Changing with New Associations Pasts magnify present emotions BY: Troy Murphy | April 2016
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Life is a feeling experience. When underlying emotions are positive, comforting and warm, we enjoy life. When they are chaotic, full of anxiety, and disturbing, we struggle. Our articulate thoughts describing an experience lags, trailing behind the experienced emotions. We feel something and then try to explain, what we feel and why we feel it. Our thoughts regulate, instigate or magnify the initial feeling. Our minds exploit feelings to supplement deficiencies in the ego, protecting painful recognition, and justifying badness.
Human emotions strike interest because we all feel—philosophers have debated about the purpose and value of emotions for centuries. I believe within the experience of emotion, we find the keys to understanding the life.
As young children, we experienced emotions. Our developing bodies reacting to the roller coaster of experience, feeling fear, joy, anger and sadness; but with an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, we had limited ability to regulate the feelings. We were just along for the ride. The infant completely relies on an attentive caregiver to provide the regulations, soothing the emotions and satisfying the needs. Through healthy support, we set in motion effective mental reactions to emotions. With maturity of the prefrontal cortex and proper childhood guidance, we enhance and suppress emotions to satisfy purpose. The mindful attention to experienced emotion gives richness to life. Within these controls, we can subtly change some of the emotional hard wiring of our brain.
The plasticity of the brain continues throughout our lives. We learn by rewiring the brain. Automatic emotional responses must be regulated—some when blindly followed lead us off course. We must identify with errant impulses and re-direct towards long-term intentions. But changing engrained reactions is no easy task. Our lives are largely automated, reacting to past learning—external trigger, emotional reaction, habitual behavior. The thoughts follow, articulating the appropriateness of emotions and justifying behavior—even when the emotion and behavior are harmful. This happens seamlessly. Unless given attention, obvious destructive behaviors seem appropriate and are excused.
Change demands creating new associations with old input. When we recognize an emotional reaction to an external trigger, we have the glorious opportunity for change. Nothing can’t interrupt a process, we fail to recognize. As we unravel the complex weaving of emotions, triggers, and behaviors, discovering the nettling influence of the past, the emotional reactions begin to soften. The deeper understanding of why disperses some of the energy.
Emotional maturity doesn’t magically cure discomfort. There won’t be drastic change. Human emotions have been sculpted by millions of years of evolution to guide behavior. The brain learns from environmental experience, scanning, recording and analyzing. Learning creates emotions to direct an organism away from danger and towards security. But some learned associations between environment and consequence are wrong. We experience fear, anger and sadness when the immediate environment isn’t threatening. Our perceived environment has drifted from reality. The vicious dog that has been cruelly treated continues to experience fear even after being rescued.
Emotional changes take time. The difficulty of change is a significant obstacle. Many quickly tire of attentive watchfulness and return to past practices of fanciful dreams, defensive avoidances, and clever excuses. We must see reality to change, not simple acknowledgement but mindful adjustments; integrating truth, facing discomfort, and courageously working through misdirected impulses.