Feelings can be tricky things. They can change the outcome of the day. We can love them one minute and hate them the next. And we can be hard on our feelings. We can revel in them. Suppress them. Deny them. Disconnect from them.
At their best, feelings are information. They can provide us with signals of when things are going good and when things are going less good. Guilt tells us we’ve behaved in a manner against our moral judgments. Anger tells us someone or something has crossed a boundary. Suspense tells me that the script writers on Neighbours have finally thought of something interesting, that I didn’t predict first.
At their worst, emotions get hijacked by our beautiful, complex, tricky, brilliant and destructive minds. And then anything can happen.
Let us take fear for example.
The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped masses of nuclei located deep in the temporal lobe that among other functions, is involved in the fear circuit in our brain. This structure is responsible for the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response that helps us to respond to threats in order to keep us alive. The amygdala is also responsible for deciding what memories are stored and where they are stored. The level of emotion that is attached to a memory determines where it is stored in the brain.
However this process gets mucked up all the time.
Imagine that at a formative moment, when we are profoundly unprepared and without the resources to cope, we have an encounter with a shark. The shark was beyond terrifying. It raged, it crushed its sharp teeth and its beady eyes stared at us and said “You’re a goner”. It threatened to destroy everything: it was incomprehensibly mind-defyingly awful. As a result, our inner alarm (or amygdala) became jammed into the on-position and has stayed stuck there ever since. There is no use others telling us that there aren’t any sharks around at the moment, or that most sharks don’t consume us alive: that’s easy for them to say, they haven’t been casually enjoying the sun and the water to find a white pointer staring at them whilst have nothing to protect them but a small and flimsy bikini. The result of this shark encounter is an unconscious commitment to a catastrophic generalisation; we begin to fear not all sharks but also all fish, reptiles and mermaids, and all beaches, and water and sunny days, and even associated things, like the taste of salt, or the feeling of the towel we wrapped our self in afterwards. We can no longer make logical distinctions. Everything – or nearly everything – becomes a threat.
While many of the threats are symbolic, evolutionarily, our brains have evolved to deal with physical threats to survival that we had to quickly respond to. However, our body still responds with biological changes that prepare us to fight, even though there is no actual physical threat with which we must contend.
Our mental equipment to distinguish between relative dangers has been destroyed. We have received such a big fright that everything has grown frightening.
Every slightly daunting challenge becomes a sign that life is all over. The party where we don’t know anyone, the meeting with the boss, the tricky conversation at work… these put the whole of existence into question. Pretty much every day is a crisis.
All because the brain got way too involved.
It doesn’t just happen with fear either. There’s a whole range of feelings that can get hijacked by the brain and exist in some sort of ‘unprocessed’ form within us. Someone may have abused our trust, made us doubt their kindness or violated our self-esteem. The hurt is somewhere inside, but on the surface we look to be in good, jolly spirits. We might numb ourselves chemically or adopt a careful specific tone of cynicism, which we think will mask the specific wound that has been inflicted on us.
To get ourselves out of this mess we need to be courageous. These feelings, that are meant to be terrific guides to life, have to be seen for what they also are: instruments that can be somewhat unreliable. We need to accept that there is a distinction between feelings and reality. When the mind gets involved, the feelings are no longer facts.
To process our emotions properly – or to stop dreading sharks everywhere – we need a lot of compassion for ourselves. We avoid processing this stuff because it can feel at odds with who we would like to be, or who we think we should be. But we’re all humans. If we can acknowledge the difficulties of being human with warmth and charity, we might actually be able to feel the thing that hurts – the specific shark we did once see – to stop it haunting our future.
Good friends, trustworthy therapists and a bit of self-awareness helps too.