A frequent question that I am asked is “how do I get better control of my emotions?”, because most of us have experienced negative consequences from having our emotions get out of control to the point that we say or do something we later regret. In the short term, it may feel good to get angry feelings and hurtful comments “out of our system” but then later the damage to our relationship with the object of our anger or hurtful comments makes us regret the outburst.
I want to start with an image of a wagon pulled by horses which will represent our felt emotions that are pushing toward being expressed outwardly. The amygdala will represent the emotions taking over the reins and urging the horses to gallop off and go all over the place. If we can control our emotions enough that the amygdala does not take control of the reins, then our reasonable, calm self will take over the reins and our emotions will be either be contained or expressed in a constructive way. Our image of ourself as a calm, reasonable person will represent our true self taking the reins and either keeping the horses still or encouraging them to gallop in a controlled way along the path we have selected for them.
The question then becomes how to do we make sure our calm self and not our amygdala is the one holding the reins? There are a variety of answers to this question. First of all, we can learn and practice various relaxation methods, such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery that have the effect of reducing the effects of our activated sympathetic nervous system (the one that underlies the fight, flight, or freeze response), that is, help to reduce our heart rate, slow our breathing, lower our blood pressure, reduce our muscle tension, etc. These relaxation methods activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which reverses all of the effects of the activated sympathetic nervous system, and helps us to be much calmer and peaceful, thus allowing us to take the reins and guide the horses to where we want to go.
In order to better understand the next method for calming ourselves and “taking the amygdala off line”, I want to introduce something I call “cortex TV”. Cortex TV represents the content of our mind, e.g., all the thoughts that are creating our agitated emotions, such as fear and anger, and it is called cortex TV because the amygdala is constantly watching what is going on in our thinking mind and reacting accordingly. If our thinking mind is tuned to the “disaster channel”, visualizing all the negative events that have occurred, or could occur in our lives, then the amygdala, which is in charge of the emotional brain, sends panic messages through the sympathetic nervous system, and our heart, digestive system, muscular system, blood pressure, skin, etc. all change in ways that support a possible fight, flight, or freeze response. The amygdala does not know that we are simply remembering past catastrophes or imagining future catastrophes, but rather reacts as if the catastrophe is happening in the present and it tries to rev up our nervous system enough that we will be able to fight the dangerous situation, run away from the dangerous situation, or freeze in place and hope the dangerous situation passes.
There are a variety of methods that can be used to alter what is happening in our cortex TV. Common ones we all use are such things as distracting ourselves with things other than catastrophes, whether is involves some enjoyable or mindless activity or using our imagination to visualize pleasant events. In effect, these methods help us to “change channels” from the disaster channel to a different channel, such as the “dream vacations” channel. These common methods can work for a short time but do not fundamentally change our tendency to keep tuning into the disaster channel. Longer lasting changes can happen by practicing and developing mindfulness and/or meditation (see the posting dated 4/10/23 for a more detailed description of these two methods). Briefly, mindfulness can help us to observe our cortex TV in a calmer, less emotional way, and thus help the amygdala to realize that we are not actually in danger. For example, we mindfully observe that our cortex TV is showing us getting fired and having our family become destitute. When we observe this mindfully, we note that these are only imagined fears and do not get so absorbed in them as something that is really likely, that we convince the amygdala they are actually happening. It is as if we help the amygdala to understand “oh, these are only imagined fears; they are not real” and thus it does not have to activate the fight, flight, or freeze response. Meditation works in a different way, such that we learn to focus on something neutral, such as our calm steady breathing, and whenever a distraction arises that is trying to get us to switch to the disaster channel, we learn to pay only minimal attention to the distraction (thus keeping it from totally switching channels on us) and return our focus to the “steady and calm breathing channel”. The amygdala then primarily observes the boring breathing channel and sees no need to activate the fight, flight, or freeze response.