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Flow with your feelings
The link between positive and negative emotions in our brain, body and experience
Sometimes I worry that I write too much about the negative in life: things like handling hard emotions and the downsides of forcing gratitude. So today I want to focus on the relationship between the positive and the negative.
One reason I like to investigate the negative side of things is that we have a cultural bias towards acknowledging only the positive. And yet the negative is where the rubber hits the road. How we handle the negative is ultimately what determines our outcomes in health, wealth, and wellbeing. Since it’s the side of our life that we’re taught not to highlight, let alone focus on and learn about, we’re missing out!
The reality is that the idea of “negative” is merely a judgement anyway. Events happen. Feelings happen. Situations occur. We are the ones who label them (+) or (-).
Still, there are parts of our existence that are much harder to handle than others, more exhausting, and more challenging. There are feelings that are quite a lot less pleasant than others, and some that are downright awful; the total show-stoppers like fear and anger. While we must accept these hard things, it’s also preferable not to dwell in the hard, unpleasant, draining parts of life, emotion, and our circumstances.
So what do we do about it? We learn to flow along the infinite loop that is our emotional circuitry. Like an infinity sign, we ride the wave of the difficult all the way through and then out, back to the peaceful, good, joyful and rewarding.
Our emotional circuitry
Fear, as I mentioned, is a tripwire feeling. Some people say there are only two feelings: love and fear. I think this is in some ways true, because our limbic system in the brain and the autonomic nervous system control our feelings, and there’s really only two circuits: one that is misery fleeing and one that is reward seeking. Here’s a slightly deeper explanation of the anatomy from the Mya Care blog:
The majority of brain circuitry involved in generating either positive or negative feelings is virtually the same with some minor variances. Either ends of the emotional spectrum are brought into being through two overarching circuits that are joined at central brain areas associated with emotional processing and learning. These circuits fall within the limbic system in the brain...
The one circuit or network is associated with generating emotional reactions that elicit behavior most likely to help the organism avoid undesirable circumstances (misery fleeing), while the other is associated with behavior that seeks out desirable ones (reward seeking).
Since misery fleeing is the trigger for the one circuit (driving our sympathetic nervous system to shift into fight, flight, freeze or fawn states), you could say that fear drives this circuit.
Since reward seeking is the trigger for the other circuit (driving our parasympathetic nervous system into rest and digest, connect and care states), you could say that love drives this circuit.
However, the Mya Care blog goes on to say that:
The precise way in which these circuits fire, with their respective neurotransmitter ratios and other chemical components, is ultimately what is responsible for producing a negative or positive emotional reaction.
In other words, it’s possible that something potentially scary could be interpreted as something potentially exciting, thereby triggering the reward seeking circuit in the brain, not the misery fleeing circuit.
For instance, studies have found that when we interpret nerves as excitement instead of a sign of coming danger, we can engage our reward circuitry instead of our fight/flight. In one example, students who perform well on exams perceive the bodily sensation of nervous anticipation as excitement, generating hope and taking action to focus and prepare. Meanwhile, students who perceive the sensation of their nerves as anxiety, tend not to perform well on the test, as they shut down, either failing to prepare well or, during the test, failing to focus and manage time effectively.
Even if our first response is a fear-based reaction, (and as has been said, “we’re all entitled to our first reaction”), we will get a do-over.
We can flow through the misery fleeing circuitry till it runs its course, simply noticing the experience instead of outwardly reacting. Remember, the biology of a feeling will only send neuro-chemical, hormonal and electrical impulses through our bodies for up to 90 seconds before flushing them out and returning to the body’s desired neutral state.
Meanwhile, we can be aware of the feeling part of our brain, and our felt experience, and use the thinking part of brains to intervene and choose a new response. We can choose to see our “pre-test jitters” as excitement, even if we have to wait until the second go around the 90 second cycle to do it. But once we do, we activate the reward seeking circuitry and everything gets better.
The emotional quadrants
A model that I particularly like for understanding how this limbic flow plays out in our experience is called The Emotional Quadrants model.
It comes from The Energy Project, a consulting and leadership development firm that works with organizations to improve employee well-being, fuel engagement, and drive productivity by focusing on strengthening physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energy.
They suggest that our emotional states are dependent upon (1) the level of our energy (from low → high on one axis), and (2) upon the quality of our energy (from positive → negative).
There’s that positive and negative stuff again! In this case, I think we can look at the positive as states as adding to your experience and the negative states as detracting from your experience.
When our energy is high and positive, we feel good: calm, optimistic, engaged and invigorated. When our energy is chill but positive, we may feel carefree, peaceful, relieved, mellow and receptive.
When our energize is high but negative, we may feel impatient, irritable, frustrated, angry, fearful or anxious. When our energy is low but negative we may feel exhausted, empty, depressed, sad or hopeless.
When you layer the limbic circuits on here, now you get a picture of how you can influence your experience.
We really are entitled to our first reaction. Is it unavoidable that some situations will kick us straight over to negative energy. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt talks about how the amygdala (a part of the limbic system) can recognize and react to a perceived threat in as few as two-hundreds of a second. We must accept that it’s going to happen sometimes. And when it does, we are reacting with our feeling brain. It’s a natural part of our biology.
However, we don’t want to get stuck here. If we do, we’ll use up more and more energy coping with the disregulation of being impatient and frustrated, angry or fearful, and then pretty soon we’ll end up exhausted, empty, sad, and depressed. Then we’re really stuck. It’s quite hard to get to positive from here when your energy is already depleted. Talk about an uphill battle!
Thankfully, we have a thinking layer in our brain, and this is its moment to shine. It can interrupt the rage-rocket or the fear-fest going on in our limbic system before we start to slide down to the negative, low energy state, and say, hold up, let’s take a pause.
Give yourself a breather; literally. Take some deep breaths. You’ll immediately engage the reward seeking limbic circuit with those breaths, and meantime, you’ll be lowering the energy on that urge to FREAK THE F-OUT!
So let’s say your “pre-test jitters” have you anxious. This is your chance to slow down, observe the feeling as it plays out, and then consciously choose to lower your high negative energy for a moment of reflection. Breathe, turn inward, and get quiet. Relax a little. And as your reward circuitry starts to engage, see if you become more receptive to finding a new story for your jitters: one that starts to raise your energy again, but in a positive way.
You could tell yourself it’s natural to feel these nerves before a test, but that nerves are good; they sharpen your focus like a hunter. They call attention to things that are important. They signal that this is an exciting opportunity to face and overcome a challenge.
Perhaps this is your moment for a little self-love: remember how you’ve done well in the past? You can do it again! Or remember how many new ideas you got for beating this test, because you did some research about memorization? Or remember how many hours you spent studying? Yeah, you got this.
If you’re not quite there yet, perhaps it’s a moment to identify the activities that will help you get to the point where you know you got this. Maybe you haven’t done your research yet, but it’s time! Maybe you haven’t done your studying yet, but it’s time!
Perhaps this is even your chance to laugh at yourself a little. Sheesh, what are you, a dog getting all worked up about the sight of another dog across the park? You know better than that. You’ve got the leash in your hand. Nobody is getting in a dog fight today! It’s just a little test, well within your control.
As you begin to loosen up on the negative and shift further into the positive (potentially even lighthearted aspect) of this new story, your energy will begin to rise.
Now you’re feeling calmer, and more optimistic. You’re ready to act and face the challenge.
The Renewal Zone
The Energy Project calls that low but positive energy quadrant The Renewal Zone.
I call it, allowing yourself to be a Messy Human and embracing the cycle of Messy Humaning wholeheartedly.
This whole limlic flow can be a really difficult process to master. And it can be time consuming occasionally, especially if the grip of fear or anger is really strong. You might fail at it now and again, only to have to brush yourself off and try once more. It is possible to mostly master the limbic flow in one part of your life and still have little control in another. But luckily you do continue to go on, which is to say, you have more chances to try, improve, and practice.
If you find it hard to make the move into the Renewal Zone, be gentle with yourself. It’s time for a Gentle Shift. When you decide to see your first reaction as nothing more than that, gently giving yourself a second chance to choose a new response, you’re giving yourself a fighting chance.
And then just remember: you don’t need to be a saint to turn on the reward seeking circuitry of your parasympathetic nervous system: you need to do what your body and mind require. That means you must accept where you begin the process and tend to your genuine needs in that moment. Only then are you actually working with yourself to shift into the Renewal Zone.
So think about what works for you. Remember the Healthy Mind Platter I wrote about a while back? It gives you some arenas to consider for moving yourself into the Renewal Zone:
Each of these healthy activities helps keep the reward seeking circuitry in your brain activated. Each one gives back more benefits than in takes in terms of energy. Each one can help you in different ways and all are needed in a good balance.
So consider how to bring them into your life, each day, or even each hour.
What is play to you?
What creates wonderful connection for you?
What sort of unstructured time do you need, and when do you need it?
How and when do you best reflect and integrate your experiences?
What sorts of movement work best for you?
How do you create space and time to focus deeply on things that matter?
How do you make sure to get enough sleep each day?
May you flow with your feelings today,