The Motion in Emotion: how to ride the waves of feelings
Sometimes we hide, and at other times we express, our emotions.
Socially we move emotionally through our days, hiding and revealing, hiding and revealing. Our social consciousness keeps certain positive and negative emotions hidden, while others are shared.
As such, each day is composed of a layer of experiences. The interpersonal, the personal, and the more subterranean or somewhat hidden. Beneath of all of this is the hidden, the unconscious, the more mysterious landscape of emotional tones that move like mini-oceans, colouring the states of consciousness that we inhabit in our daily lives.
Like sensing the horse, we sense our emotions which move beneath the surface of our consciousness. Sometimes unknown and enigmatic, they are part of our navigation through our days. Like waves of an ever changing ocean, they lift and release and shift our state from moment to moment.
“Emotional cognition” is the rational process that underlies much of our decision-making. Although we may think we make decisions from pure logic alone, in fact, many of our decisions are influenced by emotion (1).
Emotions can be positive or negative when you experience them.
Strong emotions, either positive or negative, lead the brain to lay down more long term memory. If you think about it, this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. You would want to remember where you finally found water in a desert and the positive emotion of the joy of satiating your thirst would be intense, and helpful if linked to longer term memory. Or, you would want to remember that tigers are dangerous, so the strong emotion of running in fear from a tiger being connected to a longer term memory of the potential of danger from tigers would also be useful.
ANATOMY OF EMOTION
There is much about every single individual human being that we don’t understand. Part of the human experience is the emotional experience. Emotions have remained fairly mystifying over the years, evoked by poetry and art, by relationships and by experiences of profound awe, and more. We now understand that the neurons firing in a brain region called the amygdala contribute significantly to emotional states.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure located on both the left and the right side of the brain. Close to both the area that perceives smell, as well as the area that lays down memory, the location helps explain somewhat how emotion is connected to smell and memory.
If you see a small child experience emotion, you’ll see that the emotion is usually fleeting. In young children, a single emotion will last from fifteen minutes to four hours. In adults, emotional tone is quite varied, with some emotions lasting at baseline throughout the day and others only for fleeting minutes (2). Given this observation, it is thought that healthy emotions are transient. They come and go, like clouds in a sky. It is only when we try to hold onto them, or suppress powerful ones, that they will stay for longer.
As a child becomes a teenager, the amygdala grows faster than other parts of the brain. This is why teenagers’ emotions can be so powerful. I think this may have originally have been an evolutionary advantage, as many coming of age ceremonies of traditional people occurred in early adulthood - ie. the beginning of the teen years. The coming of age ceremonies would both provoke strong emotion as well as help the young person become more clear on their identity, their role in their society, and the values of the society. So, the strong emotional aspects of the brain of the teen years would be useful in engaging longer term memory of shared values and personal strength, contributing to greater stability of the individual and the shared community, culture, tribe, society.
RIDING THE WAVES
When you have a good emotion, one you enjoy, you likely simple savor it and let it go without further thought. However, sometimes it’s challenging to allow your self to fully experience a positive emotion. If so, then the exercise below may be of use.
However, usually, we find ourselves reading something like this post because we are curious how to “get rid of” negative emotions.
So, consider thinking about both the positive and the negative emotions like waves on an ocean. For a moment, also think about whether you can see the emotions as neither wrong nor right, bad nor good, negative or positive. Just neutral. Emotions. Phenomena. Known and felt and somewhat mysterious, phenomena.
When an emotion comes that you are uncomfortable with, whether you have labeled it wrong or right, bad or good, can you simply let it be there? Feel it, sense it, be curious. Without acting on it. Knowing that it is just one aspect of your experience, just one aspect of your neurons firing in the wild world and intricate landscape of your brain and mind.
As if you are a bubble bobbing on the ocean. Or a surfer on a surf board, riding the ever changing realm of the ocean waves. Adapting to the weather of your life.
Take a moment and stare at one spot, or close your eyes if you get more calm with your eyes closed. Notice the breath moving in and out. Start to allow the breath to get longer and deeper, then expand even into the belly, so that the diaphragm moves up and down.
Now, imagine in your mind’s eye, an ocean scene. On that ocean is a small little strong bubble. Within that bubble is a glowing light. Watch the bubble move up and down, on the ocean waves, always present, always safe, always bright.
You can be a bit playful, by imagining that the ocean takes on the characteristics of an emotion. Try an emotion that you are comfortable with. Or an emotion that you are somewhat uncomfortable with. See what happens to the waves in the imagination of your psyche. Keep re-focusing on the bubble filled with light.
If this doesn’t help you focus, then simply return your focus to the breath. Observing the breath move in and out. Not wrong or right, bad or good, it is simply the breath. Continue to lightly, lazily, with minimal effort, observe the breath.
By doing this practice regularly for at least one minute a day, you begin to alter the brain’s architecture for a more even tone and more adaptability to your days. If you have an amygdala that is larger and more easily goes into fear mode, this daily mindful practice can actually reduce the size of the amygdala to a more usual size, and / or reduce the amount it fires in response to negative stimuli (3). In this way, mindfulness reduces anxiety.
Another exercise is a blue sky exercise . . . stay tuned and I will describe this next week.
And if you would like to join me for a guided meditation, try one of the ones on this website, or join me for a talk or workshop or private session. Click subscribe on the link above to hear more as the calendar for 2019 evolves.
Wishing you the best always,
Dr. M. ~
Okon-Singer and colleagues. 2015. The neurobiology of emotion–cognition interactions: fundamental questions and strategies for future research. In: Front Hum Neurosci. 2015; 9: 58. PDF Emotion-cognition
Trampe and colleagues. 2015. Emotions in every day life. In: PLoS One. 10(12): e0145450. PDF Daily Emotions
Kral and colleagues. 2018. Impact of short- and long-term mindfulness meditation training on amygdala reactivity to emotional stimuli. In: NeuroImage Volume 181, 1 November 2018, Pages 301-313. Link to abstract