The physical home of emotion – the limbic area, is located in the center-region of the brain. The limbic system consists of a series of interconnected structures that include the frontal area, the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus (anterior thalamic nuclei), septum, limbic cortex and fornix. It is believed that these structures support a variety of cognitive, emotive, behavioral and biological functions including emotional behavior and long-term memory often necessary for emotional behavior to occur.
It is NOT essential for you, the reader, to know the names and functions of these structures – although it could benefit you. Knowing that there are anatomical, electro-bio-chemical and hormonal correlations between your emotions and your brain is, however, critical to improving your emotional intelligence. Although you may decide not to know these structures, you will have to remember, at minimum, where your emotions live.
Your emotions live in your head.
More specifically, your emotions are an expression of your thoughts.
Without thought, you would have no emotion.
If you wish to change your emotion, you will have to change your thinking.
The limbic neighborhood, when in balance, can be described as resting. While at rest, however, it can be instantaneously energized by thought and perception in an all-out effort to protect the body from real or perceived harm or the threat of harm. The stress response will cooperate with your thinking and automatically release neurochemicals and hormones into the bloodstream that are intent on providing the fuel you will need to protect yourself from real or perceived threat. You can expect a sudden increase in heart rate, perspiration, flushing of the skin, hair standing on end, etc. All designed by Nature to give you the strength, energy and focus to run away very quickly, fight very bravely or just to freeze, motionless, in the hopes you will appear unthreatening to your attacker.
Let’s find a more familiar image to understand this phenomenon.
Imagine that you have a paper cut.
Blood flows from the cut, no matter how much you are against that from happening.
It is an automatic response to injury.
You can commit to do something about the cut by attending to it. You might wash it, put it in your mouth or cover it with a Band-Aid (or plaster). Your effort to stop the bleeding will likely shorten the time the wound is active and susceptible to infection. While attending to the cut, you commit to memory how the accident occurred and tell yourself how to avoid similar injuries in the future. Injury and trauma are, in many ways, opportunities for learning.
But how does cutting your finger and attending to it compare to the expression and remediation of emotion?
Your perception of an event as threatening or dangerous is like injuring the nuclei of your brain. Your thoughts activate a response in the brain that starts an automatic flow of neurochemicals and hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones and neurochemicals:
- Increase heart rate and blood pressure;
- Dilate the pupils;
- Constrict the veins in skin and send more blood to major muscle groups;
- Increase blood-glucose levels;
- Tense up the muscles that have been energized by adrenaline and glucose;
- Relax smooth muscles in order to allow more oxygen into the lungs;
- Shuts down the digestion and immune system to allow more energy for emergency functions; and
- Improves the ability to focus on the task of determining the location of the threat and how to respond to it.
Much like cutting your finger, there is an automatic flow of neurochemicals and hormones into the bloodstream that happens without your consent. Similar to tending a paper cut, you can be a passive observer or you can actively respond by providing wound care.
You can put a Band-Aid on your emotional injury.
Here I will provide you with some self-care techniques and suggestions.
First, it should be noted that if the injury to the emotional areas of your brain were visible – if the flow of neurochemicals and hormones rushing here and there inside your head could be observed, rather than having it all happen deep inside your skull, you may be more active in responding to it, without all this comparison to a paper cut.
Instead, we will just have to imagine and increase our awareness of the phenomenon.
Wounds inflicted by thought require as much attention and enthusiasm for treatment as an injury to skin or bone. We might imagine the paradigm from the following perspective:
- An Event Occurs: “You did a horrible job!”
- An Injury Results from Thinking About the Event: “You have no right to talk to me like that! I am a good employee. I am a good person. I should be treated better. It is awful that you are treating me this way. I need your approval in order to be happy in my life.”
- An Automatic Protective Response Results from Thinking: Your threatening thoughts instigate the flow of neurochemicals and hormones into your bloodstream, causing your body to go into a protective mode (a stress response). These chemical will flow for some period of time specific to you. The longer you ruminate about your perceived threat, however, the longer the chemicals will remain flowing through your bloodstream. It could be minutes, months or even years (chronic stress). If you do not tend to the wound, you will be susceptible to infection, fatigue and a continued loss of homeostasis and likely reopen the wound each and every time you encounter the same or a similar misfortune.
- Attention to Thinking: “I am not in danger. I am viewing this situation as threatening. I don’t have to view the situation as threatening. I can view it as unfortunate. It is unfortunate that I am being talked to this way. It is regrettable that I am being criticized this way. I am being treated badly and that is difficult, but it is not awful. I can stand it and I will. I can express my concerns. I have a right to ask for respect, but I have no right to get it. I don’t need approval in order to be happy in my life. It would be nice to have approval, but it certainly isn’t a necessary element of my continued happiness.”
- Interfering with the Flow of Neurochemicals and Hormones: Using more rational thought is the essential part of attending to the emotional wound. It is also the first step toward improving emotional intelligence.
- The fact that the hormones and neurochemicals are already in your bloodstream will present some problem. Although you may be thinking more rationally, your physical body will need time to readjust and return to balance.
- Be assured that these hormones and neurochemicals will dissipate, if you stop them from flowing using more rational thought.
- Your new thinking will eventually win over the process and you will be free of these toxic substances. At least until you encounter misfortune, again – something you can certainly expect.
- To encourage the return to balance, you may breathe deeply, stimulating your vagus nerves.
- Breathing deeply (through your mouth, into the pit of the stomach and out your mouth) sends a message to the brain that all is well and that it is safe for the body to return to balance.
The next time you encounter some perceived danger or harm, try these techniques and suggestions. How did it work for you? Would it help to keep the suggestions in your purse or wallet, for when you find yourself in the middle of misfortune and want a quick guide?
Michael Cornwall, PhD is an author, lecturer, clinical supervisor, educator and child behavior therapist in private practice. In our community, you may know him as the author of blog, Emotional Intelligence Theory.
(502) 564-4321 x 2008