I have talked about how the threat/self – protection system evolved through evolution. We now need to look at the difficulty our brain faces when it has to decide what is and what is not a threat in the present day. We no longer are faced with lions running around our neighborhood and have to decide whether to stay or run. We are faced, instead with more subtle situations and our brain has to learn what is and what is not threatening; but moreover our brain has to modify the basic patterns given to us by our evolution to react appropriately in a given situation.
Research has shown that there are number of different memory systems for processing what is a threatening event. There is part of the brain called amygdala, which receives information quickly. It then makes a quick and crude judgement about whether the situation is life threatening based on previous experience. The problem is these sorts of memories are about high threat, and as the threat system is activated, integrating new information becomes difficult because this system is designed to turn off the reflective thought, jump to conclusions and simply act fast. So we don’t even get the opportunity to consider other options of reaction to a situation. It also activates the hormone cortisol, which can interfere with the processing of the hippocampus part of the brain which may store memories of similar situations like the one being faced, which are not life threatening. It also may interfere with part of the brain called frontal cortex where we figure out what is appropriate behavior in a given social situation.
In our environment today many of the threat that activate, stimulate and shapes our threat/ self – protection system comes from other people. It is also our relationships with other people who teach us about our feelings; we can only make sense, understand and give meaning to our feeling of anger or comfort in relationship to others. We have many memories of the past, some good and some bad in relation to others. Some will evoke anger, others anxiety or sadness. These past emotional memories are focused on self-protection and they can easily intrude our lives in the present. Sometimes this intrusion can be disturbing and causes us to get stuck, become fearful, anxious and depressed. The more we try to push these feelings aside the stronger they becomes, causing more intrusions in our thoughts that results in us having irritated mental state.
We must be able to experience and understand emotions and allow other people to help us to accept and comprehend them. We cannot do that if we do not express them to some degree and learn from that experience. Emotions can be difficult and tricky things. In trying to protect ourselves from expressing emotion that could get us into trouble, we may actually end up not being able to develop sufficient understanding of our emotions to be able to work with them; we may become emotionally handicapped individuals. I have seen people with terrible emotional difficulties where psychotherapy has been helpful in figuring out how the past was intruding into the present; they were able to let go and move forward to new opportunities.
So we have to learn how to work with strong emotions compassionately, recognizing that we didn’t design them, choose them or ask for them to be shaped in the way they are, but also not to be simply passive in face of them or blindly act them out.
Next time I will look at feeling good feelings; until than be compassionate to your self-protective brain!!!
The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert