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AT HOME WITH MY EMOTIONS
At Home With My Emotions
EMOTIONS AND THE BRAIN
In September of this year, I’m "teaching" a series of classes for Foster Parents at San Bernardino Valley College entitled, Being At Home With My Emotions
In case you live nearby, the Series is being presented on six consecutive Tuesdays and Fridays, beginning September 07, 2010 and ending on Friday, September 24, 2010. Classes begin at 9 a. m. and end at 12 noon. Contact me for registration information.
But for those of you who do not live nearby, I thought I would begin my preparations for the classes by writing a hub on each topic of the Series.
Although, I am writing particularly to foster parents, the information here is pertinent to parents in general.
Today, we begin with Emotions And Our Brain .
I have written two previous hubs on the brain, which you will find informative and helpful..
To begin, we will not get caught up in the philosophical discussion of what reality is. Let’s just agree there is some kind of reality out there, and we take in information about reality through our sensory organs. Eyes, ears, nose, skin, taste buds, and more skin!
The information from our sensory organs goes directly to the THALAMUS which is located in our mid brain. See the picture to the right. The thalamus is a relay center. Some kind of neurological "decision" is made as to what sensory information is sent on to other parts of the brain, namely to the AMYGDALA, which is also located in the mid brain, and to the various lobes of the CEREBRUM which is often referred to as the top brain. The top brain is the part of the brain that we most often see in pictures, full of curly folds that could resemble worms.
The thalamus, being a relay center and having the capacity to send information on to other brain centers or not, suggests that we may be perceiving much more information than we are conscious of. It is like taking a digital picture. After you take the picture, you can zoom in on the background or move the picture side to side and actually see people and things that you were totally unaware of at the time you "shot" the photo.
So, the information goes from the thalamus to the amygdala. The amygdala processes only the EMOTION of an experience. The AMYGDALA then sends a message to our MUSCLES. The transmission of the signal from the amygdala to the muscles is experienced as feelings or emotions. And based upon this emotional experience, we move either toward the experience or away from it.
So I hear the door open. I run TOWARD the sound. I see it Mom coming home with groceries. I either panic and run back into my room because I am doing something I am not supposed to, or I run toward her because she said she would bring me home a treat.
So our muscles become "carriers" or "containers" for our emotions. When we block out an emotion from our consciousness, our muscles still get the signal from the amygdala, and the muscles still carry the emotion. That’s how our muscles can become knotted up, and why when receiving a massage, we may spontaneously begin to cry or laugh or feel anger or a host of other stored emotions. That’s why we "fly off the handle" inappropriately at times. In fact, we walk around all day long, all week long, all month long, all YEARS long, carrying emotions which have gone unexpressed and not discharged. The biggest problem here is that the amygdala has no consciousness. We do not have conscious access to all of the emotions that are stored in both the amygdala and in our muscles. So we can potentially become a walking hard drive, a walking storage locker or worse, a walking time bomb of emotions.
So does this much so far make sense? I hope so. So now I am going to make it even simpler. For simplicity sake, let’s talk in terms of the EMOTIONAL BRAIN and the THINKING BRAIN. There is also a SURVIVAL BRAIN which we will look at later.
The THINKING BRAIN is "located" in the cerebrum. A particularly important part of the thinking brain is the PREFRONTAL LOBE. It is here, in the prefrontal lobe, that we can experience consciousness of consciousness. It is here that we have the capacity to make the "right" decision. The prefrontal lobe can also develop the capacity to inhibit, when necessary, inappropriate or antisocial behavioral expression of spontaneous emotional responses. So the emotions themselves have no morality, but the acting out of these emotions does. Or in some cases, we develop inhibitions to behave in ways that might be very lifegiving, for example, crying, but someone has told us that it is unmanly. Or it is impolite or rude to challenge a superior.
The EMOTIONAL BRAIN is an interactive system of brain "parts" or brain functions, located in the midbrain. Sometimes this system is referred to as the LIMBIC SYSTEM. Although there are many important "places" in the emotional brain, for our discussion today, we are going to focus only on the amygdala and the hippocampus. .
Our amygdala is "on line" and functioning perfectly well at about seven months in utero, suggesting that we may have implicit or emotional memories which reach back to that time period.
For example, think of the emotions surrounding a difficult birth. We have no explicit memory of that event, but the emotions of the event, feeling stuck, feeling suffocated, feeling cramped, may, in fact, be stored in our amygdala and in our muscles. I know that sounds pretty far out, but if you think about it, the phenomenon explains of lot of what you experience working with your foster children.
Think about being two months old and being ripped out of the arms of your drunk parent by the police who might be shouting at your parent. You will have no explicit memory of that event. But your amygdala remembers the emotions of that event, and those emotions may be trapped in your muscles. So even as an adult, you get very very anxious anytime someone raises their voice. Or you get really upset when someone starts tugging at you. Or you can never just relax when someone is holding you.
So lets review. I used two terms in the above paragraph. IMPLICIT or EMOTIONAL MEMORY. Implicit or emotional memories are stored in our AMYGDALA. We have no conscious access to them. They sit there waiting to be fired off by any experience in the present moment that even remotely reminds the brain of the original event. Now let’s clarify again. The emotional memory is NOT a picture or a story line. The picture or the story line of the event is absent. Only the emotion remains. So that is what emotional or implicit memory is.
On the other hand, EXPLICIT memory IS a memory of the event, and it is like a photo in a photo album. There is a picture and a story line to the memory. Our HIPPOCAMPUS stores this kind of memory. The hippocampus begins working at about a year old, but does not fully develop till about age three. For the hippocampus to work really effectively, the CORPUS COLLOSUM also has to fully develop and mature. Now, that does not happen till about age six.
Now the corpus collosum is the part of the brain that runs down the middle of our brain, connecting the left and right hemispheres. You can read more about the corpus collosum in http://hubpages.com/hub/HOW-OUR-BRAIN-WORKS.
It is also important to note that when we experience trauma, the neurological chemicals necessary to process explicit memory in the hippocampus are often neutralized by the chemistry related to the trauma.
THE FIRST YEAR OF LIFE
Now, during our first year of life, we are totally dependent upon our caretakers to respond accurately and nurturingly to our emotions which we will express pretty freely (a very very good and healthy thing), unless that expression is somehow not responded to or worse, punished.
During our subsequent growing up years, it is important that the big people in our life validate our emotional experiences. Even if our emotional experience does not line up with reality, for example, I am afraid of the boogy man under the bed, it is still important for the big people to let us know that they too are still afraid of boogy men, in contrast to just dismissing us as babies, cry babies, scaredy cats, wooses, and the awful demeaning list goes on. More so if we are a boy.
When the big people validate our emotions, it also validates a wonderful neurological dialogue between the thinking brain and the emotional brain. And this dialogue simply goes to show ya how mawvelous the brain is if just left to its own devices.
So I’m three years old and see a fat man or a fat lady in the store. They look pretty amazing! I am curious about them. My amygdala is registering "shock and awe" and my thinking brain says, "yes, interesting stuff isn’t it? Wonder if they go to school and can get in and out of a desk?!" My amygdala sends the curiosity and excitement to my muscles including my face and voice box, and BAM, out it comes. "Mom/Dad, look at the fat lady/man!"
Now if Mom or Dad is in sync with my brain, he or she might whisper to me, "Yes, and we’ll talk about it when we are in the car." If Mom or Dad are not in sync, they will do and say what most of us do and say. First, we cover the kids mouth quite tightly, one to keep any more observations from coming out and two to provide a little aversive stimulus ( punishment) in hopes that I will never utter such observations again.
Unfortunately, this IS what happens most of the time. It happens over and over again.
"Mom, you look so sad."
"What are you talking about? I am not sad, and even if I was, it’s none of your business."
"Dad, I get scared when you hit Mom?"
"You’re seeing things. I would never hit Mom."
"I fell down. My knee hurts really bad. It’s bleediing"
"O for god’s sake. Get a grip. You’re fine!"
"I’m afraid to play with that kid. He hit me for no reason."
"For crying out loud, don’t be a cry baby or a snitch."
"I feel sick. I think I am going to throw up."
"You throw up in my new car and you’ll get the paddling of your life."
"I get scared when you guys drink."
"We don’t drink and what could you be afraid of. We’re you’re Mom and Dad!"
"I am so sad that my dog ran away." "It’s just a dog. Now you have cried enough."
So it can go on and on, and unfortunately, it does go on and on. So by the time we are a teenager, we know, beyond doubt, that no one will relate to our emotions, and so we do not tell anyone what is going on inside. And sure enough no one asks. We just get the dismissal and the mandate to shape up.
"I know you’re using drugs and quite frankly, I don’t care what your lame excuse is. But I catch you, that’s it. You’re busted and out of here."
