Our emotions are physical. They circulate throughout our bodies in the form of mood chemicals that drive how we feel and how we act. They make us want to do something; to run for safety when danger threatens, to hug, hold, nurture and mate. Nature placed feelings in us to motivate us to do those things that allow us to survive and thrive, to sense danger and defend ourselves, to find and bond with a mate, or love and nurture our young. Our limbic brain/body system, acts as a sort of “emotional brain.” The limbic system manages our moods, appetite and sleep cycles, it promotes bonding, directly processes our sense of smell and modulates libido. Problems in our limbic system can manifest as moodiness, irritability, an impaired ability to regulate levels of fear, anger and sadness and may lead to chronic anxiety or depression. A poorly regulated limbic system can contribute to problems in regulating alcohol, eating, sexual or spending habits. Addiction and compulsive behaviors often reflect a lack of good self-regulation.
Learning to Leave the Here and Now
Early experiences knit long lasting patterns into the very fabric of the brain’s neural network. And these neural patterns form the relational template from which we operate throughout life. If we feel very frightened for example, by being a child living with constant fighting and chaos or living with addiction, abuse or neglect, we can become traumatized by the experience. Because what surrounds us feels alarming, we get overwhelmed with more intense emotion than we can handle and so we block experiencing it. We leave the “here and now.” If we can not flee or defend ourselves from what’s terrifying us, we have to find other ways of “staying safe” or surviving the insult to our sense of safety, self and order. We may attempt to protect ourselves by using defenses such as numbing or dissociation to get away from what we’re really feeling (scared, vulnerable, helpless and/or enraged). We slam on the emotional brakes so we can stop feeling our overwhelming hurt, anger, pain or confusion, we numb out or “disappear.” We freeze. We “leave.” We leap out of the present moment. We may still be around in body, but the rest of us is more or less gone. This, of course, pulls us out of the present and it causes us to lose access to our genuine emotional responses. It inhibits our ability to live mindfully because our mind is in a defensive, unthinking state, it is seeking a state of un-awareness because awareness is too painful.
When we can’t feel what we’re actually feeling we can’t use our thinking minds to bring our emotions and reactions into awareness, understanding and balance. At the most extreme level thought and emotion become disengaged. When this happens, our thinking selves and our feeling selves become out of balance and split off from each other. We bounce back and forth between “black and white” extremes being flooded with intense emotions, then shutting down and acting out or self-medicating.
Traumatic Memory and Triggers
Our prefrontal cortex, our thinking mind can temporarily shut down when we experience high stress and fear. Limbic responses, with their emotional and sensorial load, tend to be too powerful to be effectively managed by the cortex, especially when it comes to trauma. And, it is already compromised. The body feelings and urges overpower or override the thinking mind. Our body has a memory of its own that can bypass cognitive functioning. This is why we don’t necessarily remember what happens in moments of high stress. Our thinking mind never made sense of the event and integrated it into the framework of our selves and our life during the actual event. Consequently we have sensorial/body memories with no story line attached to them. Later in life, when we get triggered by events that are reminiscent of the original situation, we act out old pain unconsciously. Something as seemingly innocuous as shifting eyes, raised voices or a sound or smell can trigger a cascade of unconscious associations that send us tumbling into an emotional state of fear, anger or anxiety.
Generally, after experiencing a trauma, we regain our composure and our access to emotions, we process them later so to speak, reflecting on how frightening something was or how disturbed we felt by a particular encounter or circumstance. However, if the stressor is chronic, as is so often the case with family problems such as addiction, abuse or neglect, these kinds of defenses may get mobilized much of the time and contribute to cumulative trauma. They become a mode of functioning – our default positions.
Healing from trauma is all about coming back into the present. It is learning to tolerate strong or intense emotions without moving straight into intense thinking, feeling and behavior. People who lack emotional sobriety have trouble just sitting with feelings, witnessing them and allowing them to move along.
Bill W. spoke of “emotional sobriety” as one of the next important horizons of recovery, he felt that getting physically sober was the beginning but that the next challenge was to become emotionally sober – to learn to live in greater balance and maturity. This idea applies not only to the addict, but all those who have been deeply affected through living around active addiction, abuse, neglect or chaos.
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