Friday, February 20, 2015

The Why of You: The Emotional You

The Why of You:
The Emotional You

After three straight pretty "sciencey" posts, I realized I had to spice up “the class” with some material that was more relevant to the dear readers following along who just want to know why the hell they're so “messed up”.

Just briefly I need to address this business about being so “messed up”. Listen, I know you think you're messed up and furthermore that you're dead sure that you and only you are this fucked up and that when you're feeling particularly fucked up that you are one hundred percent certain that you're the most fucked up loser in the history of mankind (or womenkind if you insist or humankind if we want to be completely gender neutral).

So here you are, thinking you're the biggest fucked up loser in history and that you're the only one so - ahem - fucked up.

Hey, welcome to the club!

Yes, dear reader who's so dead sure that you are the worst fucked up loser in history, you actually belong to a big club. A massively big club. There are an astonishing number of us. So right here, right now, I'm going to ask you to stop feeling like you're alone in this business of being fucked up. The truth is that most of us are. Another truth is that while you and I (and all the other members of this club who beat ourselves to a pulp over being a Fucked Up Loser (FUL for short)) are aware of being such FULs – pummeled with awareness, as a matter of fact – there are a) far worse FULs out there and b) the majority of them just don't know it (something I somewhat address in an updated version of my very popular post on Broken Ego Defenses).

You see here, dear reader, here's the thing – being fucked up is so common that it's … well, just human. As fancy-pancy as humans have evolved, we're still ruled by some pretty old evolutionary hardware. Yes, I know, you're still sure that you're worst off than anybody but this is a distorted view of a) yourself and b) your standing in the world. I have lots to say later on the distorted views we humans tend to collect but that's for later. I know you are frustrated with yourself to the point of tears (or rage) but a) it's quite possible that you're not as bad off as you thought and b) most of us get immensely frustrated with ourselves (as you may have noticed, I like to make a lot of 'a' and 'b' statements).

So going forward I'll ask you to remember two things. Well, three actually. One, you're not alone. Two, you're just human. And three – and most importantly – remember that nobody “chooses” how their brains were put together. NOBODY. As we saw in the previous two posts, a lot of what makes our brains what they are - and thus our behaviour what it is - is partially determined by basic old evolutionary stuff and all kinds of factors in our individual brains developed, neither of which anyone has any control over. Which leads us to a fourth thing to bear in mind – and the penultimate theme of this blog – it's your brain that creates the behaviour and foibles that drive you batty, not “you”. And this is true if you are just suffering through normal human emotional difficulties, major depressive disorder (or any of the myriad of other forms of depression), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, various anxiety disorders, OCD (I have tons to say on this, it's NOT what most people erroneously assume it is), ADD/ADHD (again, much to say on this later, more erroneous assumptions to dispel) or whatever – it's not “you”, it's the brain that creates “you” that's creating this enormous frustration.

Okay, so here we go – after yet another long Bradonian table setting preamble – why are we so emotional?

Now it's time to start putting our new understanding of neuroanatomy to good use – learning what all this stuff in our heads does and why what it does often drives us batty. Now don't worry, we're not – today at least – going to get into a lot of detail. We're just going to look at some major regions and the basics of what they do.

So a quick review of some basic brain layout:


You see where it says 'limbic system'? That's where emotions are generated. You want to know where reactions are generated? Same place.

Now if you'll recall from the first few chapters, the evolutionary order of our brain development started with the brain stem (or reptilian brain in the diagram), then the limbic system (in green) and finally the neocortex (the purple stuff). This is going to be vital to understand but more in a moment (and much more in later chapters).

What this means is that when we are being emotional – collapsing in tears, in a rage, seething with anger, etc, etc – we are being controlled by a more elementary part of our brains, the limbic region.

Now we have areas that regulate emotions but they're in the 'higher' areas located in the neocortex and most specifically in the prefrontal cortex (roughly the front quarter of the area coloured purple, just behind our eyes).

So if we have all this highly evolved fancy-smancy behavour regulating equipment, why are we so governed by emotions so often? Or, alternatively, why are we ruled so often by this more crude (in evolutionary terms) limbic region?

Well, for all kinds of reasons, some of them even very good reasons.

Perhaps the most significant reason - and most vital to our safety - is that it is in the limbic region where our stress response system resides and functions. The stress response system is many things but its primary purposes from an evolutionary perspective are that of danger detection and response and/or injury response. During times of severe threat is not the time to be "thinking things over" with our higher cognitive regions so the brain sort of shuts those off and gives the reigns of our actions over fully to the stress response system. This is unless we've received either much training not to be taken over by our stress related reactions (IE: to remain 'calm') or are blessed with a brain that happens to have developed to not respond in such primal ways. But these are exceptions; for the vast majority of us, the stress response system will overrule higher cognitive (AKA: "smarter") areas. 

The other very significant reason is that due to our brain's design and the order in which it evolved, the limbic region gets "first priority" over energy reserves when we are getting run down or low on energy. This is why we get "cranky" when we're tired and are more prone to emotional responses when we get shitty sleeps and/or haven't eaten anything of proper nutritional substance all day. Oh, you can bet that I'll be returning to these two parts of our lives (sleep hygiene and nutrition). 