"So you think it’s cool to rip off my liquor cabinet. Well, maybe we just need to sit down together and do a few shots till you puke!"
"Great, you’re pregnant. What were you thinking about? Obviously, not much!"
"Keep that thing in your pants, for crying out loud. Wait till your old enough to know what you’re doing."
"Oh great, you’re not going to graduate. I can see it now. I get off the freeway and there you are with a frigin sign begging for money!"
No one is interested in the emotions buzzing around inside of our amygdala and in our muscles at that age. They could be emotions from way back when, they could be emotions from today.
The reasons why no one is interested in our emotions, is they are totally NOT at home with their own emotions and consequently, don’t know how to model for us a way to be at home with our emotions. Just get rid of them. Jump over them. Bury them. Put them aside some place, run from them as fast as you can, stick a big label on them, BAD, and for heaven’s sake DON’T FEEL THEM.
So as adults, as parents, as foster parents, we have to do some backtracking.
SO HERE ARE SOME IMPORTANT QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF.
Do I FEEL my emotions?
Do I split off from my emotions?
Do I repress my emotions?
In repressing my emotions, do I also repress my behavior?
Or do I act out my emotions willy nilly?
In general, what kind of emotional shape am I in? Do I have access to the entire gamot of human emotion or do I pick and choose which emotions I will feel and which ones I won’t?
Do I have interesting notions about which emotions women are to feel and which emotions men are to feel?
Unfortunately, most of us categorize emotions in this way, and it is sad as well as erroneous. Emotions have no gender identity nor sexual orientation.
We need to also ask, what my thinking brain tells me about my emotions as well as assessing whether or not my brain has been "tampered with" and or brainwashed so that I systematically dismiss my emotions and or ignore them.
So do I hear myself constantly telling my foster children to get over it, to suck it up, to stop crying over spilt milk? Do you hear yourself saying things like, "you’ve cried enough...nothing could be this sad....you’re way too excited....it’s just not that funny....you’re way too sensitive...."
Those are indicators that you are not at home with your own emotions, and you will be about as useful as a car with a dead battery or as dangerous as a fallen power line or as scary as an open mine shaft.
Now what we have not yet covered with respect to our brain is our SURVIVAL BRAIN, which. is "located" in our brain stem. .
With respect to emotions, anytime, we reach an emotional threshold, so whatever is happening is too sad, too scary, too painful, or even too exciting, the body begins literally dumping ""truckloads" of adrenalin into our blood stream. When the brain stem picks up this change in homestasis, it has the impression, and sometimes the impression is accurate, that we are about to die. So the brain stem shuts down the magnificent dialogue between the thinking and feeling brain and takes over the entire operation of both brain and body. We start operating on auto pilot. Auto pilot can be good, if we really are at risk.
But once we move into auto pilot, it is important when the risk is over, to go back and assess what happened and to shift back to the dialogue between thinking brain and emotional brain.
But shifting back from auto pilot to normal brain functioning is not simple nor is it easy.
This take over by the survival brain is most often referred to as TRAUMA. So it is imperative that as a foster parent, that we can identify the traumas in our own life and address them. When we experience trauma, we most often make a decision never again to experience life to the fullest, with all of its wonderful and even scary thoughts and feelings. Instead, we settle on the survival mode of auto pilot. I hope you can see why this is disastrous to both yourself and everyone in your life, especially children and especially foster children.
Functioning on auto pilot is actually quite advantageous if we are IN THE TRAUMA. But if the trauma is over, living as if I am still at war, for example, is very very UNhelpful, again especially to children.
It is important for foster parents to recognize all the different forms of trauma. The most obvious for ordinary folks is serving in the military especially, but not necessarily, during times of combat.
There are other trauma experiences. Difficult birth, accidents of any kind at any age, watching your parents physically and or sexually abuse each other, being sexually or physically abused yourself at any age, experiencing intense pain, experiencing intense pain and your caretakers are not able to soothe or stop it (think medical or dental procedures), not being able to help someone escape a life threatening situation, premature loss of parents and loved ones, and experiencing natural disasters. The list goes on. A surgeon who loses patients unexpectedly suffers trauma either from losing the patient or from splitting off from the patient prior to surgery. OBSERVING a traumatic event is also TRAUMATIZING.
