We may like to think of ourselves as rational people but, in truth, we are not only guided by emotions we are often ruled by them. They play a major role in our decisions, in our reactions, in our relationships. So making emotions our servants rather than our masters is perennially a challenge in our path towards maturity. At the extreme end of the spectrum there are those with borderline personality disorders. Their lack of emotional control makes them a danger to society, and sometimes society must be protected by putting them into care. But for most of us, I hope, the ambition is simply to improve.
First, we must consider the triggers. Neurologists tell us that two parts of the brain are involved here: the hippocampus which stores memories and the amygdala which triggers emotional reaction. Thus we interpret new circumstances through associations with the experiences held in the memory. Experiments with mice brains have shown that manipulating memories (say, changing a painful memory to a pleasurable one) correspondingly changes the reaction of the amygdala, and so the emotional response.
If emotions are rooted in the brain, we would expect to see the strength of emotional response in the human brain as well. While it was known that those with severe lack of emotional control had recognisable brain patterns, it was more recently found that this was a continuum which depended on the degree of emotional control, even in so-called normal people. That is, us. But it does not follow that these essentially biological characteristics leave us unable to improve the regulation of our emotions or even the nature of our emotional responses.
Typically, we cope with negative reactions in two ways. In low level situations we use re-appraisal – attempting to rationalise the threat; in higher levels we use distraction. These strategies may not always work. And this can be a problem when depression and anxiety disorders inhibit flexible approaches to different situations. So if we really wish to regulate our responses more habitually we should consider other longer term approaches.
A cognitive behavioural approach might be a first choice. While not essential, it can be helpful here to use a trusted friend who will monitor and give feedback. The cognitive stage requires identifying unruly emotional reactions, and identifying their inappropriateness in some detail. The causes, which may lie in some memory or in an aspect of character, should be explored and understood. The triggers for recent occurrences should be identified. All this is noted down in concrete terms. A chart of future occurrences and their effects should be kept punctiliously. It is this focused attention which enables us to anticipate the reaction in time to avoid it. Eventually, when a new habit has been formed, the inappropriate reaction should become history.
Another skill, which supports the first, but has a wider application, is deep relaxation. Anyone – and perhaps that is all of us – who is sometimes subject to tension and anxiety can use it with advantage. It has so many benefits to mood and happiness (not excluding lowering blood pressure) that it can be a life changer and a life saver. A simple routine for developing this skill is described on Secondsightblog. Search above for “The Science of Meditation”.
Mindfulness meditation is a more holistic approach. You may be aware that many recent studies (not all of them watertight) demonstrate its usefulness for a range of conditions. I can witness to its value in assistance with insomnia. Its relevance here lies in its ability to filter helpful and unhelpful emotions. An interesting recent study discovered that smokers incidentally reduced their intake by 60 percent, following mindfulness sessions. Their increase in self-control appears to have brought this about without any conscious intention to abstain. Search above for “All in the Mind” for more information.
If our emotional reactions are expressed though the brain (and also through the body) we may wonder how our spiritual search for perfection is involved. Our difficulty here may lie in overlooking the complementary elements of soul and body. Both of course work together. Secular psychology and spiritual growth assist each other in the complete person. Our motive for regulating our emotions so that we react appropriately as rational beings and in a way which is charitable, rather than harmful, to others, is spiritual — but the immediate methodology we may use to achieve this is secular. We cannot expect the Holy Spirit to solve our problems if we do not play our part.
Every spiritual thought and inclination we have – whether we are Joe Bloggs or Teresa of Avila – is mediated through the brain. And our habits, bad or good, are written into our neural connections. Our deeper understanding of the brain teaches us how to train the good habits so that our ambition for holiness can be more closely achieved.