“I’m going to appeal to your intellect for a moment,” the counselor said. Then, he asked me a question. What happened next, has stuck with me all these years: The emotion simply stopped. I quit crying almost instantly, and began to think.
In this brainy two-part series, I explore the neuroscience behind regulating emotions. This first article focuses on how the brain processes emotion, and includes strategies involving mindfulness for effective emotional management:
- The two brain systems: feeling and thinking
- Disarming an emotional hijack
- Strategies for regulating emotion
Part I: Brain-friendly strategies for regulating emotions
Many years ago, during a very difficult time in my personal life, I was in therapy. In this particular session, which I remember vividly to this day, I was overcome with emotion while I was describing a certain situation.
“I’m going to appeal to your intellect for a moment,” the counselor said.
Then, he asked me a question. What happened next, has stuck with me all these years: The emotion simply stopped. I quit crying almost instantly, and began to think.
At the time, I didn’t know exactly what was happening in my brain, but the experience struck me because it was so clear, and so sudden. I didn’t necessarily have the words for it then, but it became a powerful demonstration of the ability of the conscious, thinking mind to override an emotional hijack.
Last year, I was fortunate to be able to attend a certificate program through the NeuroLeadership Institute, and what I learned was so fascinating! After studying how the brain works for six months, I now know that the counselor’s question caused me to engage my prefrontal cortex (PFC) in order to think critically, and thus my PFC was overriding the amygdala response (emotion) I was experiencing.
By engaging the prefrontal cortex, we are able to apply executive control over emotional impulses.
My experience is also a testament to the power of asking questions. As my emotional state was interrupted by the question the counselor had asked me, my thinking mind became engaged, focused on solving the problem at hand: how to answer the question.
I was exercising mindful attention.
With Mindfulness in Mind
Most of the information I learned in the neuroleadership program, I’m able to apply directly to my work as a sales and business coach. As an added benefit, I gained new insight into how I can apply this new knowledge in my own life, both professionally and personally.
In particular, the discussion on meditation and mindfulness and their uses and importance for brain functioning had a big impact on my current understanding of how to effectively manage emotions. I will focus here on mindfulness as a way to activate specific emotion regulation strategies, and attempt to answer the following questions:
- How do we engage mindful attention?
- Can mindfulness change how we feel?
Incoming! How we React and Respond to Stimuli
As our brains are scanning our physical environment to determine whether incoming stimuli (information coming to the brain through all of our senses) represent a threat or a reward, the limbic system, the part of the brain where our instincts and moods are generated, is aroused. This arousal is what we typically call emotion or feelings.
The way in which the brain interprets various stimuli (is this a reward or a threat?), assigns either a positive or negative affect (affect = the experience of feeling an emotion) to the situation. According to Sayers, Creswell & Taren (2015), there are a couple systems in the brain involved with emotional processing:
- Lower “core affective” system: evaluates if a situation represents a reward or a threat (should I approach or retreat?). This system operates on a subconscious, instinctual level.
- Upper “affect processing” system: creates assessments of our emotional states (am I feeling good or bad, and what caused it?). This system is where we pay conscious attention to what is happening in our emotions.
The Feeling Brain
The lower (ventral) brain system, which includes the amygdala and can be described as “the feeling brain” transmits the affective value – the “reward” or “threat” labels assigned by this system – quickly to the hypothalamus and brain stem, which respond with a behavior that moves toward or away from the stimulus, accordingly.
The Thinking Brain
The upper (dorsal) system evaluates the cause of the emotional state, and helps us process consciously what we are actually feeling. This system is what we can refer to as “the thinking brain,” and we can only access and process information (stimuli) here after it has already been received by the feeling brain.
In other words, our emotions experience and assess our reality before our thoughts do.
The Emotional Hijack
A strong threat response may cause us to be blinded by emotion, so that we react emotionally, acting without thinking. A “threat” could be anything that makes us feel as if we are at risk, in danger, or about to lose something valuable to us. This could include a physical threat, or an emotional or social threat.
This blinding emotion is what is often called an “amygdala hijack.” We may lash out at a coworker who threatens our sense of status by throwing us “under the bus” in front of a client, for example. Or, we might say or do things we later regret to a loved one who threatens our sense of safety about that relationship. Many “crimes of passion” have been perpetrated in this state of mind.
An important reason for this, is that the brain can only perform one major function at a time. Put simply, we either think clearly, or feel strongly at any given moment. When we are experiencing intense emotion such as in an amygdala hijack, we are not thinking clearly. The other way around is also true: when we are thinking clearly, we are not feeling as intensely.
