The Physical Life-Cycle of Emotion
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor infamously studied how long emotional reactions last in the body and this is what she discovered... they last, 90 seconds.
After this time, if we still feel the emotion strongly, we are somehow feeding it with thought, with interpretations of that experience or even with behaviors that fuel the emotional reaction.
This is important to know and understand because it gives us information on what might be keeping the looming emotion around and on repeat. In CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), there is great emphasis on bringing awareness to how the thought-emotion-behavior connection impacts well-being.
Next time you've experienced an intense emotion for more than 90 seconds, ponder how you might be unintentionally feeding that feeling.
The goal isn't to starve the emotion.
The goal is to notice it, without judgement, without clinging. Let the emotion deliver it's message. Listen. Then ride the wave as it dissipates back out into our ocean of human emotional experiences.
Rewiring the Brain
Anxiety (or fear) is a physical, emotional, cognitive response we have when a threat is perceived. Super helpful for escaping a saber-tooth tiger attack, not as effective when we need to advocate for ourselves in a relationship or complete tasks at home or work.
In fact, all of the emotions serve a well-intended purposes and the chemical process of an emotional only lasts around 90 seconds!
Then why do we so get stuck in an emotion or thought and why does it seem like that feeling lasts days, weeks, months or even years? Experience! Neural connections! Generational trauma! Toxic environments! "What fires together, wires together" -Donald Hebb.
Thank goodness for plasticity! It means that regardless of what we’ve experienced, no matter how intense our emotions, physical sensations in the body or thoughts have been or still are… we can change it.
Anxiety is only one of the many emotional experiences that take on a physical or cognitive (in our minds and thoughts) form and THAT can start causing us real problems.
In DBT we call the immediate reactive behavior an emotion actives an action urge. Because we feel a certain emotion, we immediately want to react in a specific way.
Some action urges link back to our ancestors and their main goal, survival. Other action urges become wired as a result of our experiences and how we coped with those experiences.
Those neurons (for example, anger and attacking) have become wired together so effectively, when anyone or anything spark that anger we immediately attack (verbally or even physically). Depending on the situation, attacking may not be the best response (unless we are in physical danger).
Luckily, with the incredible plasticity of our brains, the helpful tools offered in DBT and some good old-fashioned introspection, we can create new neural networks so that anger and attack no longer feel like a 2 for 1 deal.
Sounds great right! So how do we do this?
We begin by adding in a pause between the emotion and the action urge. Mindfulness is key here. After we have some space between the emotion and the action urge, we can decide what is the most effective way to cope with the situation.
These networks took time and repetition to forge, understandable, it takes time and practice to create new, more desirable networks.
For more information on how this can be accomplished at Golden Spiral Counseling, reach out today! This is your brain and your life. Mold them to live your best life possible!
What IS it that I am feeling?
I just finished the on-demand recordings from the 2022 Child & School Counseling Summit and it was amazing! A few VERY important items were mentioned that I think are vital to share; although, the entire summit was great and I would recommend it to anyone working with kids or schools.
In his presentation, Marc Brackett speaks on the differences between anxiety, stress, pressure, fear and overwhelm. These are unique experiences that we often use interchangeably when talking about what we're feeling. I would like to share those definitions with you today. When we can accurately label our experience, we have the ability to validate, problem solve and shift back to balance with a lingering sense of self-compassion and grace.
Anxiety is defined as uncertainty (fear-apprehension-nervousness) about the future.
Stress is defined as when we have too many demands and not enough resources.
Pressure is defined as the experience that something is at stake, something is dependent on our behavior.
Fear is defined as the feeling that impending danger is near.
Overwhelm is defined as the feeling of being overcome by many different emotions.
Whoa! These five emotional responses have stark DIFFERENCES and varying origins! I haven't heard such a clear and concise comparison before and I am so glad I did.
I absolutely love that we are all talking about our emotions more and mental health is becoming less stigmatized. Now, let's practice some gentle introspection to clearly define our internal experiences. If what we are experiencing is overwhelm, rather than anxiety, we can begin to tease apart the various emotions, check in with our bodies, practice regulation skills and ask our wisest self, what is it that I need in this moment. If we are experiencing fear, we need to feel safe before we can access the thinking part of our brains; if we are not safe, problem solving and logic become difficult to access. Why would the brain use resources on thought when it needs to use energy on survival. Do you see how we use different tools, depending on what the emotional energy is trying to tell us? Emotions are messengers, they are meant to help but when they become overly activated it can feel difficult to see, think or view anything BUT life through that emotional lens.
The second thing I would like to share links back to Marc's definitions, specially to that of pressure. Justin Coulson acknowledges the importance of stress. It is important, healthy and natural to receive these little alarms from our emotions. It can be the difference between staying in tune to our values or ignoring our boundaries, falling into a situation that creates discomfort, or even danger. What I want to highlight from Justin's presentation is this lovely metaphor on stress. Stress is when a force (internal or external) applies pressure on something or someone. In his example, Justin likens external stress on a bridge (such as waves crashing or cars driving across) to the stress we might receive in our social roles. Because our human brains have evolved in the manner they did, we also apply internal stress to ourselves all the time... negative self-talk, core beliefs that we're not good enough and then add onto it, the negative comments or unfair expectations others insist we carry. It is easy to loose our foundation, to become heavy and weighted with all these pressures. In short spurts, the pressure will be uncomfortable but when it's removed, the bridge will resume it's previous stature. But what about those pressures that never seem to lift?
The good news is, awareness is the first step towards relieving the internal pressure. With compassion, intention and some personal work, we can let go of the unhelpful forces and find balance within. As we do so, we become in tuned to the importance of boundaries and can also cut out some of that external pressure too. In DBT we compare those intense emotions to waves in a ocean. When the waters become intense and crash onto our bridge we can take a step back, acknowledging ourselves as both the bridge and the observer. Those waves are simply delivering a message, once we can receive it with love, the waters will calm. When we are ready, we can even wade out into the sea and practice curiosity and compassion.
Anna Chavez-Sandoval, LPC, NCC
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