Understanding How Emotional Reactivity Can Get Us Stuck And How to Get Off of the Flypaper.

“So, Doc, what’s wrong with my head?”

Latesha looked at me pensively. It sounded like a set-up for both of us. The two months she had spent in bed had something to do with her attending to the signals coming from the emotional, as opposed to the rational part of her brain. It also had to do with beliefs she had about her situation and life. But the fact is that our understanding of how emotions impair our functioning is in the beginning stages.

“It sounds, Latesha, like you have something called, “The Human Condition”.

“I thought it was Panic Attacks.” She had expected me to say that.

“Yes, it sounds like you had panic attacks. So if I told you that ‘Panic Attacks” were what were wrong with your head, would you feel I had helped you?”

“Well, no. . .”

“If I told you ANYTHING was wrong with your head, would that help you?”

“Well, no. . .”

“I speculate that if I told you something was wrong with your head and that you had Panic Attacks that you might go home and brood about Panic Attacks and anything else that might be ‘wrong’ with you. Would you believe if I told you that all of us have a lot about our bodies and minds that could function better—and many people get stuck on the flypaper of worry—but you already have shown me—and more importantly, you have shown you that you know how to get yourself unstuck?”

“Ohhh. . . Well, what did you mean by ‘the Human Condition’?”

“That you are a human being with a human brain. There are some design features of the brain that cause all of us a little grief. It’s a very technical thing – it is mechanical, electrical and chemical—and we still don’t know enough about how it works. But there is something I can tell you about how it works that might help you.”

I pulled out this picture for Latesha to see.

“What is this part that’s all curly-like in the middle of the illustration?” She asked.

“That’s what I was going to tell you about. That is called, the ‘Limbic System’. Some people call it our ‘Emotional Brain’. See how the rest most of the rest of the brain is wrapped around it?”

I explained that when something occurs that arouses us, the Limbic System registers alarm. The first emotional response is often a feeling of overwhelm or fear. Within less than a second, that signal is processed in the area of the brain that is wrapped around the limbic system—called “The Cerebral Cortex” where the alarm sensation is subject to our evaluating the reality of the fear or overwhelm we may feel. We ask ourselves questions such as “Will this hurt me?” “Do I have the resources to deal with this?” “Can I modify this so that I can manage it?”

By this time, Latesha was getting the idea.

“So, Limbic System picked up on the feelings of overwhelm and fear and wouldn’t let it go?” She asked.

“Something like that.” I replied. “Your Cerebral Cortex may have evaluated the reality of the fear and overwhelm—as often the different tissues in the brain ‘see things’ quite differently. The different tissues compete and we experience that interpretation of reality that wins. Now, what controls which tissue wins—I don’t know the answer to that. But somehow, you couldn’t shake the interpretation that led you to experience the fear and overwhelm. . . Over and Over and Over, I might add.”

“By the way, Latesha,” I continued, “Did you notice that you were able to escape feeling overwhelmed and fearful once you started to apply a little of the logic from your Cerebral Cortex?”

“Well, yes, but—when I’m in the experience, how do I tell the difference between what is emotional running-in-place and the real thing?” She asked.

“I love how you worded that,” I said. “I think I can help you with that.”

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Author's Bio: 

Katrina Holgate Miller, PhD writes about the strengths and skills people use to face their mental health issues with empowerment (moxie) rather than victimization.

She has turned her 30+ years of clinical experience with thousands of clients into stories and tips about how her clients were able to recover from mental illness and addiction and return to the roles they enjoyed during times of wellness. She is author of the website www.moxiementalhealth.com. Her email is katrina@moxiementalhealth.com