A simple view of the human brain is that it has three major parts that link to evolution. The oldest is the brainstem, sometimes called the reptilian brain, which manages our vital automatic systems like our heartbeat, breathing, and senses. Then the mid, or mammalian brain, which among other things, has to do with emotions, followed by the neo-cortex where cognitive processing like thinking occurs. Emotions evolved before the development of language and symbolic thought and have three main functions: to warn us that something needs attention; to drive us to act, and to show others how we feel. Interestingly, recent research shows that many mammals share these. For instance, pet dogs can recognize human emotions from facial expressions.
Emotions also have three different characteristics: a subjective experience, like what it’s like to feel angry, changes in physiology, like the increase in adrenalin, and behaviour like facial expressions. Although all human experience comes through our interactions and relationships with people, things, and situations, it’s how these are perceived and resonate emotionally that makes the difference. For instance, if a cause like child poverty makes us feel something, then we are more likely to act on it.
Although we only experience emotions in the present, what we feel may be about the present, past, or future. For example: feeling fear in the present when avoiding a near-accident on the road, feeling shame about an embarrassing situation from the past, and feeling anxiety about future economic uncertainty.
Let’s explore a work example.
He’d been putting it off all morning; Bob was reluctant to start calling the sales leads he’d been given. It was as if he was wearing a corset, as his lower chest and abdomen felt tight and tense. There was no other option; he had to make his numbers this week. His mind was full of worrying thoughts, “What if the customer’s not interested? I’ll feel personally rejected. What if nerves get the better of me and I come across badly? I’m not good enough; just not cut out for this sales role… “
So, what happened to Bob? He felt genuine anxiety about making the calls as well as the stressful pressure to deliver. He strongly identified with the anticipated feeling of rejection, which resonated with feelings of low self-worth. Riding on stress and anxiety, his thoughts exaggerated the emotional impact of the task and diminished his ability to perform well. His self-awareness was low, so he did not notice the tension in his body, or properly acknowledge his thoughts and the complex mixed emotions. Caught in past patterns of emotion and thought, his inner resources became limited and reactive.
Just to complicate matters, there is also an important relationship between thoughts and emotions. Emotions can be driven bottom-up from our environment, as well as top-down by a thought. Unfortunately, the evolutionary older emotional mid-brain cannot tell the difference between a real event in the world and a thought coming from the more evolutionary recent neocortex. This is why emotions tend to hang around for much longer than necessary in humans. We can experience the downward spiral of worrying thoughts and growing anxiety, as well as negative thoughts leading to a lower mood.
Although not many of us can simply think ourselves happy, it is possible to work more skilfully with our emotions. By noticing and acknowledging emotions, the emotional part of the brain is reassured that the message has been noted, so lowers its intensity and dissolves in its own time. Bob’s negative thoughts had the impact of increasing his anxiety, as well as triggering feelings of low self-worth.
By being more aware of what was going on Bob could have acknowledged how he was feeling with, “Oh, there’s some anxiety, which with the pressure I’m under is quite normal. I’m just qualifying a list of sales leads, so it’s okay if the customer says no and I don’t need to take it personally”.
Developing mindfulness means being open and aware of our thoughts, emotions, body, and senses. Being open means not resisting or avoiding unpleasant feelings but turning towards and acknowledging them. A bit like how you’d pay attention to a loyal pet dog, who wants to tell you something important. The good news is that we can learn to be more aware of and change our relationship with emotions, thoughts, and habits that no longer serve us. By following this approach, we can develop greater freedom and flexibility in how we respond emotionally to whatever arises in our experience, which leads to a happier and easier life.
Suggested weekly practice
- When you become aware of an emotion, observe whether this relates to the past, present, or future. This is useful for gaining insight into how much of our present is influenced by the past or future.
- Explore sensing emotions in your body, sensations, and feelings, with curiosity and beginner’s mind. Staying with the feeling in your body, and asking, “What is this feeling about?” rather than responding with your mind, allowing your body to answer.
- Practice acknowledging emotions as they arise, for instance, noting internally “There’s some frustration, some anxiety, some excitement” and as you do so, observe the physical sensations, feelings, and thoughts.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware. There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore emotional response.