Emotional reactions

Understanding how your brain predicts your feelings
You might think that emotions arise as a direct result of what’s happening. Actually, it’s more complicated than that. The brain takes in what’s happening and contextualizes it. So, when our partner gives us flowers, brain neurons fire. And we think that is what makes us smile and feel happy. In fact, it’s much more complex.

We usually don’t have the mental energy to constantly re-examine and re-evaluate how we feel so instead our brains do a quick survey to generate a guess for how we “probably feel” based on our experience of getting flowers in the past combined with the sensations we notice, like perhaps a surprised smile and a flushed face.

Neuropsychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has researched and written extensively on the way emotions work. She explains that our brains guess the emotions that will be needed, but not always in reaction to external events. Our brains are actually doing complex work to generate our emotion based on the situation, our personal history, and how the body feels. This means there are things we can do in all three areas to make change if we want to. (More on that in a minute.)

And there are a lot of human emotions. Pixar’s animated film Inside Out highlighted five primary emotions – anger, fear, disgust, joy, and sadness. But in real life, our emotions are layered with nuances that allow for a much broader emotional range.

Humans are capable of feeling amusement, awe, confusion, empathic pain, horror, surprise, and relief, to name just a few. And, single emotions can be combined in infinite ratios. You might remember feeling both sad about and fond of something. Or feeling both surprise and joy when you received a gift you really wanted. Maybe even a little relief, too.

So how do we understand and modify our emotional reactions? Let’s go back to the three ingredients: Body, the past and surroundings.

First, the body.

Our physical health plays a huge part in our emotions. Body signals, like a faster heart rate, help our brains form predictions. “To change the signals coming from your body, try to get more sleep, eat healthfully, and exercise. A stronger, healthier body promotes a healthier emotional life,” Barrett wrote in a blog post. Being “hangry” – feeling angry because of hunger – is an example of how something physical can influence our emotions.

Second, the past.

We can’t change the past, but we can change the way we think and feel about it. New perspectives on past experiences can be reached by talking with friends, family, or a therapist. Even practicing mindfulness, staying more focused on what’s happening in the here and now.

While you’re at it, Barrett suggests trying some new activities. Activities designed to boost your emotional well-being like meditation, gratitude journaling, or even gardening can help us see the world in different ways. New experiences provide more data points for your brain to use next time it is predicting what you should feel.

And finally, your environment.

As for surroundings, a great way to shift away from an undesired state of mind or emotion is to change how you are interacting with the people, objects, and environment around you. Don’t bury yourself in your phone. Instead, take a walk or a shower. Go for a drive. If you can’t leave the room, maybe you can change your seat to look out the window. Feldman recommends paying mindful attention to small details. For example, try noticing everything around you that has a bit of blue color in it.

Getting a handle on your emotions might not happen overnight, but keep practicing. It gets easier. As Barrett notes, “Emotions aren’t uncontrollable chain reactions, even if they feel that way … Emotions aren’t wired into your brain like little circuits; they’re made on-demand. As a result, you have more control over your emotions than you might think.”

Summary

  • Human emotions are not only a reaction to our environment.
  • Our brains guess emotions based on signals from our bodies, past experiences, and current surroundings.
  • Humans feel a plethora of different emotions, and these emotions are often combined.
  • You can take more control of emotions by addressing your physical health, past experience, and current surroundings.
  • Make sure your body signals are healthy: Get enough sleep; eat nutritious food; exercise regularly.
  • Adjust your thinking about the past via talking with friends, family, or a therapist.
  • Add new experiences to your life that give fresh perspectives and allow more options for your brain to draw on.
  • Change your mood by changing your surroundings, e.g., leaving the room, going for a walk, or looking out the window.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

Five ways to change your emotional state

Changing your emotional state might mean getting rid of a bad mood, or perhaps just taking anger down a few notches so you can have a conversation without yelling. Neuropsychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has researched and written extensively on the three ingredients that your brain uses to create emotions: your physical state; your past; and your surroundings. Here are five of the many ways you can affect one or another of these ingredients:

  1. Eat something quick and nutritious. Have a banana or a cup of yogurt; grab a taco; or drink a glass of chocolate milk. When our bodies don’t have enough nutrition, it lowers our blood sugar. This deprives us of key hormones that help balance our emotions and manage our impulsive behaviors.
  2. Go for a walk or take a shower. Drive to the beach and look at the water. Read a book you love. Look out the window and see what you notice. Changing our surroundings (or our view of it) gives our brain new input and context to help in creating another emotion to feel.
  3. Talk to someone you trust. We can’t change our past experiences, but we can change how we think about them, and also learn to recognize ways those events can affect our current reactions.
  4. Try something new, maybe something you’ve always wanted to do. Visit a plant store and imagine, or start, a little garden. Bake a batch of your favorite cookies. Check out a museum or art gallery in person or online. Sign up for a pickleball class. Expanding your experiences gives your brain a bigger set of tools to work with.
  5. Get your blood pumping a little harder. Do 20 jumping jacks. Try a few sets of bicep curls; if you don’t have weights, canned food or hardback books will suffice. Race-walk around the block. Even a little movement will help. Exercise supports the flow and chemical balance of our bodies, which directly affects our emotional state.

What to do when you feel “hangry”

Some emotions erupt from physiological processes. Hunger causes your blood sugar to drop. When blood sugar is low, the body sends hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. They are meant to bring balance to the blood sugar level. But cortisol can increase aggression for many people. The combination of all this chemical disruption can result in anger.

That’s being “hangry.” You can combat it by paying attention to your eating habits and identifying foods you can eat in a pinch. If you find yourself suddenly getting grumpy over small things, take a 10-minute break and eat a snack with carbs. Try a banana or granola bar, for example. For longer-lasting energy, follow it up with some protein. A glass of milk (or soy milk), a handful of nuts, or hummus and pita chips can do nicely.

Source: Cleveland Clinic

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