Feeling vs. Thinking
What scientists have shown in MRI scans is that when there is high activity in the amygdala (we are feeling intense emotion), there is low activity in the PFC (We have little conscious thought) – and also vise versa. When activating the PFC, activity in the amygdala is reduced.
This is what happened when my counselor “appealed” to my “intellect”: I began thinking, and the emotional experience suddenly became less intense as I switched from primarily feeling, to primarily thinking.
The PFC thus plays an important role in regulating emotions: when we are able to interrupt the lower, “feeling” brain’s reaction, and take control with the upper, “thinking” brain (the PFC) by actively redirecting our attention, we can regulate how strongly we feel, and also how we interpret a situation which in turn can alter how we feel about it.
Strategies for Regulating Emotion: Disarm, Redirect, Deploy
Brain-friendly strategies for regulating emotion include disarming an emotional hijack through asking questions, redirecting attention through mindfulness, and strategically deploying attentional resources to where they are most useful.
Disarm: Ask Questions
My example from counseling is a clear illustration of disarming an amygdala hijack. The counselor first primed my attention by prefacing his statement with “I’m going to appeal to your intellect,” which immediately signaled to my PFC it was being called upon. Then, he asked me a question, which jolted my PFC into problem-solving action.
While I’m a huge fan of hiring professional counselors, therapists and coaches to help us get from here to there both personally and professionally, we can also use this technique on ourselves. It isn’t easy, but it is a skill that can be learned. Like any skill, it requires practice to become proficient. When we ask ourselves questions, we act as our own coach.
Asking yourself mind-focusing questions such as
- “what am I feeling right now?” and
- “why might I be feeling this?” or
- “what is happening in my brain right now?”
can be an effective way to engage mindful attention to what is actually happening.
Mindfulness – the act of intentionally focusing on the present moment without judgment – is a way of directing attention to the conscious, thinking mind, which as we have seen here, can reduce the intensity of an emotion.
Redirect: Observe, Accept, Don’t Judge
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”– Jon Kabat-Zinn
In his bestselling book Wherever You Go, There You Are, first published in 1994, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This is also the definition Sayers et al use in the paper mentioned earlier.
Mindfulness enables us to observe a situation as it is, and accepting it without judging its value: “This experience isn’t good or bad. It simply is.” I often find myself using the phrase “it is what it is,” which gets at this perception of non-judgment, or non-evaluation.
“It may be that acceptance is an important underlying factor for mindfulness effects, specifically, an amygdala response may be higher when observing internal and external experiences without an accepting or nonjudgmental stance.”– Sayers et al, 2015
The authors found that self-reference (subjectivity) and evaluation (judgment) lead to high emotional reactivity, while objectivity, focus on others and non-judgment lead to low reactivity, which can also be described as emotional stability.
Sayers et al go on to suggest that
“a mindful attentional stance shifts one from a subjective, self-referential valuation of experience to a more objective and non-evaluative perception of experience.”
According to this paper, it seems the notion of non-judgment may be a critical factor for lowering emotional reactivity. If this is true, the reverse should also be true: the more we judge, the more emotionally reactive we become. If we can learn to hold our judgment – of ourselves, of others, of situations that happen in our lives – and simply accept people and situations as they are without assigning value such as “good” or “bad” to them, we will experience less emotional turmoil and stress, and feel more calm and peaceful overall.
Deploy: Move Attention into Strategic Position
To observe, acknowledge, and accept an experience without judgment can afford us the opportunity to deploy our attention to other aspects of the experience, thus engaging the PFC and enabling key emotion regulation strategies.
We cannot choose which stimuli come at us at any given moment, but we can choose how we deploy our attention in that moment. Once we are aware of a situation, we can choose which part of that experience we focus on. When we sense an emotion come up for us, we can get curious about that emotion: where is it coming from? What exactly are we feeling? Why are we feeling this way, right now? What might be going on deeper down, past the surface?
We can choose to listen to ourselves and others at a surface level or at a deeper level, we can ask questions and engage our thinking mind, we can shift our focus from what this situation is doing to us (is it threatening us in some way? rewarding us?), to what is causing the situation, what other people involved might be thinking and feeling, and how our reaction or response might be impacting them.
How we choose our response impacts the situation, how others respond, and how we end up feeling about it after the fact.
Throughout this article, I have focused on mindfulness as an important factor in regulating emotions. We discussed how the brain processes stimuli, hitting our feeling brain first, and then our thinking brain. By asking questions, we can disarm an emotional hijack by engaging our thinking brain. By observing and accepting situations non-judgmentally, we can reduce the emotional reactivity we otherwise might experience. And finally, by choosing our focus, we can change what gets our attention and ultimately, how we feel about a given situation.