The pursuit of emotional health can prove a complex journey. Yet most of us recognise that our emotions are fundamentally important to our sense of wellbeing and probably directly relevant to our physical health too. So let’s look at what insights neuroscience can offer us to shed light on this important matter.
Our emotional system, known as the limbic system, sits in the central region of the brain and is sometimes loosely referred to as the mammalian brain. It evolved with a very specific evolutionary purpose, which was to enable mammals to cooperate on a much more sophisticated level than their reptile competitors. Group cooperation would become key to the survival of mammals as they strove to out-manoeuvre their often more powerful, but less sophisticated, predators.
Reptiles are driven by their instincts and instincts by their very nature are selfish: they are concerned with the survival of their genes. Emotions were therefore designed to bond us into social groups and families where we could overcome the narrow perspective of self-survival and become motivated by relationships and the experiences we share with others. To have a chance of competing with the pull of our instincts our emotions had to be powerful in their own right. As we move forward to the human environment, the power of those emotions remains with us today.
Of course, evolution has given us, as human beings, sophisticated thinking capacity and communication ability through language. But don’t be fooled, our thoughts cannot match our emotions for power or speed of reaction. It takes aroun 80 milli-seconds to register an emotion in the brain, whereas a thought takes around 250 milli-seconds. The consequences of this are enormous. Our thoughts are always trailing our emotions and seeking to make sense of them but they can never be ahead of the game. We know this from our own experience; emotions can hijack our thoughts but we cannot think away an emotion.
Emotions are very much a mixed blessing: they are a source of true life enrichment as we feel the warmth of love and friendship and the energy of excitement, but because we are designed to seek out these feelings, when our quest for emotional fulfilment fails we can be left frustrated, isolated and devastated. It really is an emotional roller coaster, where we enjoy the ups and experience the pain of the downs.
The links with our sense of wellbeing are clearly established. When we feel fulfilled and confident our brains and bodies open up to engagement with others; we trust ourselves and those around us. When we are emotionally struggling we are wasting internal energy and over-sensitive to anxiety triggers. There is no immediate hormonal antidote to emotional pain so the misery endures.
So, what can we do about this? The answer lies in the part of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex. This region of the brain is our centre of self-awareness. It is located in such a way as to be able to access data from all parts of the brain. This is important because it gives us our best chance of understanding what is going at a subconscious level. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on what is happening emotionally in the moment. This is crucial as trying to understand our emotional reactions after the experience has passed runs the danger of post rationalisation, which basically means coming up with the story that best suits us to explain our response. It is very difficult to bring about personal change when you haven’t really worked out what is going on inside of you in the first place.
The pre-frontal cortex gives us the opportunity to pull back from the immediate experience just enough to be able to be aware of what is going on inside us now. It gives us a much greater chance of influencing our emotions directly rather than simply being victim to them. As we use this facility more and more we will become more competent at understanding what pushes our emotional buttons, what causes us anxiety and why we react the way we do. In turn, this can give us better choices over the way we may feel in future and how we may react to similar triggers.
This is not an easy talent to develop; it takes time, practice and patience. Mindfulness is a great example of developing this heightened awareness of our internal state. By quietening the overactive, anxious mind we can reveal a deeper truth about ourselves. Similarly, meditation will calm the heart and the mind and will allow us to see new insights into our own inner being. Practising self-awareness in the moment, rather than simply getting carried away by the emotion, will gently offer us more control of our life experience. The rewards of this endeavour could be significant. The draining effects of anxious energy can be gradually replaced by the energy of self-wisdom and affirmation.
If we sometimes feel we are constantly caught in an emotional storm, the pre-frontal cortex is the best thing we have that could gently pilot us away to less troubled waters.