ALL TRAUMAS require and deserve to be DEBRIEFED for lack of a better word. Perhaps HEALED is as good a word as debriefed. Part of debriefing or healing a trauma involves talking about the trauma, talking and talking and talking and actually creating a story about the trauma. Even drawing pictures about the trauma. What happens when you debrief is that you reinvolve the left and right hemispheres. This communication between the left and right hemisphere enables the traumatic event to shift from being unconsciously stored in the amygdala to consciously being stored in the hippocampus. Once the trauma is stored in the hippocampus, it is no longer susceptible to being unconsciously triggered. You stop overreacting to events as if they are the trauma.
HOWEVER, to debrief a trauma requires your willingness to FEEL your emotions, which may also require your willingness to CRY and maybe even yell and scream a tad!!
In subsequent blogs, we are going to address being at home with very specific emotions, for example, anger, envy, bitterness, feeling small, weak, sad, hopeless, lost, lonely, sexual feelings, and feeling empty, never feeling full.
For today, let’s take a quick look at an emotion that most of us have difficulty being at home with, and take a look at what happens in our relationships with foster children when we are not at home with our anger..
Are you at home with your anger or do you see anger as really really bad? Do you know there is a difference between anger and rage? http://hubpages.com/hub/REAL-MEN-GET-ANGRY-4-IT-TAKES-A-MAN
Anger comes from a place deep deep inside where I am very very sure that I am somebody. Where rage comes from a place deep deep inside where I am beginning to think that I am poop!
Two very different places in our soul and consequently two very different looking behaviors as a result.
If I am not at home with my anger, if I do not learn all that I can learn about my anger (and my rage, for that matter), then my anger and rage will, in fact, act out on their own with little or no supervision from my prefrontal lobe. This is NOT a good thing.
As I become more at home with my anger, in fact, friends with my anger, rather than being afraid of it, I can then learn very very healthy and appropriate ways to pay attention to my anger, use my anger, and express my anger. For me, personally, my anger has become one of my best friends, a better friend than a gun or other weapon would ever be!
If I am not at home with my anger, then I will not recognize anger on the faces of the foster children and teens in my care. I will recognize a strong emotion, but since I am not at home with it, then I will make up my own interpretation of what the emotion is. I will most likely call it disrespect, defiance, manipulation, trying to get your own way and a host of other inaccurate labels.
Making these punitive and distorted interpretations of what you see in their face and body language creates a lopsided relationship–I’m boss and you’re nothing. When this happens, the relationship is no longer available as a channel for the "stuff" of critical care and healing.
Remember, the bottom line in any kind of care is THE RELATIONSHIP between you and the person you are caring for.
So here are some sample scripts that will assist you and support you in maintaining the relationship and being able to use your relationship for healing. These are only samples, guides. You can use them verbatin or come up with your own. BUT before you can use them effectively, you must practice them over and over and over. Practice when you are alone in the car..
Kid says: "F-you. I ain’t doing any chores."
When you are at home with your own anger about life’s twists and turns, you can tune into what is going on with the child or teen and STOP yourself from saying things like, "no one talks to me like that....you will not disrespect me with your foul mouth....that word is not acceptable in this house....you just lost going to the dance, what else do you want to lose....and so on.
If you are at home with your own anger, you can begin the following conversations.
"Wow, you are really angry. Want to talk about it now or later?"
"Hey, you know what? Obviously you are needing something from me. Let’s get in the car and head for Starbucks.
"I know it’s been a tough week with court and visitation. Let’s talk."
"Wow, are you so angry you can’t sit down and have some dessert and talk a bit about what is going on right now?"
"Man, I get it. I hate doing my chores too."
"You know what I like about you? You are so honest with your anger and frustration. I really like that about you!"
Hey, I get it. I hate doing chores too. Let me know when you’re done (make the assumption the kid is going to do his or her chore, and walk away.)
"Are you needing anything else from me other than to spout off and get your frustration off your chest?"
Being able to make these responses is SO SO SO very healing and therefore IMPORTANT.
At a later date, when all is well, you can talk about four letter words and acceptable and unacceptable language and make sure you practice what you preach.
Remember too you don’t NEED a kid or teenager’s respect. They don’t have it to give to you anyway. You need your own self respect. You need respect from your peers. And if your own respect bucket is full, the child’s or teen’s anger and disrespect will not faze you in the least. They are, after all, angry kids. They have multiple multiple multiple life losses. Remember, an important part of grieving is ANGER!
Feel free to leave comments or ask me questions in the comment section. Check back because I will answer all your questions.
THANKS FOR READING AND THANKS FOR DOING A JOB WELL DONE. I KNOW HOW CHALLENGING IT IS.