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​The Physiological Mechanics of Emotion

            You are standing in a line when you are painfully bumped in the back by someone.  You immediately feel irritation and anger builds.  You turn around to say something and you notice that the person who bumped into you is blind.  Immediately the irritation/anger disappears and a feeling of empathy emerges.  Here’s what happens physiologically to produce the different emotions felt in this situation.
            The initial recognition of being hit in the back triggers an anger reaction (perceived threat) in the brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain that produces emotion. This is an automatic response, meaning there is no conscious thought involved at this point.  Within milliseconds, however, signals are processed through the thinking part of the brain (cerebrum).  In the conscious brain, perceptions are filtered first through existing attitudes which impact the development and intensity of the emotional response almost immediately.  For example, an attitude that I should stand up for myself if people invade my space would maintain anger in the situation described.  But then that emotion would calm quickly when new stimuli (the man is blind) was filtered through attitudes such as there is no need to get angry about accidents.  Additional attitudes about how difficult life would be if blind can then lead to the very different emotion of empathy. 
            The entire process up to this point occurs very quickly and is below awareness.  Then with a little time (a few seconds) conscious decisions about the situation are made which can alter the more immediate initial emotional response.
            Bottom line, emotion is produced automatically in the brain in response to various incoming stimuli.  But it’s what we think, both pre-programmed (attitudes and habits), and conscious decisions that control the direction and intensity of emotion.  That means that with a brain that is functioning normally, we all have the power to control our emotions.  We need not be burdened by unwanted emotion; and we should be able to maximize desired emotions.

What the Mechanics of Emotion Means From a Practical Standpoint

1.     You can feel an intense emotion very quickly in response to various situations; and without any conscious thought associated with it.  This fact can lead some to believe that emotions occur automatically and that we have no control over them.  Not true.
2.     Since underlying attitudes have such a significant and relatively immediate impact on the emotions we experience, it’s important that our attitudes are positive and healthy.  For example, we are more likely to avoid unwanted emotion and have more positive feelings if we are pre-programmed to have attitudes such as an attitude of faith, an attitude of gratitude, an attitude of humility, an attitude of balance, and an attitude of forgiveness.
3.     Since what we feel is ultimately controlled by what we are either preprogrammed to think (attitudes and habits); or by what we decide to think in specific situations, emotion won’t change because of wishes or good intentions.  For example, even if we don’t want to be depressed, depression will continue if we continue to think depressing thoughts.  Just telling ourselves to be happy won’t do much good.
4.     Given the physiology underlying emotion, in general, here is what we can do to moderate unwanted emotion and maximize desired feelings:
     a.  As described above and again below, we can ensure that our general attitudes are positive and healthy.
     b.  Practice deep breathing and other relaxation techniques.  These practices can provide a distraction, which helps avoid making an unwanted emotion stronger by                            continuing to think (worry) about it.  By slowing our breathing and calming our body we are also sending “all is well” signals to the emotion centers in the brain, which                helps them more quickly reset.
     c.  Refuse to dwell on negative thoughts by distracting ourselves, also as described below.
     d.  Sedative and tranquilizing drugs can be used; but the effect is temporary and these drugs can become habit forming with extended use.
     e.  When brain chemistry problems are not allowing normal brain function, anti-depressants and other psychotropic medications may be helpful.

If we are to have a rich but controlled emotional life, it’s Important to Develop Healthy and Positive Attitudes.

            Interestingly, the positive and healthy attitudes required for good emotional control are all found in scripture and taught in the Church.  For example, having an attitude of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ can quickly moderate the emotion of fear felt in threatening situations (1 Nephi 17:35).   Likewise, believing that the Spirit will direct and support us can eliminate fear as we approach difficult tasks.  Believing in the principle of forgiveness and “turning the other cheek” will moderate feelings of anger.   Believing and following the principle of repentance can eliminate feelings of guilt.  A classic example of this is the intense pain Alma felt until he remembered the promises of the gospel, at which point the extreme negative emotion he experienced was quickly replaced with joy and happiness (Alma 35:18-20). 
            As additional examples, having an attitude of gratitude goes a long way toward moderating depressed feelings and it encourages an upbeat, positive outlook.  Having an attitude of balance (temperance or moderation in all things, Alma 7:23) can reduce the anxiety and depression often associated with trying too hard to be perfect.  Ultimately the hoped for emotions of peace, comfort, love, empathy and joy all come from living the commandments; which requires us to think in righteous ways.  Anything we can do to pre-program ourselves to think about everything as Christ does will bring us closer to the goal of a rich and controlled emotional life.  Actually, this is a natural byproduct of staying active in the Church and doing the basics consistently; i.e., praying, reading and studying scriptures, serving others, and generally keeping the commandments.

