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Why We Have Emotions (And Why We Should Not Fight Them)

Emotions are necessary for survival. But they can also spin out of control.

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We have evidence that just naming emotions—literally putting feelings into words—seems to calm down amygdala activity in the brains of subjects viewing negative emotional images or faces. So it may help us “trust” emotion and see it as a positive tool in psychotherapy if we can keep in mind the elements that make up an emotional experience. First, there’s a cue from the environment. This is followed by an initial general perception (such as “bad”) and orientation to this cue and physical arousal. The meaning of cues and sensations is further evaluated in a more reflective cognitive appraisal. All these things prime a “move”—a compelling action tendency. These reactions all happen inside the skin, but they don’t stay there. Emotion isn’t silent or hidden.

The signals that accompany this process create what psychologist and author Daniel Goleman calls a “neural duet” with others. Much of the time, this process is implicit and instantaneous. Mike turns away when Emma asks him about his day; Emma picks up this cue and her brain frames it as “bad” and “dangerous”; Emma’s heart rate speeds up, and her body tenses; she scans for what this means and hits on “I’m losing him, he doesn’t want me”; she moves closer to Mike and, in an intense voice, says, “You never want to talk to me, anyhow”; Mike hears anger, so he closes down and shuts her out.

Once the cue has occurred, all these elements are shaped by Emma. Part of my job as an experiential therapist is to tune in to just how she does this. In this distressed relationship, she constantly monitors Mike’s responses and is exquisitely sensitive to any potential rejection from him. At the first sign of rejection, her mammalian brain lights up in alarm. Neuroscience researcher Jaak Panksepp calls this alarm “primal panic.” The neural circuit used here is the accelerated pathway through the thalamus to the amygdala; information about the responsiveness of an attachment figure has enormous survival significance, so the slower route through the reflective prefrontal cortex is bypassed. The meaning Emma makes here—that she’s unloved and Mike is cold and mean—reflects experiences that remind her how dangerous it can be to reach for others. She moves close to lessen her sense of threat and pushes for a different response from her husband. He sees her as intrusive. When he moves away, he confirms her deeper fears, and so helps to shape her ongoing experience.

What’s missing from this version of Emma’s emotional drama is that she tries to regulate her emotion. Regulation isn’t something we do to emotion; it’s just part of the process. As Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda puts it, we’re continually shifting the balance between letting go and restraint. We have reactions to our initial sense of what’s going on, and we try to cope with them as they’re happening. This translates into different levels of emotional experience.

At the end of this drama, which takes six seconds at most, Emma explodes in reactive anger. If we were to stop the frame at her first visceral response, we’d call her emotion fear. Her overt anger is a response to her sense of threat. An emotionally focused therapist would see her anger as secondary and the fear as her primary emotion. If she could slow down and pay attention to her fear, her action tendency might be different; for example, she might ask for reassurance. She could also, conceivably, have reacted to her own fear by moving into numbing, especially if she’d accessed thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness as part of her search for meaning. But she doesn’t register her fear. When she talks about this drama in my office, she looks angry and blames her husband for his coldness.

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