Past, Present, and Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 1, 2013 (modified February 3, 2023)
Traumatic pasts incite strong emotions in the present, spoiling opportunities for recovery.
We are moldable—molded by the past to react to the present. Our adaptation to experience has great survival implications. We learn. Emotions intricately woven through out the body are programmed from the pains and joys of the past. Similarities in the present draw upon these memories and we feel pain, sorrow, excitement, and anger. There is utility in emotion; there’s also irrationality. We sometimes act against our best interest. Slipping through, impacting our learning, we integrate chaos.
The clandestine ties between the present and past ignites emotions. If we believe an event, person or place threatens security, acceptance, or survival, we react; the heart beats stronger, blood pressure rises and muscles tighten. If, conversely, we believe the event, person or place secures a need, we also respond. Biologically we are emotionally connected to experience. Life occurs in much more than just the firing of neurons in our head.
Motivating Force of Emotion
Our emotional reactions intricately guide us towards people, things and activities that appear nourishing and repel us from people, things and activities that appear destructive. The reactions have evolutionary value, not just for survival but also for flourishing.
Biological characteristics pass from generation to generation, not because they are flawless, but because of a survival value. The possessors of the trait survive better than those lacking. This attraction-repelling guide is an imperfect system. Its programming (learning) is susceptible to viruses that distort emotional reactions. We may be attracted to the dangerous or repelled by the healthy. Depending on the clarity of experience, we build predictable or chaotic emotions. Th associations we build through experiential learning aren’t perfectly aligned with reality.
An angry word from our partner doesn’t necessarily threaten the stability of the relationship; but our emotions may respond as if it does. A slight disagreement with a coworker doesn’t diminish personal worth; but we may respond as if it does. Our emotions jump to radical conclusions, demand answers, and ignite wars.
"Neurons that respond to the frightening environment send that information to the brain's fear center."
Columbia University Irving Medical Center | Science Daily
Traumatic Childhoods and Emotions
A turbulent childhood of impoverished emotional support and unpredictable punishments creates an emotional glass house, signaling danger from every small pebble. As adults raised in chaos, we can combat the internalized mess through rigid structure, attempting to eliminate the anxiety of the unknown. But perfect structure fails, the broken soul suffers when the delicate balance is rattled from the slightest daily disruption.
If our pasts included physical and emotional violence, we adaptively recoil at any possibility of danger—no matter how miniscule the event. We adapt, avoiding similar situations where pain was administered. No matter what the nature of our childhood—healthy or not, we have emotional triggers. A mundane event may trigger unbearable streams of emotions. Once emotional centers are triggered, we succumb to a cascade of biological changes, chemicals release into the blood stream to prepare for battle.
"It appears that emotionally charged situations can lead us to create longer lasting memories of the event."
Understanding Our Emotions
Understanding the biological processes of emotions and building awareness to the triggers provides a road map for living, guiding us through circumstances we find threatening. Once we identify beliefs that trigger emotions, we can examine and challenge the beliefs; a slow process that eventually diffuses power behind emotions disrupting our lives.
As we become familiar with reactions, we engage self-soothing early in the process before an all-out emotional explosion. By doing this, we avoid damaging consequences of an irrational response. The skills to combat flaws in this imperfect system must be developed through patient practice.
We are human—our biological systems occasionally overreact. It’s the way we function. While our system will never be perfect, they serve us well. With a little fine tuning and patience, we can enjoy the waves of the sea as they crash on our shores and then recede without having our emotional house knocked off the foundation and busted into ruins.