Some Specific Ideas for Controlling Fear

1. Learn to avoid excessive or unnecessary worry.  Allow yourself to worry only about the things you can immediately control.  Turn everything else over to the Lord.  This can cut panic off at one of its primary sources.
2. Move your thinking from “have to” or “need to”, to “want to”. Anytime you need something to happen and it doesn’t happen; or even if it just looks like it might not happen, you will get anxious. As an example, wanting to be on time and taking all steps practical to be on time is a good idea.  Needing to be on time will create unnecessary anxiety when circumstances come up that make you late in spite of your good intentions. Needing to stop the symptoms of a panic attack will make the symptoms worse. Don’t try to talk yourself out of the feelings you have, or even minimize them. Just try hard not to focus on them.
3. When you first notice fear or panic, take several deep breaths and think calming thoughts. Practice deep breathing frequently over time in order to develop a “relaxation response”. Deep breathing alone can curtail a building panic attack. It is most effective when coupled with thought control.
4. When you first notice panic feelings building, label this as a panic attack. By using this label you understand that your brain is releasing stress chemicals which are causing you to feel the way you do. There is no immediate danger in the body’s response.  It may feel like it; but you aren’t going to die. After labeling the problem, try very hard to move your thinking to something other than what your body is doing. Get into a conversation with someone, walk around, or do anything that will help you focus on something outside of yourself.
5. Pray hard; but not necessarily for the feeling to go away. Rather pray for help in distracting and knowing what to do to get your mind off of the horrible things you are feeling.
6.  Distraction.  Distraction.  Distraction.  Keep following the ADD cycle over and over if necessary.  That is: every time you again become Aware that you are thinking about the problem, Decide again not to go there in your thinking, then Distract your thinking once again.

Some specific ideas for Controlling Anger

1. Pray for help in forgiving and distracting. You can’t pray anger away if you continue to think in ways that sustain and grow your angry feelings. This, of course, is often easier said than done. Thankfully, divine help is available.
2. Calm Down
     a. Where possible, move away from the irritating situation, take time out. That part of your brain that creates an angry feeling is quicker to respond than the part of your                  brain that can reason and make good decisions. Find a way to give yourself time for the reasoning and good judgement to kick in.
     b. Take a deep breath, or a series of them. Tell yourself you are not going to let whatever you are concerned about matter.
     c. Count backwards, sing a hymn, and recite a favorite forgiveness scripture (i.e. D&C 64: 8-10); or distract your thinking by focusing on something other than the issue that is           annoying you.
     d. Think peaceful thoughts. DO NOT review the problem in your mind.
4. Be willing to apologize, serve, and try to understand whoever or whatever triggers your anger.
     a. Look in the mirror when you are angry. You may not like what you see.
     b. Take the higher road by being willing to apologize. Genuinely ask for what you can do to make things right.
     c. Follow the direction from the Lord to “do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you” (3 Nephi 12:44).
5. Keep an anger log. For one week, record the “trigger events” that seem to spark your anger, what you were angry about, and how you handled the anger. Based on your findings, prayerfully develop a plan for how to handle the “trigger events” differently next time.
6. Learn constructive ways of dealing with problems.
     a. Ask for what you want, but don’t insist or demand.
     b. Own the problem rather than blaming/attacking the other person. Find ways to solve the problem on your own where possible; and decide not to worry about it when that            isn’t possible.
     c. Try to understand the other person. Ask specific questions to check your conclusions about the other person; e.g., “That comment makes it sound like you think I am an idiot. Is that what you really meant to say?”
d. Use the magic words, “You might be right” when you disagree with someone; or when they disagree with you.  Sincerely admitting you might be wrong is very helpful.  You don’t have to actually agree with the other person.
e. Work for a “win/win” solution when your opinions or wishes conflict with others. It’s almost always possible to reach a compromise that works for everyone when all parties involved are sufficiently humble and forgiving. Of course, you can’t guarantee that someone else will be humble and forgiving; but you can insure that you are.


Dr. Gary G. Taylor