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Brain Power, Part 3: Your Brain on Emotions

Emotions feel so true. Their intensity is often mistaken as direction for how we should proceed. Unfortunately, emotions aren't always reliable. In fact, they have one job and it has nothing to do with reliability.

Emotions are a built in alert system that we need to pay attention to something. That's it.

Let's be clear about what emotions do NOT have the power to do:

  • Emotions don't define our worth.

  • Emotions don't have the power to make decisions.

  • Emotions don't control our behavior.


Here's the bad news...unless we allow emotions to overstep their bounds and give them control of what they aren't supposed to have control over.

We will return to that in a bit.

Let's take a look at what is happening when emotions are threatening a hostile takeover of your brain and what to do when this happens.

The simplicity of explanation in The Whole Brain Child by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is my favorite. They explain your downstairs brain holds your big emotions and your upstairs brain does the logical thinking and when the upstairs brain is wrapped around the downstairs brain, calm choices and a healthy relationship with your emotions is happening. However, if the downstairs brain gets too rowdy, you flip your lid and temporarily lose your ability to make calm, rational choices. (Picture your thumb across your palm as the downstairs brain and your fingers wrapping around the thumb--pretty clever, right?!)

Even though this is a book that teaches your child about his/her brain function, the reality is we need to be reminded of these lessons no matter what our age. Every human being will have flip their lid moments, no matter how evolved they may be!

The question is what do we do about it. Here's my process that I use for myself and my clients:

First, recognize when the brain has lost its ability to function cooperatively. This may be noticed by the presence of negative thoughts or lashing out verbally or slamming items/doors. Look for irrational thinking and/or behavior.

Second, reboot the system. Yes, you read that correctly. Brains can be rebooted. Breathing deeply is the universal reboot. Stepping outside into nature is another option. Taking a break from whatever is causing the cooperation to break down in your brain is powerful. Here's the secret, rebooting requires bodily movement of some sort. That bodily movement takes the focus away from the really big emotions and gives space for the logical brain to wrap itself back around the emotive brain.

Third, to keep in a space where the brain functions cooperatively most of the time, take a regular inventory of your emotions. Work on noticing the signals of where emotions show up in your body first. The more we can feel them in our bodies, the sooner we can focus on what our emotions want us to notice. When we recognize our emotions as alerts, we can attend to the alert BEFORE it becomes a triage situation where we have left people hurting in the wake of our big emotions.

Remember, when we think of our emotions as alerts, they become helpers in our journey. When they are helpers, they no longer have the power to determine how we view ourselves or others. They also help us by alerting us prior to the moment they take over and we do something or say something we will regret. Emotions are neither negative or positive. They just are. They are powerful indicators that we can be grateful for because they give us a richer, more meaningful life.

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