This is your brain on emotions

Your amazing brain is the product of evolution, but still contains the vestiges of more primitive species.

The brainstem reflects the reptilian brain that is mainly concerned with survival. The midbrain or early mammalian brain is emotional, and the cerebral cortex represent the higher primate brain from which we can plan, reflect and manage our emotional states.

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When life and limb are threatened, the reptilian brain takes over.

When we are overwhelmed by emotions, such as anger, anxiety or depression, our normal rational thinking is restricted and our thoughts both reflect and perpetuate our emotional state.

For example, when angered, our thoughts obsess with how we have been threatened, insulted or harmed. It is much easier to see the negative aspects of the other person than our connection to them. If we continue this line of thinking, our anger continues to brew.

When we are overwhelmed with anxiety, our minds exaggerate the enormity of the challenges we face and minimize our strengths and resources. We may start thinking that we are going to die, fail or lose control when our rational minds know we really can manage.

When our brain is shaded by depression, we may only see the negative aspects of our reality. The triad of depressed thinking includes negative thoughts about our selves, our situation and the future.

We can move out of a depressed state by thinking about the very opposite – our personal strengths and accomplishments, the positive aspects of our situation and the people in our lives, and the positive potential of the future.

In Homer’s Iliad, the Sirens’ irresistible singing would lure sailors to their deaths as their ships crashed onto the rocky shores. Odysseus wanted to hear their beautiful songs without destroying his ship, so he commanded his crew to tie him to the mast and cover their own ears, ignoring his commands when he was in an altered mental state.

We could all use an Odysseus app - in our brains or smartphones - when we are overwhelmed by difficult situations and our emotional states. At those times, we need to see our reality from the perspective of our more rational and compassionate minds – the cerebral cortex.

From this perspective, we accept those aspects of our situation over which we have no control while recognizing what aspects we can positively change. What are the positive aspects of this situation? What resources do we have? In what other areas of life are things going well?

At these times, we need to be reminded of our personal strengths, our greatest goals and values, our connection to others, our best relationships, and the likelihood of a positive future.

This is when we can call upon special family members and best friends who can bring us back and remind us of who we really are and how we are loved, bring us to our senses and shine a fresh light on our perspective.

Davidicus Wong is a family physician and his Healthwise columns appear regularly in this paper. For more on achieving your positive potential in health, see his website at

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