We’ve been looking at, in Part 1 and Part 2, how shifts in focus change thoughts, how thoughts activate emotional states, and how emotions decide whether or how neurons fire and wire to produce structural changes in the brain.
Activated by your perceptions, emotions are powerful energies that direct the dynamic processes in the body.
Together, emotions and (interpretive) thoughts:
- Produce physiological sensations felt throughout the physical body.
- Release hormones into the bloodstream that affect the balance, or homeostasis, of the body’s systems.
- Stimulate the basic cells of the brain, neurons, to fire in particular patterns.
- Sculpt the synaptic connections of your brain.
- Shape the actions you take or whether you take action at all.
Although a wide array of emotions is possible, and gratefully so, as they that add richness to how you understand your self and others, essentially, it can also be said that:
Neurologically, your mind and body are always in one of two overarching emotional states – either love or fear.
The number of nuances and intensities of these core emotions may be countless, yet all emotional responses and physiological sensations in the body are, in some way, rooted in love or fear.
Emotions of empathy, joy, or gratitude are examples of core emotional states of love (and connection), whereas emotions of hurt, disappointment, or shame are examples of core emotional states of fear (and disconnect). For example, if you decide to focus on faults or unfulfilled expectations, this will likely produce painful feelings inside that are rooted in fear, whereas a focus on what’s working well or your past accomplishments will likely energize inner feelings rooted in love, which are pleasant.
Other labels can be used for love and fear. For example, for love, we can choose the words ‘empathy’ or ‘compassion,’ and, for fear, we can choose the words ‘anxiety’ or ‘stress.’ The point is that the label we use is … not the point.
What is essential to note is that:
- These core emotions alter the physiological state of the body and mind in the overall direction of one or the other.
- The key attribute of love that promotes a sense of safety and makes feelings of love possible is … connection.
- The key attribute of fear that signals danger and alerts the brain to activate the body’s survival systems is … disconnect.
An idea presented in perhaps one of the most thought-provoking books of wisdom published in the 1970s, A Course in Miracles, is:
“Every communication is either a loving response or a cry for help.”
What makes this intuitive statement so profound is that, stated in different words, it accurately describes the two modes of the brain.
Associated with core felt states of love and fear, the brain is always in one of two modes, either in “learning” or “protective” mode.
The former describes the mind and body in a natural state of balance, one in which you are open to reflectively think and learn from your experiences or environment. In contrast, the latter describes the body in “fight or flight” mode, a state in which your defense strategies put up barriers and walls that automatically and purposefully block processes of the higher cortex, such as reflective thinking, and in effect, block change.
Based on this, it is safe to say that:
- Love or fear decides the overall mode of the brain.
When you feel disconnect, it shakes your sense of safety in relation to your self. When this occurs, the body’s survival system activates, and the brain releases the stress hormone Cortisol into the bloodstream.
In contrast, when you feel connected (to self, life, others in the present moment), despite the circumstances around you, you likely feel an overall sense of love and safety. What is now happening in the brain to make this difference? In this case, Oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone that produces a felt sense of safety and bonding, of love and connection, is released into the bloodstream.
The feelings of trust and connection that this hormone stimulates automatically reverse the survival response by reducing fear and anxiety. Oxytocin is the body’s antidote to Cortisol.
- Your brain is a relationship organ.
All its operations in some way have to do with maintaining balance to protect the integrity of the multitude of relationships that support you to survive and thrive, whether physically, mentally or emotionally (spiritually?).
Your brain is all about relationships, thus, your deepest strivings are for love and meaningful connection to life within and around you. This explains why love (for your self as well as others) enhances your sense of security – and why some of your greatest fears have to do with loss of love & disconnect.
- As an adult, early protective neural patterns no longer serve you.
You are wired to form certain protective patterns in the first years of life. Once set, these habituated protective response patterns operate, for the most part, without conscious awareness.
Whenever you experience re-occurring problems, stuck places, addictive compulsions or emotional suffering in your life, such as chronic depression or anxiety, etc., it is likely connected to these early neural patterns that, essentially, prevent your conscious mind (logic) and subconscious mind (emotions, heart) from working together.
- Because you are also wired for love, the strategies you use to protect or defend yourself can concurrently cause intense feelings of disconnect.
Literally speaking, the body’s survival reaction, more commonly known as the “fight or flee” response, hijacks your capacity to freely choose your thoughts and actions. When this occurs, it’s as if your power to make choices gets switched off. Disconnected from the power of choice, you naturally may feel a sense of powerlessness, helplessness or loss of control (and then blame others or withdraw to get quick-fix relief!).
So often, it appears, the very things we most need to heal are what we most fear and avoid, and, simultaneously, the very things we most need to let go of and consciously release are the very things we crave.
Much anxiety is a misinterpretation of what poses a threat or danger to you.
How can this knowledge help you optimize your life, and take charge of the direction of change in your own brain?
The emotion of fear, survival fears in particular, can have a paralyzing effect on the brain, that is, unless you know how to process fear in ways that allow your brain to engage in certain natural integrative processes. If not, early-survival fears can jam the network for purposes that are often well-intentioned, yet misinformed.
Essentially, these are scaring you into protecting yourself in situations where it is not necessary to do so!
More precisely, certain perceptions that you formed as a small child, and that you associated at the time to early-survival fears, such as fear of rejection, abandonment, inadequacy – in moments of stress – can hijack the otherwise amazing capacity of your brain to heal old wounds and make the changes you want (even miraculous ones).
You need a way of thinking and responding to challenging situations that empowers you to “make sense” of your life experiences and, at the same time, promotes healthful conditions for your brain and body.
Your thoughts are a powerful energy that can, and do, completely shape your responses, even as they change the state of your mind and body to what you believe and hold in your conscious awareness. How can you consciously command these inner processes? For starters:
- Learn how your brain works—from infancy to adulthood, your brain directly shapes and is shaped by relationships throughout life.
- Identify any limiting beliefs by noticing what you’re telling yourself in your mind, your “self-talk.”
- Clarify your vision of the life you aspire to realize, and, most important how you want to be and relate to yourself, others, your mind and body, your life.
- Develop your ability to shift to the most optimal emotional state given the circumstance.
- Energize your imagination to keep your focus on your vision and the particular changes you want to make to the circuitry of your brain.
- Set an intention to break free of limiting fears, and consciously allow your thoughts and actions to stem from a heart space of love and connection.
Positive emotions energize your brain to perform optimally for you.
You want healing, and positive change? Go for it. You are wired with circuitry for caring, compassion and empathy.
Cozolino, Louis (2002). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain. NY: W. W. Norton.
Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. NY: Pantheon Books.
Siegel, Daniel J. (1999). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. NY: Guilford Press.