Friday, April 12, 2013

Why Can't We Just Get A Grip?

Twitter rants, Facebook bullying, political knee-jerk decisions, and reactive behaviour - all driven by out-of-control emotions. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get a handle on some of this? I wonder how many people are aware of how much out-of-control emotions run our lives? Most people know that emotions are powerful, but I’d go so far as to say they are THE most powerful force we have. They drive everything of significance. And while they are powerful when you are aware of them, emotions wreak havoc when you’re not. Why is this? How come emotions are so powerful that they make us say and do things we later regret? Why can’t we just get a grip? 
Well, you cannot always ‘pull yourself together’ (as my mother used to say), because emotions are often triggered without our conscious knowledge, they are literally physical changes that occur in the body when you register signals from your environment which you may or may not be aware of.

A typical scenario might be if you smell something that reminds your subconscious mind of a strong childhood experience, which will rekindle the same emotion you originally had. When this is a positive experience, (i.e. the smell of pastries your mother baked for celebrations) it may trigger the release of dopamine – a ‘feel-good’ hormone that reinforces reward. Conversely, if the association and resulting emotion is negative, (i.e. the whiff of pastries that your mother baked when she left you to cry yourself to sleep as a baby) it will rekindle the feeling of abandonment you felt, as cortisol is released in your conditioned but subconscious stress-response (no matter how illogical this may seem to an adult who doesn’t consciously remember being left in the crib). Changes like these occur instantly and many times a day. Whether you are conscious of them or not, they impact what you think and believe and consequently, how you act.

But these signals from our surroundings need not always involve memory –and sometimes our responses are designed for a purpose. For example when a mother breastfeeds her baby, the stimulation releases oxytocin (often referred to as ‘the bonding hormone) in her breast tissue, which makes her milk flow. Importantly, it changes her emotional state: her anxiety levels drop and she becomes more calm, patient, and able to meet her baby’s needs. Until recently oxytocin was only associated with reproduction, but it has now been also shown to play a far more significant role in our behaviour and all our relationships than previously thought. Dr Paul Zak of Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, has conducted hundreds of studies with oxytocin, worldwide. His research found that Oxytocin is released in all of us when we trust someone or when we feel trusted. It makes us pro-social, more generous, honourable, and even moral! His research has also found that although there is no correlation between happiness and income level, there is a tight correlation between happiness and trust; that living in a society where there is a high level of trust makes people happier.

This is great information indeed! But could it help prevent all the rants, the bullying, and knee-jerk reactions we all so want to see diminish?
I think it could – first and foremost, by making us more self-aware about how the negative, stress-producing emotions impact us. As it turns out, the stress hormones that are released when we experience strong negative emotions actually inhibit the release of Oxytocin, which in turn leads to a lack of empathy and reduced care and concern for others. So now we know that not only do stress-producing, out-of-control emotions reduce our ability to think clearly and compromise our immune system, but they also block Oxytocin, the purpose of which is to increase our ability to connect with, trust and be trusted by or even care about others. This helps us understand even better why we sometimes rant or behave in knee-jerk ways that are defensive, inappropriate, unkind or thoughtless (literally). It also gives us yet another reason to try to be more self-aware and take charge of our previously out-of-control damaging emotions, and is one more argument in favour of practicing generating the ‘feel-good’ factor!


Smile to the next person you see
Stroke a pet
Give or get a massage
Create music with others
Appreciate something – anything!
Give someone you care about a nice surprise
Show your appreciation - to anyone!
Phone or write to an old friend or teacher
Forgive someone
Meditate with a focus on appreciation or compassion
Share a meal with a friend
Watch a feel-good movie
Play with the children in your life – face to face
Make someone laugh
Go to the theatre or a concert with a friend
Join a club or activity group
Socialize – in person!
HUG SOMEONE (Paul Zak’s favorite)
To hear Paul Zak's TED talk, click here