Yesterday I walked onto a 3 hour flight stoked to be alive, looking forward to seeing all my old friends and family in NZ. I walked off the flight angry, pissed at the person walking slowly on the wrong side of the travelator, glad to have an e-passport so I could avoid conversing with a customs officer, and having forgotten all the reasons why I was excited about life just a few hours before.
So what happened in those three hours to cause such a change?
I had a nap and watched Downton Abbey.
You wouldn’t have thought that was enough to cause the shift, but Mary got a letter from Matthew and it was all very upsetting.
That shit is emotional!
But guys, this is serious. This post is about the science behind fluctuating emotions, and what we can do about it. I’m sure you’ve noticed,
our mind can take us from zen to Gordon Ramsey like the flick of a switch.
It’s happening to us all day, everyday, but most of us have no idea.
Our instinctual brain and the nervous system which governs our vital functions cannot tell the difference between real and perceived threats. Our boss calling us into the office can cause the same stress reaction in our body as being faced with a hungry tiger. Or a Tinder guy with a tiger photo.
Our mind continues to interpret environmental triggers in the same way it always has. Perceived threat = fight or flight mode = stress. The loud backfire of a car, our boyfriend saying “we need to talk,” or Mary getting a letter from Matthew triggers the same instinctual response as would the growl of a panther.
We know logically that we’re not in physical danger, but our body doesn’t.
> An external stimuli (a loud noise; our boss calling us into the office; high intensity exercise) causes our mind to perceive stress.
> The mind tells our brain that shit is not ok.
> Our brain interprets the stress as imminent danger and it switches our autonomic nervous system to ‘fight or flight’ mode
> This sets off a number of physiological responses to prepare us for battle or escape. Our body releases adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) which make us wired and ready to run, our heart rate increases and our blood is diverted away from digestion and cell repair towards our limbs to fuel them for action, our muscles tense and we start to sweat).
While this was very useful to help us escape from panthers,
it can be somewhat less useful when everyday stressful occurrences continuously trick our body into thinking that our life is in grave danger.
The interesting thing is that the mind uses both our internal and external environments to determine its thoughts.
When we get triggered, we might feel a sudden surge of anger/ frustration/ fear. When the event that triggered us is over, we can often still feel the changes in our body.
For example, when someone cuts us off in traffic, we feel anger (road rage!) in the form of physiological responses in our body-
a red face, sweaty palms, quickly beating heart, clenched jaw or fists
This is our “fight” reaction. Often we take a while to “cool down” after the event has passed because stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline take a while to metabolise.
Our mind then looks inwards and notices that we’re feeling angry. It then searches the archives to try think of reasons why else we might be angry, and it pulls out any additional memories or ideas that might explain it. Then it often dwells on these angry memories, rehashing negative thoughts over and over in our head, which in turn causes the brain to perceive more stress; which sets off more physiological reactions in the body, more adrenaline and cortisol, and we stay angry. Our mind fuels our anger and our anger fuels our thoughts, and so the cycle goes –
continuing our initial anger reaction for much longer than necessary.
So in my example, I felt great when I stepped on the plane. Then I watched Downton Abbey and was upset by the letter, poor Mary, she gets such a hard time. My eyes welled up in response and I ended up crying and feeling really rather sad. Which is all well and good for the duration of the show – it’s worth a few tears.
The problem comes when the show is over, and my mind thought my sadness was real. It can detect the physiological changes in my body that occured when I was dealing with emotions of the story line – my chest is tight, my cheeks are heavy, eyes are puffy. So my mind thinks, well bugger, I’m sad. So it begins scanning for reasons why I might be sad, and it pulls from my sadness archives and serves me thoughts about why I’m sad.
So I walk off the plane feeling sad, and a bit angry,
all as the result of an external stimuli tricking my body into thinking that something was genuinely wrong.
This is why I don’t watch horror movies.
They cause such reactions in me that they used to send me on a negative thought train for a whole day, maybe longer! Many people enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with horror movies, because it makes them feel wired, like drinking a few coffees (which also stimulates adrenaline and cortisol production).
I found it a huge relief to learn that our fluctuating emotions are actually attributed to our body’s automatic responses – nothing to do it being “my fault” for being emotional. One less thing to berate myself for!
When we know this, we can start to learn to watch the reactions in our body with curiosity rather than getting caught up in the negative train of thought that ensues.
This is the essence of what I teach in Bloody Good Life 101. If you don’t know how to be mindful,
I can guarantee you are not living as bloody good a life as you could be.
In my books, it’s the only route to a bloody good life.
If you want to learn more about how mindfulness can help you manage negativity and fluctuating emotions so effectively that life becomes light and easy, and challenges fall away like water off a ducks back – check this out > https://projectself.com.au/bloody-good-life-101/
To be part of my first group program version of Bloody Good Lifers 101 (You’ll get a $200 discount for being in my first beta round) – book a chat with me here >http://bit.ly/1YcF1ao Only a few spots left