Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Who's Doing the Driving; Conclusion

This is the final part of a series I started some time ago about how to regain some control of your own mind. This edition is about emotions.

Emotions are important. I’m not going to say they aren’t. They help us decide what we care about, what our values are, how to weigh the relative importance of events around us.

But if we have a mood disorder, we need to understand that our emotions are not reliable guides. We need to really get it at a GUT LEVEL that emotions are actually chemical responses. They are not “you” any more than the little naggy voice in the back of your head is “you,” and if you have a mood disorder they will mislead you 90% of the time. Emotions are generated in various brain structures (the amygdala is the one I remember) in response to certain stimuli. The amygdala sets up chemicals that produce fear in situations it deems bad for survival. These responses are set in us very young. They are strong and reasonless, and they do not mature as we grow older. Emotional pain is just as strong at 35 as it was at 3. Fear is just as scary. The only difference is that through socializing and other learning, we have developed the capacity to run those feelings by other parts of our brains, analyze them, and choose an appropriate response. It may feel like it’s happening instantaneously and without our will, but there is a process, that can be interrupted.

The difficulty with mood disorders is that our brains were set on OVERKILL, sometimes at a very early age (that setting can be adjusted somewhat by the right medicines, but it’s rarely a complete solution). Think of it as having your stereo locked in at a very high volume. The emotions are so big, and so loud, it is hard to notice anything else.  For instance, with an anxiety disorder, just about all the incoming data gets labeled as “dangerous,” and the chemical response of fear gets slapped on almost everything that happens. The whole world feels dangerous, and we worry and stress and perhaps start withdrawing from all these risks.

But if we understand that this is not our  soul’s true response to the world, but an overdose of chemicals, we can delay our fearful reaction until the chemical overflow stops. That takes about 90 seconds. In only 90 seconds, the chemical floods our bloodstream and then, if we don’t buy it or hook into it, passes out of circulation. After that, it’s possible to choose some other reaction, using the same analytical parts of our brains that helped us learn not to scream when we are hungry.

As I counseled once in a previous blog, your best bet with oversized emotions (such as rage) may be to do NOTHING until the chemical surge passes and you actually have some choices again.

Don’t let just one or two parts of your brain boss you around. Stop, see who’s talking, and decide if you want to listen. Don’t let it be up to the primitive parts of your brain stem. You can still go with your first instinct, if you want to. Just decide for yourself.

Deborah is a public speaker and the author of Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness. She has also published two romantic comedies. All three books are available on, Barnes and, Kindle Editions, Nook books, and other major vendors; or you can order them from your local bookstore. Visit her web page at, or see her catalog at