My friend kindly invited me to watch Inside Out the Disney Pixar Movie – “meet the little voices inside your head.” If you haven’t seen it – it’s worth a watch and inspired me to write this blog. In short (the plot is more complex) the Movie is about how the central character a girl named Riley has within her mind 5 five personifications of what the creators see as the base emotions we all experience: Joy; Fear; Anger; Sadness; Disgust. As the film progresses so the inner personifications come alive and shape her life. The creators used research and their own brains as their “laboratories” and had to go inside and see what was happening with their own emotions. Emotions are what breathe us life but No one gives us an operating manual when we are young. We can go through life feeling like we have no control being pulled and tugged by what is happening to us emotionally. I hope this blog provides a “quick start guide” and find this helpful in some way.
More than ever in our history society today is chaotic, constantly changing – and doing so at a rate faster than our brains and biology can adapt. We are sensory and social beings taking our stimuli from the World outside of ourselves, like great explorers seeking our emotional and physical needs being met. So each Human feels unique and a separate self with the pulls of needing to be part of a social network to exist. We struggle to define the somewhat illusory self which scientists and philosophers have struggled to pin down for centuries. Our brain will have us try and believe that it is a stable platform from which to operate but it is not. Each brain is a sponge yet with a clay like quality moulded from birth and indeed throughout our lives. It’s database is all our memories and experiences good or bad – it forgets nothing and codes through loose patterns with meanings and emotional tags. Your unconscious forgets nothing!
Emotions are one of our earlier layers in our biology gifted by our ancestors. However, us humans also have a newer layer of brain and our emotions are weaved into our higher cognitive functions moving and changing form in an instant. We hear ourselves saying “I was so happy when I got up this morning” – then life stuff happened and it was from a feeling of joy to perhaps the pits of despair. Emotions have an important role to play in our survival and serve as our biological messengers to make sure we pay attention to what is important to us and take action in the external world. Our new brain added the layer which gives us the ability to think; create and reason but the price to pay is that we can ruminate!
Our emotional lives are very different for each one of us and even shaped for the most part prior to our conscious awareness in childhood. Another layer is that our social, family contexts and experiences as we grow up shape and connect our neural pathways. To complicate matters we also absorb patterns from our environmental and cultural conditions. Your emotional reactions in adulthood are layers upon layers from early childhood. So, if in the present moment you have strong emotional reactivity it is never that thing or person – it’s the past and that’s where you are being pulled. Affective neuroscientists have been unable to pin point the emotions and are as illusory as the self we construct.
Professor Paul Gilbert and researcher in his Compassion Focused therapy (this is provided in some NHS trusts and foundations) has found that emotional regulation is broadly speaking between 3 distinct regulation system:
1. Threat and Self-Preservation System: It’s function is to activate you away or towards the threats to protect. It operates with a “better safe than sorry” approach. In each context you will have a preferred patterned way of reacting to what your brain “perceives” as threats based on your previous experiences and the meanings placed upon them. Emotions can range from extreme anger or fear through to high anxiety and panic.
2.Incentive and Resource-seeking System (The drive-excitement system): The function of this system is to give us good feelings that move us towards the resources and things we need and see as desirable.
3.Soothing and Contentment System: This system enables us to bring a certain calm and soothing to ourselves. (extract; from Compassion Focused Therapy – Professor Paul Gilbert).
It’s no wonder with these competing systems of emotional regulation that we suffer, have inner conflicts and competing motives. You don’t have to be a victim to your emotions. Being present is vitally important. Between a trigger and taking action there is always a gap. In that gap is an opportunity to pause take a moment, step back and respond rather than a patterned reaction. I recommend mindfulness with self compassion as a great starting place. Starting mindfulness should be gentle and supported (if you have or are experiencing psychological difficulties also seek an expert). It can sometimes be unsettling and requires committed practice. Mindfulness in the long term can have a number of outcomes including resilience, self awareness and the ability to direct your attention and focus as you wish. Mindfulness at its best is when it is integrated into a persons way of life.
Richard Davidson a Research Professor of Psychology, affective neuroscience science and Psychiatry has developed a great template to look at the six domains of the emotions and where you sit on the spectrum. In summary they are :
Emotional resilience – How you face adversity and bounce back
Your outlook style – Are you a glass is half empty or half full type of person?
Social Intuition – Are you tuned in to your social contexts or unaware?
Self Aware – Are you self aware or unaware?
Sensitivity to context – Are you able to tune into the rules of engagement socially or do you find it difficult to know how and when to do what?
Attention style – Are you able to hold your attention or is it scattered?
This can help greatly in understanding which domain(s) are more difficult and where you may or may not need to focus and change the patterns of living and being. My Dad always says ” A leopard can never change its spots”. Well, we now know that not to be true. Advances in brain imaging and neuroscience show that the brain can be moulded and new pathways forged at any age. So the self is not fixed and we can change. It does demand us to be fully present, focused and committed to change. The challenge is yours.
Professor Richard J Davidson – The Emotional Life of Your Brain
Professor Paul GIlbert – Compassion Focused Therapy