Emotions- how your brain’s prediction capacity may not always serve you

Do you find emotions challenging? Have you ever wanted to change your emotional response to something? Do you know your emotional reaction does not serve you but are at a loss as to how to change it? Do you find yourself reacting to things unconsciously and wishing you could behave differently?

Logic and Reason

To explore the profound contradiction of the human experience from a rational standpoint is like trying to show a bird how to fly by using diagrams and advanced calculus.

Most of us have experienced this at some time in our lives. Often you try to deal with your emotional state using logic and reason. Historically, philosophers, scientists and laymen have explained emotions through the lens of logic. Yet in the cold light of day, to explain something so irrational with logic and reason sounds ridiculous. To explore the profound contradiction of the human experience from a rational standpoint is like trying to show a bird how to fly by using diagrams and advanced calculus. It’s never going to add up. The experience of emotion is not logical, just like a bird does not learn to fly using a manual. It is feeling that marks the experience, which is an intuitive, instinctive response to a situation in the moment.

Emotions and Pain

Emotions are powerful and can leave us feeling totally overwhelmed. They can also be contradictory. All of this can be confusing and intense which makes emotions hard to process. Increasingly, we are getting less and less education about how to manage our emotions effectively. The rise of incidents of mental health and depression is staggering evidence of our emotional pain. It seems that we have been dealing with emotions in the wrong way for centuries. And this has been compounded by a lack of understanding of how our brains work. I think there is also a lack of knowledge about what emotions are for. We will look at each of these in turn.

How your brain works

I read a fascinating article about emotions recently. It has helped me put into perspective how emotions are created. It also shows what we can do to manage them. “How Emotions Trick Your Brain” was written by Dr. Lisa Feldman- Barrett, in the BBC’s Science Focus magazine (No. 321, May 2018 edition). She is a psychologist, neuroscientist and author of “How emotions are Made: The Secret of the Brain”.

Neuroscientists understand now that the brain is predominantly designed to predict. “Studies show that your brain spends 60 to 80 per cent of its energy on prediction. In every moment, your brain issues thousands of predictions at a time, based on past experience.” And it is this past experience that can be such a limiting factor in your growth, development and fulfilling your desire to move forward in your life.

“Emotions are your brain’s best guesses for what your body’s sensations mean, based on your situation” says Feldman- Barrett. In other words, your body has an experience and your brain interprets that experience based upon the past. The process happens quite unconsciously, beyond your awareness. The cascade of sensation to experience and on to behaviour is rapid. However, it is not always accurate, supportive or appropriate.

For example, I have a fear of intense emotion, particularly anger when it manifests as shouting. I notice that I retreat into myself. I become small, invisible and shut down to the extent that I do not say anything. My body becomes contracted. I hunch over, stomach tight, shoulders up. I feel fear and the desire to run away. Yet that response is one of a child afraid of abandonment by angry or disappointed parents. I would like to say here that my parents never abandoned me and rarely shouted. It is a natural response to the risk of removal of protection and nurturing. As an adult, I no longer need to fear these things. And yet I do feel these emotions and behave accordingly.

How can you change your emotions?

Feldman- Barrett comes up with three options:

• The first is “body budget”, giving your body the resources it needs like good nutrition, sleep and regular exercise so that the brain does not have to predict challenging emotions. You are more stable, balanced and positive in your emotional state. I might add things such as posture and energy vibration that make the body stronger and more robust as well. Those of you that have done the Mindful Movement workshops will know the power of Paul Linden’s centring exercises as well as the health benefits of positive energy to the body and mind.
• The second is your environment and being mindful of the impact your surroundings have on your emotional state. People and places that upset you or empower you profoundly affect your state of mind.
• The third is your predictions from past experience. As my mother is fond of saying “You cannot change the past.” What I have learned is that you can change the way you view the past. When you notice your body having a reaction to a situation that does not support your best self, you can use Paul Linden’s centring exercises. Use your awareness, posture, heart energy and radiance to change your body’s reaction to the situation towards something far more supportive. Your body literally cannot support this old emotion and behaviour and so you produce a different emotion and behaviour. One you hope is supportive of your best self. If you practice this you will get much better at it.

Back to the example of the anger and shouting. I no longer need to feel the contracted state of fear and the stress response. Awareness that I am having this experience means I can change my body’s reaction and so have a completely different experience around anger and shouting. From this new state of being, I no longer feel personally attacked or threatened. I am better able to remain present to the situation. I can interact with the person more effectively than before and co- create a mutually beneficial outcome.

Towards a fuller version of myself

I have always struggled to openly share my thoughts and feelings with others. In the past, my opinion did not stand for much in the grand scheme of things and so I learned that my opinion did not matter. I have become an adult carrying the same belief. I have made my way in the world speaking other people’s truths. On a retreat workshop I spoke my truth for the first time and found people to be open and receptive to that message.

Since then I have built my confidence in sharing my stories, thoughts and ideas. I experience the emotion of “my opinion does not matter” and the contraction that comes with that. Then I centre and think about the kind of leader I wish to become. I take a deep relaxing breath and I say my piece. Fear of rejection, humiliation and dismissal surface sometimes. Consequently, I acknowledge them and let them pass as I hold my vision of what the future holds. I have many teachers and mentors to thank for traveling that journey towards a fuller version of myself.

What is the purpose of emotions?

Put very simply, emotions are information. They are your body’s way of saying that there are things here you need to pay attention to. “I feel weak, threatened, attacked, rejected, humiliated, fearful or diminished.” “I feel happy, powerful, confident, strong, listened to, seen, supported or elated.” These are either “move towards” or “move away” from states that your body is flagging up to notice. Our general lack of comfort with emotion means we miss valuable information about our current state and so we are removed and disengaged with our present environment and how we can interact with it.

Presence is remaining aware of your body state and your interaction with the environment. Emotions allow you to know how you are interacting in this moment. Once you are aware, you have choice. Now you are empowered to choose an emotional state that supports your best self.

You do not have to be a victim of your past. Awareness is a powerful tool that allows you to choose how you respond to any given situation. Yes, you might react to a situation in a certain way initially. However, that does not mean that you have to continue reacting that way. What serves you? What reaction brings you closer to your desired goals? Who do you want to be? How do you wish to be perceived by others? These questions frame the context of your reaction. Through practice, you can train yourself to “be” and “do” differently.

Over to you

How do you feel about emotions? Do you find them challenging? Are you able to manage your emotional state? Now that you have tried these methods, have they made a difference? How have things changed? Does it help to think of emotions as information? How does that make it easier or harder to manage your emotions? Please share your thoughts and experiences. As well as deepening your own learning, sharing also gives other people permission to learn and understand better their own journey.

Pass it on

If you know anyone who might benefit from help to manage their emotional state, please send them the link to this blog. Emotions seem to be something we want to run away from. In fact, they are an intimate part of the human experience that keeps us healthy, sane and connected, to ourselves and others. Developing emotional intelligence is a part of the coaching journey, deepening self- knowledge and making life a richer experience.

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