The Emotional Brain

When we describe our emotions, we typically label them in a way that reflects how we feel: love, sadness, fear, happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, panic or depressed. But what causes us to feel an emotion?

To understand what causes you to feel emotions, we need to dive deep inside your brain to look at an ancient set of structures. The limbic system is one of the oldest parts of your brain (evolved in early humans). It is a group of brain structures that surround the brain stem, which include the amygdala, hypothalamus, thalamus, cingulate and hippocampus. Our limbic system governs are emotional experiences, emotional memories, emotional learning, survival instincts and regulation of bodily functions.

The newer, rational and more advanced part of your brain is the frontal lobe - the large area behind your forehead. This is where thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and planning happen. The frontal lobe allows you to process and think about your emotions. You can then manage these emotions and determine a logical response. Unlike the automatic response of the amygdala, the response to fear from your frontal lobes is consciously controlled by you.

When the emotional and thinking brain are working well together, we are able to appropriately and safely respond to what is going on around us. In fact, your emotional intelligence is linked to the interaction between the frontal lobes and the limbic system. However, there are situations and experiences that can get in the way of these two parts of our brain working well together.

If we have experienced trauma (whether it is early in life as neglect or abuse or later in life as PTSD) this can also put our brains into a survival state. The trauma we experienced changes the way we perceive threat and danger. The amygdala, reacts to misperceived threat or danger in our environment, sending us into our flight, fight, freeze response when we actually, in reality, don’t need to respond in this way.

Your mood is regulated by the chemical messaging system inside your emotional brain and the brain areas talks to. The neurons inside you head are constantly talking and sending chemical messages to each other. These chemical messages are called neurotransmitters. There are three neurotransmitters which are heavily involved in regulating your mood: dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine.

Dopamine is related to experiences of pleasure and reward. When you do something good, you're rewarded with dopamine and experience a pleasurable, happy feeling. The amount of dopamine released by the brain prior to a behaviour is actually proportional to its potential for providing pleasure so the more pleasurable it is, the more dopamine is released.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with memory and learning. It plays an important part in the regeneration of brain cells, which has been linked to easing depression. An imbalance in serotonin levels leads to an in an increase in anger, anxiety, depression and panic.

Norepinephrine (also referred to as noradrenalin) helps moderate your mood by controlling stress and anxiety. It is at its lowest levels during sleep, rises during wakefulness, and reaches much higher levels during situations of stress or danger. It increases arousal and alertness, which can increase restlessness and anxiety.

Abnormalities in how the brain receives and processes these chemicals can have a big effect on your emotions. For example, when you do something rewarding or pleasurable, the part of your brain that processes that information interacts with the chemical dopamine. If your brain can't receive dopamine normally, the result is that you feel less happy -- or even sad -- after what should have been a happy experience. People who have to live with major depression have fewer serotonin receptors in their brains.

Memories of previous experiences influence how you respond emotionally to situations. People who have lived through a traumatic event can find themselves experiencing emotional challenges long after the event has taken place.

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