The Myth of Mind Over Matter
We are not Vulcans.
Posted Oct 03, 2019
Sometimes I used to envy Mr. Spock on Star Trek. If only we could do without emotions, especially the troubling and painful ones.
Fear, anger, anxiety, grief...who wants them? Feelings hurt, cause us to behave in ways we later regret. Emotions cause us to feel ashamed or make us feel "crazy" or out of control. We can try to ignore them, push them down, or pretend we don't have them, but that doesn't work in the long run. The most important thing I learned in my training as trauma and emotion-centered psychotherapist was that avoiding our emotions hurts our mental and physical health greatly. Avoiding emotions causes anxiety, depression and other symptoms like addiction, eating disorders, personality disorders and more.
That is a pretty big statement, I know!
Experiencing emotions can be painful, uncomfortable, and sometimes downright scary. But, avoiding emotions is detrimental to health and wellbeing. Does that mean we all need to wear our hearts on our sleeves? No! But we do need a new way to think about emotions and it begins with learning more about them.
Two Categories of Emotions: Core and Inhibitory
Most people don’t know (because we aren’t taught about emotions in formal schooling) that we have two different categories of emotions: core emotions and inhibitory emotions. Core emotions (sadness, fear, anger, disgust, joy, excitement, and sexual excitement) are hard-wired survival programs. We cannot stop them from being triggered in the brain because we need them. Core emotions evolved to inform us about our immediate environment and keep us safe and engaged with the world. They have urgency and energy. Just think about how quickly you respond under threat. If a fierce dog comes charging at you, your legs start running even before you know consciously that you are afraid.
Anxiety, shame, and guilt, the inhibitory emotions, push down unwelcomed core emotions. We learn to block our core emotions for many reasons. One main reason is when our core emotions are rejected. For example, 4-year old Bobby cried when he lost his toy. His daddy yelled at him for crying and called him a baby. The little boy, now humiliated for his sadness, will work hard not to cry the next time he feels sad. As an adult, when Bobby experiences losses in his life, which naturally bring up sadness, he craves a drink to numb the feeling instead of allowing himself to feel. Even joy, an emotion we want to be able to welcome into our lives, can be a struggle for many who don't feel they deserve happiness. Their joy is blocked by guilt, for example.
People avoid emotions using all sorts of creative defenses like drinking, perfectionism, spacing out, blaming, eating too much or too little, obsessing, and many more. Unfortunately, habitually using defenses puts stress on the mind and body. It is physics! Core emotions are biological forces that need to come up and be validated. But when we block them, we are creating something akin to an internal pressure cooker that stresses both the mind and body.
A Compass for Living
Instead of avoiding our emotions, there is another way to think about them both as individuals and as a society. Emotions are meant to be a compass for living. Our society can educate people about the biology of emotions, teach skills to work with them, and undo the myth that emotions are just for weak people. We can learn to experience our emotions and learn what they are trying to tell us both about the present situation and about our unresolved past wounds.
I do not suggest that we stop thinking. We need to think and perform at our jobs and we need to use healthy defenses at times to move us away from our emotions at inopportune moments. But most of us only ever pay attention to our thoughts. Maintaining a connection to both our thoughts and emotions is required for optimal wellbeing. We do this by getting out of our heads and into our bodies. One of the greatest joys in my work as a psychotherapist is to help people restore contact with emotions and get more comfortable with them.
For too long we have been a culture that tells people to “get over it,” “buck up,” and “keep a stiff upper lip.” We medicate before understanding the root cause of our suffering. We have also been a culture that prioritizes treatments where the emphasis is on thoughts and doesn’t explicitly help people get into their bodies. However, when we learn to safely tune into our body, notice and put language on the physical sensations that emotions naturally bring about, then work towards releasing them, we heal. It's affective neuroscience!
Since we are not Vulcans, emotions cannot be ignored without consequences. So until our society educates us about emotions starting in high school (if not before), and until all parents are educated about emotions so they don't unwittingly create excess anxiety or shame in their children which leads to traumatic stress, and until all mental health professionals are educated about how emotions work in the mind and especially the body, we must take it upon ourselves to learn on our own and share the information with others. Our individual and collective wellbeing depends on it.
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model for Accelerated Change. New York: Basic Books
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House
Van Der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Random House