So what happens when the brain runs low on energy is that it "powers down" the frontal lobes (where emotional and impulse control are centered) and directs more energy to the limbic region (where emotions and emotional responses are generated). If you can imagine a city in times of rolling electrical brown outs, the city's engineers might direct more energy to the city's vital core areas and cut back or cut off power to less important far flung areas. This is exactly what the brain does and the brain considers the limbic region the core vital area of your brain most in need of energy while considering the frontal lobes not so important thus "browning out" energy to that region. The nerve of that darn brain of ours!

Now the other few things that might be going on is that our frontal lobes may either a) not developed all that well or b) we don't exercise them enough. This is something we're going to learn more about when we look at how the principles of Neuroplasticity come to affect how our brains (and thus us) work. 

In the case of them perhaps being underdeveloped, you will recall from the previous post on Genetic and Environmental Factors in Brain Development, that we undergo two periods of our lives in which our brains undergo massive, massive growth and rearranging; the first in our tot years (approximately from two to four years of age) and another in our late teen/early adult years. These two periods are known as "critical periods" and for good reason; it literally is critical for key areas of the brain to develop during these periods. And some of those key areas are the very areas we need for emotions and impulse control.

So if emotional and impulse regulation is a constant issue for you, it's entirely possible that these regulating regions located in the frontal lobes (where most of the teen critical period development takes place) didn't properly develop during your teen/early adult critical period. Which would be nothing - absolutely nothing - you could blame yourself for. You certainly didn't "choose" for this to happen.

Further on how our basic limbic functions create "us" and our moods, reactions and what I refer to as our "conscious experience" is the deeper understanding we now have of how emotions directly influence learning and memory processing which is what I was talking about and introducing way back in Memory Functioning in Depressive Disorders

The other (and final for today) factor, is that it is now known that far more brain signal traffic travels up from the limbic region to the higher cortical regions than from the cortical regions down to the limbic region. In other words, the limbic region sends far more demands than it receives in the average person. There's an intermediary region between the hardware in the limbic region and the neocortex called the 'anterior cingulate gyrus' that generates a lot of our emotional thoughts as well and this too could be overactive. 

So that, in a very small nut shell, is basically what's going on. You see, it's not "us" that's emotional, it's this powerful deep rooted brain region that's behind all these emotions, emotional outbursts and impulses and impulsive behaviours. 

Of course the sixty-four thousand dollar question is what to do about it?

There are many strategies but it begins with awareness. And with self-compassion. First, we must become aware that we have emotions and impulses that must be reigned in better. Two, we must forgive ourselves (IE: NOT beat ourselves up over them) because these are generated by factors outside any easy control of ours plus it is - for a wide variety of reasons - only partially and briefly outlined above - a matter of our emotional and impulse regulating equipment under functioning. 

There are no shortage of strategies for developing better reactions and reducing emotional reactions and impulses but I'm not going to have time to get into those in great detail today. What I will suggest today is doing anything that exercises higher cortical brain regions. 

These can be:

- listening to challenging music such as classical or classic jazz (I'm going to get into the neuroscience of this in a future post but briefly the complex arrangements of these two forms of music challenge your brain in a way it likes and deeply and vigorously exercises higher brain regions - all while you sit back and relax!)

- read challenging material that makes you think and which again challenges your upper brain regions. 

- study a new language (honestly!)

- do crossword puzzles

- practice meditative techniques and brief meditative breaks

- the time honoured "count to ten" method when we feel an emotion about to burst out of us

- see also my very popular and acclaimed Positive Difference Making Fundamentals and the following post, Positive Difference Making Fundamentals in Focus: Spirituality.

The general rule of thumb though is that the more you exercise your higher brain regions, the better they'll respond "under pressure" (a stressful time). As well, these activities are going to increase brain signal traffic from higher cortical regions to the limbic region and thus help assume more control there. This will be vital for implementing what I call "top down management" that we're going to learn (later, much later, I'm afraid) in gaining more control over our brains and thus our lives. 

And if your frontal lobes didn't develop properly during your teen/early adult critical period? No need to throw in the towel and give up. Thanks to the brain's ability to reform and redevelop itself well into adulthood (AKA: neuroplasticity), you CAN work on and develop more neuronal "muscle" in these areas and put them more in charge of "you". 

But the two most important, vital and critical things are better sleep and better nutrition. This is super elementary brain and mental health stuff - the more sleep your brain has and the better nutrition it gets, the more energy it has to go around and your higher brain regions won't get "browned out" (or blacked out) when your brain is under duress. 

This was sort of the Cole's Notes version and much more detail will be forthcoming (though at the current pace of my writing schedule, I couldn't say with any certainty when). In the meantime, mental health peeps, believe that you CAN improve yourself and your mental health and keep at it one day at a time (and stay within ONLY the current day). 

Till the next time!

(1) - I am well aware that ADD and ADHD are serious issues for many people (including moi) but the truth is that neither of these conditions are what your doctor and/or psychiatrist tells you they are (an "illness" that needs to be drugged). But this is a big hornets nest I'll kick another day. In the meantime, please know that I am full of compassion for those who are troubled by these conditions. 

(2) I have much, much better brain images than this one, obviously, but I like this one for its simplicity. 

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