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  • Writer's pictureDr John Breadon

understanding Emotions, pt I: ancient brains, modern problems.

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

‘The human brain is a complete mess – but it’s not your fault.’ Prof Paul Gilbert.

Our emotions are intrinsic to us humans, we wouldn't be humans without them, but unfeeling computers. And yet we find them often to be the most perplexing, volatile and changeable aspects of our identities. Taken to the next level, we can indeed end up fearing them - and what we fear we risk shutting down and splitting off. And if there is one thing emotions don't take kindly to it is shutting down - but more on that in the second blog, Pt II. But if we can move past fear we can move into wonderment and awe about our emotions! Their enlivening snap and excitement! What a gift we may be passing up on.

I've written this blog for myself in the first instance. Perhaps like many of us brought up in and through modern (Northern, Protestant) Western culture I've struggled to understand my emotional life for most of my 46 years. Only now, and it's rather painful to admit this, am I starting to get some grip and purchase on them. But it continues to be a slow road, and I know there are good reasons, buried in my own biography, that make it so. So we're not good, as a general rule in this culture, at approaching, understanding and embracing emotion. And on top of this insight sits the big heavy weight of gender: do I, as a man, have a steeper road to climb in coming to terms with my changing emotions? This is yet another aspect I'm going to defer on for now!

So let's build up a picture of our emotional life piece by piece. We're going to have to swim in some pretty deep waters here, and tricky concepts will need to be grappled with. So stay with me. I hope the journey will be worth it. I think it is.

We can't get away from our animals natures and our long animal past. It is for our basic survival that our emotions emerged in the first place over vast stretches of time. It's important to remember this: our bodies are equipped to perceive risk and maximise survival chances above everything else - and this includes much later notions of contentment and happiness. Some of the problems of living arise when we put what is essentially a very old brain into a fast and furious modern environment with all its distractions and multiple sources of over-stimulation. But though we have no choice other than to be modern homo sapiens we have the same hardware between our ears as our ancestors had some 90,000 years ago. We live out our days as they did shuttling between the red and green emotional zones. By green i mean feeling states of safety, of feeling loved, of being in meaningful connection with others. Life is much harder in the red zone: here we feel threatened or unsafe much of the time: we're on constant stand-by for attack or disaster (basically, anxiety). This is either produced by or leads to us feeling cut off from our environment, isolated and lonely. Our basic, core emotions therefore are spread across these two zones.

The psychologist Paul Gilbert, amongst others, works this up into a basic three-part affect regulation system (affect being another word for emotions or feelings). The words he uses to describe the green zone are soothing, content, safe, connected. The red: anger, anxiety, disgust. He inserts an amber state which aims to describe how we feel when we're in a feeling state of getting, achieving and desiring. For this zone he uses words like vitality, drivenness and excitement. Each zone has its own brain centres from whence the feelings derive and each with their own hormonal and/or chemical processes.

So, when we're feeling angry or anxious we're lighting up the so-called old or primitive brain, centred around the amygdala (look up the latest brain diagrams on Google if you don't know where these brain centres are to be found). The associated chemical products are cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones. With the green zone we're flooding our brains with bonding and 'happy' chemicals such as oxytocin and endorphins. When we're in amber - when we're involved in a rewarding or high-status task - we're likely to be setting free the reward hormone, dopamine. The relationship between the older emotion-focused parts of our brains and the more recent frontal part (called the neocortex), is, of course, highly complex but it too was forged under the same pressures of survival and selection. But here's an important point, and one we can easily lose sight of. Whilst we couldn't imagine life without the power of reasoning and abstract thought moving away from the red zone of anger and anxiety towards inner calm and contentment isn't (sadly!) a straightforward business.

Our thoughts, rather unhelpfully, can all too easily intensify and bury us deeper into those most taxing and troubling emotions, anger and anxiety. This mental stuckness goes under various names but you may have come across two of the more common: rumination and catastrophizing. (It's at this point a presentation of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness for regulating and re-balancing the brain might be helpful - but that would create another lengthy blog in itself so for now please note the sign-post. Mindfulness is a subject I will return to in these blogs.)

So with this helpful scheme in mind we can now name the core emotions. Whilst there is no consensus on this 'core' a generally acceptable list for most psychologists would contain: fear, love (attachment feelings), sadness/grief, anger/rage/aggression, disgust, joy/happiness/elation. So life is a constant churn of these feeling states or moods, to use another key word. This word tends to have a negative connotation at the current time - meaning 'grumpy' largely. But it's really a more neutral and general word. To put it simply: we're always 'in a mood', what matters is what sort of mood we're in and whether we need help to find an exit from it. Part of any mature, adult handling of emotions is the full grasping of our own emotional micro-climate if you like: how and why in us they change so rapidly and where our own personal emotional vulnerabilities and stucknesses lie. This is what I take the phrase 'emotional literacy' to mean. One of the gifts of therapy is how it can provide a safe and supportive space in which to track, monitor, and observe our emotional moods. And to do so without the need for evasion or to spare someone close to us an awkward conversation. Having 'awkward' conversations is precisely a therapist's stock-in-trade! In a good therapeutic relationship every emotion that moves through us can be named - and especially the painful or challenging ones like sadness and anger.

The psychological Gabor Mate has done a lot of work on what happens in us when we don't or can't name our feelings, which often amounts to rejecting or disowning them. If this happens the body can get sick - see Mate's recent book for more on this. The title says it all: When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.

I think that's enough to absorb at one sitting. Part II of this blog on emotions will focus on how the physical, evolutionary, and neurological nature of emotions gets named, judged and filtered by society - and through our own unique upbringing in particular. So many adult problems with emotion get started with a baffled and rather lost child not knowing why she is feeling such intensities and how to name and process her 'moods' appropriately. This - and more - will be the subject of the next blog so do come back for it.

By the way ... if you're wondering about the relevance of the picture at the start of the blog. It's called 'Angel of the Revelation' by William Blake. Whilst not a direct or easy fit for many reasons, I was drawn to this picture by its surface rather than symbolic value. Namely that it shows - to me at least - a human being fully alive, self-confident and unashamed. Without dealing with and owning our emotions there can be no such life, I believe, for any of us.

Prof Paul Gilbert's book The Compassionate Mind: A New Approach to Life's Challenges, (2009) was helpful in the writing of this blog. I also recommend reading Anxiety Is Really Strange, by Steve Haines (2015).

Photo by Pixabay:



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