How to Change How You React Towards Emotions — Meet Your Emotional Brain

Brain Colour

photo credit: Phrenology  (license)


Being human is about balancing our emotional instincts with our more rational considerations. When you get angry part of you wants to lash out, but the other part wants to step back and calmly analyse the situation. How do we balance these impulses so we can react more appropriately to the complex events in out life? George Dieter explains below, and it begins by understanding your brain...

A way to understand the often used distinction between right and left brain activity is to think of the right brain as the ‘original,’ brain, to which the limbic system projects its activity and which we now associate with ‘emotions’. The left by contrast is pre-occupied with its different functions, namely rational thought, rather than (instinctual) reactions.

When a light switch flickers, it lets electric current flow, which then turns on the light, no matter if it’s dark or daylight. Likewise, when activated the amygdala fires and doesn’t distinguish between a real or perceived threat (think of practical jokes), nor does it discern the nature of the threat. So let's meet your emotional brain and see how we can change the way we react towards emotions.

Case Sample - Meeting Your Emotional Brain

Applied to interpersonal situations, when I hear my partner disagree with me it could stand for a number of different ‘threats’; for example, she wants to leave me, or would not defend me if I were attacked.

Jealousy, apart from the more sophisticated psychological explanations, can simply be a reaction to a threat to my gene pool. If someone else messes around with my partner, it affects the survival of my own genes, at least from a male perspective.

For the female it could mean that feeding as well as protecting her young is going to be more difficult without the help of a partner. On the very first level of analysis it’s an instinctive reaction, and happens before any religious or social aspects enter the equation.

The Action to Reaction Process

Fear causes limbic system activity and the body builds up energy to be able to take whatever action is required. We see this in the equation:

Threat stress = energyemotions action

The question now is how is this arousal, this energy released? We often equate ‘arousal’ with sexual activity, which is generally associated with a pleasurable state. This association may therefore blind us to the fact that arousal can actually be quite unpleasant.

Even, or especially, during sexual arousal, we seek release. It’s the whole point of the exercise, physiologically speaking.

In fact, it’s the role of ‘arousal’ to initiate relief from this very state.  Strange as it may sound, it announces ‘Now that I’m here, get rid of me’. Compare it to a fire alarm bell. When it rings it alerts you to attend to a fire, so you can turn off the annoying and noisy alarm.

Arousal is the alarm bell that alerts our system to prepare for some physical ‘task’.

Another form of arousal, ‘stage fright’, demonstrates our delicate relationship with adrenaline and arousal. An insufficient degree of arousal results in an unanimated, even boring performance; too much, and you’re likely to forget your lines or miss your cue to get on stage altogether because you’re being sick backstage.

Previously, our only two options were running or fighting when adrenaline strikes. This is the body’s physiological response. As we’ve seen, this repertoire has been significantly enriched.

When we become frustrated we can slam a door or scream out loud. You may even recall incidents when you were so frustrated you started to cry.

photo credit: 161 via photopin (license)

photo credit: 161  (license)

Think of young children who can’t do anything else but cry to express their frustration, while later they may throw things on the floor when ‘angry’ (aroused) or in frustration of being misunderstood, not getting what they want or feeling unable to express what they feel or need.

When we simply observe the behavior, we don’t know what goes on in their young minds. Only when we know the context can we start to guess, because again, we’ll never exactly know if it’s frustration, anger or sadness that drives their tears.

How should you manage your reactions?

How we deal with our arousal is the psychological aspect of our response, based on what we got away with in the past, what got us what we wanted or whatever else helped us get relief.

While we cannot prevent the physiological part, we can control how we deal with it.

When subjected to any emotion, we can run around the block, cry, punch holes in the wall or someone’s lights out, or all of the above in no particular sequence.

Usually, just one or two of the options will do the trick and help us calm down again. It comes down to individual choices and humans have developed different ways of ridding themselves of the energy their limbic system produces.

However, all of these reactions are simply different ways of releasing the energy we’ve built up following a real or perceived threat. What constitutes a threat can probably best be understood from the survival function of the brain, which precedes all other processes.

Any circumstance, event, action, creature (human or otherwise), associated with unpredictability or over which we have little or no control represents a potential threat causing the release of stress hormones and a state of arousal.

All actions, all human activity, is in the first instance driven by the instinct and aim to survive. Moral and social considerations, altruism, religious beliefs, friendship or fear of consequences may then override this survival instinct and lead us to allow ‘women and children first’ to enter the life raft.

However, not everyone lingers long enough for that thought to interfere with their desire to live and ‘every man for themselves’ dictates their spontaneous actions.

You can't always control how you feel, but you can train yourself to control how you respond to it.

I-powerBy George Dieter, a psychologist in private practice, is the author of I-Power, a book for smart people who want to take control of how they feel. You can download your eBook copy from Exisle Empowerment.