To understand how to regulate our emotions we must understand how emotions are developed. Researchers who study twins believe that 30 to 60 percent of our emotionality is genetically inherited and can be observed as moods, emotions or as personality traits.
Moods can last for days or weeks while emotions are generally transitory. Personality traits, such as being introverted, are continuing throughout a lifetime.
We all experience many emotions throughout our lifetimes. We can experience varying degrees of emotion and many overlapping emotions in rapid succession. Emotions are generated from several regions in the brain and are transmitted by an enormous number of neurons.
Emotions are not only a genetic response to events; environmental impact also makes a difference. We carry a genetic make-up that has been evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. We have ancestors who survived life in prehistoric times and lived in caves. They had to defend themselves and their families by fighting off saber-toothed tigers.
Multiple generations later, some of us find that we experience a significant amount of anticipatory anxiety; the same level of fear and apprehension our ancestors experienced. We still react to things that go bump in the night.
Many parts of the brain are involved in the development and expression of emotion. The brain creates new neurons, a process called neurogenesis, which occurs in the hippocampus where memories and some emotions are processed. It is noteworthy to remember that stress will inhibit neurogenesis, but memories are stored in such a way that they can be recalled.
A toddler was traumatized by a year-long separation from its mother. Five years later he was re-traumatized when the mother left again. The first separation had been so painful that the emotions of the second separation were disproportionately more intense. The memory of the first traumatic separation had been stored in the person’s hippocampus. When separated from the mother again, the same intensity of the first separation was reconstructed and re-experienced. More than likely, the infant’s trauma had a negative effect on neurogenesis.
We mimic the emotions and coping strategies of our parents, either good or bad. Generally, the expression of our emotions is good for us, unless our emotions are dangerous to ourselves or others. While the prefrontal cortex is responsible for limiting or controlling our emotions, it depends on several factors that influence its functioning. Lack of sleep, undue stress, depression, anxiety and trauma influence the effectiveness of our prefrontal cortex.
It is well-known that those of us who express our emotions are happier because by doing so we learn to develop emotional regulation. When we assess a pending situation that would surely produce an unpleasant experience, we can stop and reduce negative thoughts by reframing our thoughts.
How we think about a situation determines how we react. Moreover, if we pay attention to our bodies, we can accurately anticipate pending unpleasant events and calm ourselves down by minimizing the impact of the anticipated event. Our bodies are exceptionally well equipped to send warning signals to the brain that alert us to pending difficulties.
Doing deep breathing exercises relaxes our body and gets oxygenated blood to our brains so we can think clearly. If we are mindful through better awareness of our emotional reactions, we can practice ways to be nonreactive. Getting adequate sleep (more than 7 hours) helps the brain function more efficiently to achieve emotional regulation.
Adopting an attitude that there is nothing in life that requires us to be angry, we can develop better mental health and overall wellness as we regulate our emotional reactions.
Dr. Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Maria.