Feeling scientific

Having contact with others help us feel loved and accepted. Photo: Getty Images
Having contact with others help us feel loved and accepted. Photo: Getty Images

Science has come to the party with some useful hard data on understanding our emotions, life coach Jan Aitken writes.

If you have been reading my columns for a while you may have noticed I’m pretty keen on people identifying and understanding their feelings and general emotional state.

I believe it is useful to sit with your feelings for a while and really understand what’s going on rather than just pushing things aside, sweeping hard emotions under the carpet or glossing over the more comfortable ones.

Why? Well, there’s some really good reasons behind this approach and I thought we would look at some of the science behind it today.

There are many different parts of our brain involved in interpreting and creating our response to emotions.

Primarily they are the limbic system (the feeling brain), pre-frontal cortex (the thinking brain), amygdala, insula (pain perception) and nucleus accumbens among others.

It is not necessary to know them all by heart, but it is helpful to understand a little about what they do.

Dr Alex Korb, a neuroscientist at UCLA, has written a book called The Upward SpiralIn it he presents the latest research findings on the neuroscience behind our emotions, thoughts and actions. He outlines how our brains work and how we can "rewire" our thinking.

Thinking differently can help stop us from being caught in an emotional downward spiral and turn things around to a more positive upward spiral.

Dr Korb’s aim is to help us activate the upward spiral by triggering the neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel happier/content/positive.

Triggering our neurotransmitters allows the different areas of our brain responsible for thinking and feeling to communicate more easily and more effectively.

So, if you find yourself worrying, feeling guilty, ashamed or depressed, the most important question to ask yourself is: What am I grateful forYep, seriously!

Gratitude stimulates the brain stem system that produces the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. Gratitude towards others increases the "social" dopamine circuit, making social situations more enjoyable.

It is not just dopamine release that is triggered by gratitude either. Levels of serotonin, one of the other powerful "feel-good" neurotransmitters, are boosted too. These chemicals can start you on the "upward spiral" Dr Korb writes about.

But sometimes when life has delivered you a sucker punch, finding something to be grateful for might seem impossible.

Interestingly, it turns out that simply thinking about and searching for something to be grateful for is enough to stimulate dopamine and serotonin production.

Remembering to be grateful is a sign of emotional intelligence. 

Gratitude has been found to affect neuron density in the brain. This suggests that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient and with higher emotional intelligence, it takes less effort to be grateful.

However, even after searching for gratitude, life can still have you on your knees. The next step you can take is to label your emotions

By trying to suppress emotions we can actually activate the brain’s negative response systems engaging the downward spiral. However, by consciously and non-judgementally naming emotions we lessen their impact. You just need one or two words to describe what you re feeling.

Naming your emotions activates you pre-frontal cortex and settles the limbic system and amygdala down. The technique of naming emotions is well-understood by those who incorporate mindfulness into their day.

Along with gratitude and naming your emotions, making a decision also helps to alleviate worry and stress about a situation and actually helps you to solve problems.

Making decisions, setting intentions and goals releases the neuro-transmitters that engage the upward spiral. Making a decision allows you to feel in control, and feeling in control is perceived as a positive thing by the brain.

While you may not like the options in front of you, simply making a decision and taking action is perceived by the brain to be good. Making a good decision is all you need to do. Searching for the perfect decision will overwhelm the brain’s systems, sending you down the spiral!

The icing on the cake, step four, is related to having contact with others, to feel loved and accepted.

Feeling rejected or isolated is interpreted by the brain in the same circuitry that physical pain is identified.

In fact, emotional stress can literally be felt in the heart. It’s known as "Takotsubo cardiomyopathy".

Research conducted with married couples showed that touching someone you love actually reduces pain and the stronger the relationship the more powerful the effect.

Touch releases oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that promotes emotional bonding. Hugging and hand-holding is enough to release oxytocin, and oxytocin triggers, you guessed it, the upward spiral.

If you (or one of your family or friends) find yourself in a stressful situation it has been found that being visited by a loved one or receiving a phone call actually lowers stress levels.

Texting them just doesn’t cut it. Texting left oxytocin and cortisol (a stress hormone) readings the same as if no contact had been made!

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.

Twitter:@jan—aitken

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