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Get on Board with your Limbic Brain

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

These are not typical times. Many people have lost something or someone they love. There are vast numbers of people who have lost or are in the process of losing their job, business, or the ability to pay their bills. There are those who have lost their health, the ability to sleep in their own bed at night, or their very lives. This is a time for many, of coping with significantly difficult emotions.


As the Covid-19 crisis wears on, it challenges even the most resilient among us.


May I suggest it is possible to feel the sadness of these losses and still be resilient? It will take emotional/ mental work and intention in an arena that many of us have no practice or even framework from which to begin.


As a coach and counselor, I have witnessed many people “cope” by ignoring their own emotions. This is not surprising as many of us growing up got overt (and covert) messages about dealing, or rather, not dealing with our feelings. For many, the mantra was “we are the Smiths, pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, or to a young boy who is hurting, “don’t cry, be a man.”


You may be someone who grew up never seeing what healthy expression of difficult emotions looks like. While many well intentioned parents raised their children this way, the problem is that we are built for emotion. We all have a limbic system which is the emotional center of the brain. Women have a larger limbic brain which explains why we tend to be more touchy feely, emotional, have a keener sense of smell and are often more detail oriented.


Men have a limbic brain as well, though slightly smaller, indicative that they are built for emotion as well. Through powerful parental and societal messaging, many people have trained their brain that emotions are bad, unnecessary, or just something to ignore. I liken it to taking emotions, tossing them in a jar with a tight fitting lid, and putting them on a shelf. We can pretend they don’t exist.


This is how too many of us learned to deal with our emotions… we act as if we don’t have them.


What is the fallout of this practice? Look around. How many people do you know that are dealing with addictions, depression, anxiety, or anger management issues? I am not suggesting that stifled emotions are the only cause of these conditions… these are complex issues.


However, living a life with suppressed emotions is like taking a vase and filling it with water and never turning off the faucet. The excess water is going to spill over and flood the room in no time. We can live a healthy life only when we learn to be aware of the feelings we are having in the moment, and then find healthy and safe ways of experiencing and expressing them.


In other words, we need to “work through” our emotions rather than convince ourselves to“get over” them.


In business settings, when male clients express comments like, “emotion has no place in the workplace”, or “let’s take the emotion out of this so we can make a decision,” I respond that I understand their logic.


However it is often their own experiences, messaging or fear that is talking. Emotions have gotten a bad rap from people who don’t know how to regulate them- i.e., people who display emotional outbursts. The truth is emotions are neither good or bad- they just are. If we learn how to use emotions effectively, they actually serve us well. Emotions provide us with clues both personally and professionally that we need to pay attention to. When we do, we can actually make better decisions.


How does this help us now in the midst of Covid-19? There is a lot to be emotional about in recent weeks. If we don’t intentionally deal with our emotions, we will likely be stuck in the emotion of fear. When you truly accept with your head and your heart that experiencing emotion is part of being fully human, you can start to increase awareness of your emotions. Perhaps you need to break free of habits that have you chained to anger, alcohol, or overeating as ways of coping with your difficult emotions. These behaviors provide clues we would do well to expand our emotional toolbox.


Are you beginning to see the “why” behind dealing effectively with your emotions?


After embracing the value of emotional work, countless clients have told me they don’t know HOW to tackle their emotions differently. Here are some steps to begin to engage with yourself emotionally.


1. Identify the feeling you are experiencing in the moment. The best time to do this is when you first notice you feel tense, tight, unsettled or upset. Using a feeling word chart ( you can google to get this), can help you dive deeper than just happy, sad, mad etc. Identify 3 or more words that convey how you are feeling.


2. Acknowledge the feeling. This can be as simple as saying “ It is ok that I am feeling _____ right now. Remind yourself this feeling does not define you- it is simply what you are feeling in the moment. Like waves crashing the shore, they will recede back into the ocean. Feelings are temporary- you won’t always feel this way. Be compassionate with yourself as you would a friend.


3. Experience the feeling. Experiencing the feeling means not ignoring it, or mentally chasing it away. Do not allow your rational brain to discount or dismiss what you are feeling. You may need to sit and “be with this feeling,”- cry, shout, groan or otherwise safely allow your self to feel what is occurring for you.


4. Express the feeling - Find safe and healthy ways to express the feeling. Rather than eating your feelings, you might choose to take a walk, jog, call a friend, journal, pray or meditate.Talking your feelings out with an emotionally safe friend or partner may also be beneficial.


Now more than ever, it is key to our wellbeing to find safe people to share, “I am struggling, or feeling overwhelmed.” Following these steps to work through your emotional states in the end will allow you to be more in control of yourself. Counterintuitively, working through our emotions in the long run helps us to be more resilient.


It may feel uncomfortable to engage in this process. We are all hard wired to move toward pleasure and away from pain, and I am asking you to walk straight into the discomfort. It will be uncomfortable. Messy. Painful. In the end it is far superior to the fall out of all that pent up unacknowledged emotion that controls you when it is left unchecked.


Lastly, I do not suggest making important personal or business decisions solely on emotion… rather I advocate understanding that you were built with the capacity to feel and express emotion. When emotions come knocking, gently open the door and let them in.

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