to results.

This whole cycle happens in an instant. It happens millions of times every day, and almost always without our awareness.

That’s the way it happens for most people. This is where the ability to slow down your thoughts will actually allow you to think more effectively, and to choose better responses.

The ability to observe yourself is the most important skill you will ever acquire.

Remember, the tricky part is that we’re usually only aware of the first stimulus and then the emotion; the meaning is typically out of our awareness.

Try on the following statements: “I feel great when I’m around you.” “He made me mad.” “That customer ruined my whole day.” Despite how these emotions are stated, the real author of our feelings is NOT that other person. The real author of our feelings is the meaning we make out of whatever caught our attention.

Many times, our pattern match is ‘faulty’. We link certain meanings and states to certain unrelated events.

Examples of faulty pattern matches include phobias or smoking and panic attacks. The wrong emotional response is wheeled out to a certain stimulus. So, the smoker may pattern match having a coffee to smoking, for example; there’s no logical connection, but the faulty link has been programmed into the smoker’s mind. And the phobic may pattern match the sight of a crowd to having an automatic panic attack, and this is a faulty link, it’s a faulty pattern match, and it’s the heart of all psychological problems.

We also need to be able to question our beliefs and the meaning we give to our experiences in ways that serve us and help us to live a balanced life.

Emotions before thinking

The sensorial input from the environment is firstly received by the thalamus in our brain. Then it sends a signal to the amygdala and at the same time sends the signal to the pre-frontal cortex (rational brain). What happens is that the amygdala, located in the emotional brain is near the thalamus far away from the neocortex. This happens because if we face any danger we need to act quickly – we do not have time to think about all the possible options if a lion is chasing us. We run or fight or freeze in order to survive. When facing a real or a perceived threat our emotional brain takes charge and our thinking brain shuts down. 

From an adaptation perspective, emotions are fast response patterns that allow us to meet a threat or challenge in minimal time, representing an integrated brain response to meet a specific need. Interdependent brain networks respond in an integrated manner to meet a basic need, and we experience this as feeling (11).

When we are in a state of emotional arousal we are not able to think properly and we cannot find solutions to our problems. 

Thus, the first thing to do if we want to get any results is to calm down the emotional brain so we can find the best solution for our problems.

Sleep patterns, motivation and energy

There are two different sleep patterns: First, we experience Low Wave Sleep and then REM sleep. Low Wave Sleep generally is more intense during the first hours of sleeping and functions like a hardware repair of our body. The REM state is when we dream. This phase is like a software manutention of our body. During the REM state, we dream, and through dreams, we consolidate learning and de-arouse from the emotions not dealt with during the day These two phases are necessary and need to happen in a balanced way.

When we spend the day ruminating about a problem our sleep patterns change. In general, the REM phase is longer than it should be, meaning we have lots of dreams and the Low Wave Sleep is shorter. Durin Low wave Sleep our body repairs its tissues, the cells clean themselves from debris and new connections are built up. This means the body is not repaired and we start to feel tired, unmotivated, and finally depressed.

We learn by repetition

Our emotional brain’s main function is to help us to fulfil our emotional needs and keep us safe. The way he does it can be helpful or damaging.

The good news is that our brain is dynamic, changing with input from a person’s environment. We can change the usual neuropathways by training the brain to process information differently, assigning new emotions to old memories or managing chronic stress.

Imagine a wheat field. Someone crosses the field once and leaves a mark on the landscape. The marked line is subtle. But our walker uses the same path a few more times. The line in the wheat field is now stronger. And once again the same path is used and the imprint is even more ingrained. The next time our hiker or anyone else wants to cross the field, what path do you think will be used?
Our brain works the same way. Every time you repeat an experience, a thought, or behaviour, these are imprinted in the brain and the tendency will be to use the same familiar path, the path that was previously designed.

The more we do something the more we are able to do it automatically. And if we repeatedly ruminate about something and repeatedly dwell on negative thinking and negative feeling that is going to create a habit of feeling negative. At a certain point, we feel negative just because we learned to do it without even a reason for that – we created a habit.

We need to be careful about what we command our emotional brain. We should be clear about what we want, believe we can get it, and have a plan with the steps to get there. The emotional brain wants clear instructions and needs to believe the new behaviour is safe.

Maria da Silva (PhD, DHP Acc Hyp) is a Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapist and a Trauma/Attachment Informed Coach, an expert in helping people understand and overcome their past conditioning and engage in meaningful and peaceful relationships through Nonviolent Communication.