The Neuroscience of Emotions
“I wish they taught this stuff in school”.
Many of the clients we see at our therapy practice in Portland, Maine struggle with their emotional experiences. We frequently hear that no one ever taught them how to talk about their feelings, what the purpose of emotions are, or what do do with them.
We find most people do better when they understand what’s going on in their bodies and minds in addition to having the skills to handle their emotions. We are going to dig into what brain structures come into play here. For more information on the purpose of emotions, check out this blog post.
The major players
There are three major parts that play a role in the experience of emotions. Starting from the bottom up, you have your brain stem, limbic system, and frontal cortex. There are many other parts of your brain and what we are examining in this post is a very basic overview. For a more in-depth examination of brain structures and functions and how they affect our psychology, I highly recommend Dr. Daniel Siegel M.D.’s book Mindsight. This book provides fascinating information on everything from why police can mistake a cellphone for a firearm to why we get stuck in repetitive patterns. Dr. Siegel explains which parts of the brain are responsible for the dysfunction and what we can do about it.
Here’s a link to a page that provides a great diagram to brain structure and in particular, the structures discussed here.
The reptilian brain
Your brain stem, often referred to as the reptilian brain as this is the oldest and most basic part of our brain is the home of many basic body functions. This is the part of our brain responsible for making our heart beat and our lungs breathe. These are our base level body functions wired for survival.
The limbic system
The limbic system is closely connected to the brain stem and is considered the emotional center of the brain. We experience emotions to prompt us to respond to situations. As Dr. Siegel points out, emotions evoke motion. This is where the fight or flight response comes from. Fight or flight is the body’s response to danger. We are either triggered into action or paralyzed and immobile. The limbic system kicks other parts of the brain and body into action when a threat is detected. Sometimes this is helpful, like when crossing a busy street, and other times it is not like when having a panic attack.
Hormones are regulated from this area of the brain and chronic stress is a result of an overactive limbic system. Fear and anxiety responses are triggered by the amygdala which is part of this system, and it also includes the hippocampus which is responsible for memories. This area is also closely related to your sense of smell and explains why scent can bring up powerful memories and powerful emotions.
The frontal cortex
The frontal cortex and prefrontal cortex are more advanced in humans than in other animals. Often referred to as the CEO of the brain, the frontal cortex is where we make decisions, evaluate situations, experience abstract thought, have a sense of self or others, manage impulses, produce socially appropriate behavior, and so much more. Your frontal cortex manages input from all the other regions of the brain and has the final say in most things.
Your brain is an effective machine.
If any of the lower regions (brain stem or limbic system) are overactive everything upstream is shut down. This is because the brain is an efficient machine and wired for survival. If you are crossing a busy street and a bus is coming you don’t want to be thinking about where the bus is going or who is on it you just want to get out of the way. This also means if you are too angry (limbic) it’s hard to articulate your thoughts or see another person’s point of view (frontal cortex). Or why we say or do things we wouldn't normally when we are scared or sad. In order to regulate emotions, we have to first calm down the lower parts of the brain and bring that frontal cortex online. Once we are calm and regulated, we can see a situation more clearly and think critically.
We work with women in counseling to explore ways the neuroscience of emotions trips them up in their day to day lives. We examine what skills work for them, personally, to calm down overactive parts of the brain. It’s important to note that nutrition, lack of sleep, trauma and other factors can impact these systems as well. If you are interested in learning more or feel therapy would be a good fit to explore some of these topics and how they show up in your own life, contact us today to schedule a free phone consultation.
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