I have been reading The Charge by Brendon Burchard this week and if there was ever a person who goes deep and knows about the psychological and emotional make-up of people, I would rank him at the top of the class. You may have noticed I have an interest in this also, especially from an emotional trauma point of view see (Narcissism: A Solar Metaphor) and the science-geek in me always wants to understand why. A lot of the resources I have read and listened to recently talk about the effect of emotional trauma and that there are many studies which show this result to be true, that much of it comes from childhood conditioning, etc, etc. However, none of them gets into the psychological process, until I read Brendon’s book. I’ll let him take it from here …
We’re all hard-wired to demonstrate care for others but some of us have been cut off from our emotions and mental functioning in a way that blocks or prevents us from giving care. When I say hard-wired to care, I mean that quite literally. It turns out that your brain is remarkably well equipped, biologically built, to relate to and care for others emotions and experiences.
Essentially, your brain is built to mimic that which you see and feel in others. You sensed this before when you walked up to a group of people and found them in a sad state. Your emotional range probably soon met theirs, a phenomenon that scientists call emotional contagion. This happens because of a system of mirror neurons which actively fire in a way that makes us sense and mimic others. They’re called mirror neurons because they cause a logical and emotional response within us that mirrors what we see in others. All this happens automatically and subconsciously.
Of course, we can choose to act or not act on these neural firings, but remember the basics of brain science: the more the neural firings take place, the more the pathways are strengthened, and the more likely the same response in the future. So, if we constantly see others behaving in a certain way, our brains will likely tell us to mimic that behaviour. It’s a key reason why kids smoke when others smoke, why infants smile when their mothers smile, and why so many of us yawn or feel impatient when someone else does. Thanks to our mirror neurons, we feel what we see. So, when you see someone who needs some attention and love, those feelings tend to arise within you in an empathetic way and you want to give attention and love to the person in front of you. But, for some people, the neurons that should fire the emotions of compassion and caring have been compromised.
What physically can happen in your body when caring – or any other positive emotion for that matter – disappears or gets intercepted. At some point in our lifetimes, we all get blocked from our emotions and the joys of experiencing and expressing greater emotional range inducing caring. Sometimes it’s our culture, peers and parents who condition our beliefs about emotional expression and our patterns and feeling of worthiness abut caring. But it happens more broadly than that. Its the millions of experiences we have within ourselves and the millions of interactions we have with others that weave the expanding tapestry of who we are and how much we care. Two such experiences come to mind as being extremely important for you to know. Both lead to emotional brain block.
One experience is about too much anxiety. The other is about too little attention.
When an overwhelming emotional event happens in your life, your mind and brain go into protective mode. The biological process works this way – something bad happens and your extended nervous system (body, brain stem, limbic area, cortex) lights up immediately, Roughly speaking, emotions tend to go vertically, rising from your body’s senses to your brain stem to the limbic area of your brain and ultimately integrating with the relevant parts of your brain, including your middle pre-frontal cortex, which tells you how much conscious focus and attention to give that emotion. Of course, all this happens in a flash and it isn’t exactly a linear process because of the vast spider webs of neural connectivity in the brain, but you get the gist: emotion wells up, the brain decides how much attention to give it. During times of high anxiety and stress, the mind can avoid these sensations, effectively cutting off feeling from our subcortical regions to our pre-frontal cortex so we don’t have to experience the feeling as heightened conscious levels. This allows us to avoid, minimize, dampen or shut off our feelings. This ability to shut down emotion is often called a defence mechanism, and it’s a good thing we have it. As we’ve evolved, many of the fight or flight emotions that make us human aren’t always helpful at that moment.
When you’re in a meeting and someone embarrasses you, the emotions in your body say to get up and run out of the room right this second. Luckily, your mind dampens the emotion and tells you to stay put, and stay focused on the discussion and the goal at hand. In more dramatic trauma cases, it’s also fortunate that our mind kicks in and turns our awareness away from the overwhelming sensations we’re experiencing physically or emotionally. Victims of attack, rape and physical injury often report they were terrified but that at some point the emotions and experience changed and they went to another place while they were being hurt. Their minds shut down the overwhelming awareness of the situation and took them elsewhere. That’s why this defence mechanism is a blessing. But the more pain and trauma we experience, the more the pattern runs, the more the neural pathways strengthen to avoid emotion. Suddenly, we don’t integrate or experience our feelings as much in our everyday lives. And the less emotion we feel, the less care we give to ourselves and others. Emotion, it turns out, is the spark that compels us to care in the first place.
Fortunately, we’ve also been given the gift of mental and emotional presence, allowing us to choose how to handle our emotions. Therapists often help us use this gift to help us revisit our past and experience traumatic events so that we can better manage or integrate the emotions from those times. Sometimes they help us recreate the meaning of the experience altogether. In fact, the best therapists are those who teach their patients to manage emotion better and increase their tolerance for dealing with anxiety or negative emotion. That’s why so many therapists will tell their patients to stay with the emotion. By re-engaging people with their emotions, therapists help people find a greater sense of self-care and empathy for others.
And there you have it: the more pain and trauma we experience, the more the pattern runs, the more the neural pathways strengthen to avoid emotion. We subconsciously and autonomically close off our emotional connection and a good therapist can help you reconnect and reopen your emotional range.
The key takeaway for me is that we adopt an internal condition based on external circumstances and we relive this external experience as our internal reality. The therapist helps us separate these two worlds so that we can become more whole and integrated.
Did you find this post insightful? Would you like to see more on this area? Post in the comments below or drop me a line.