Do you ever feel like your emotions overtake you? It’s as if anger, anxiety, panic, fear, sadness or numbness, hijacks your body. Many times when we’ve experienced something that is overwhelming, or traumatic, be it little t or big t trauma, the brain can get hijacked by stressors long after the trauma is over. Here’s what happens and how you can feel like you’re more in control of your emotions.
The Brain and Emotional Overwhelm
The brain is a complex organ. To better understand how our minds, bodies, and psyches respond to trauma, let’s simplify it. One way in which we can do this is to refer to the triune brain. It’s a simplified model that separates the brain into three, each with its separate functions and sense of time.
– Brain stem (aka reptilian brain) plays a vital role in autonomic body processes, like breathing, heart rate and blood pressure and survival instincts including the fight, flight and freeze responses.
– Limbic system (aka mammalian brain) is involved in processing and regulating emotions, storing memories, and plays a vital role in how the body responds to stress.
– Neocortex (aka human brain) is the most highly evolved part of the brain. It controls cognitive processing, abstract thought, imagination, and consciousness and governs our ability to think, speak and solve problems.
Trauma and the Brain
When we feel threatened, the brain signals the body to release neurochemicals while preparing to fight, flee or freeze. The amygdala, the brain’s smoke detector and fire alarm, begins to operate at a much faster pace and is sent into overdrive. The trauma is then imprinted onto the amygdala (part of the limbic system). The amygdala holds the meaning and emotional significance of the event. After trauma, the brain is easily triggered by our sensory input, reading normal situations as dangerous.
The rational part of the brain is the prefrontal cortex, which is in the neocortex. That’s the area of the brain that helps us think, plan and solve problems. When trauma happens, the body goes into survival mode (brain stem), getting ready for a fight, flight or freeze response, while the prefrontal cortex, where reasoning occurs, shuts down. The brain becomes overwhelmed and disorganized in the face of trauma. The result of the metabolic shutdown is a profound imprinted stress response.
After trauma, the brain can be easily triggered by any of our five senses. For instance, let’s say you get mugged after walking outside one night. Now each time you go outside, your body is bracing as if you’re going to be mugged again. Your body might even want freeze if that’s what happened during the mugging. The information taken in by the five senses are misinterpreted, and the brain is unable to discriminate between a what’s normal and what’s a threat. As long as the trauma is unresolved, the stress hormones secreted for protection keep circulating, continuously replaying the bodily and emotional responses. That’s why something that seems insignificant like walking outside on a beautiful sunny day can be challenging since fragments of body memories (flashbacks) intrude into the present.
The Best Psychotherapy
There are various ways to work on through the emotional hijacking. The best psychotherapy all depends on what you’re looking for and what resonates best with you. Below are some of the approaches you may consider.
Traditional talk therapy has been used for many years to work through PTSD symptoms. The idea, as you can imagine, is to talk through the story and make meaning to what happened to understand the trauma and eventually reduce the emotional intensity through desensitization – this means using the rational part of the brain. Talk therapy has its limitations because it doesn’t address one’s sensory responses in the body. For Instance, when one feels anxious, it’s felt in the body. Talking through the anxiety can help manage it however it does not get to the root cause, nor does it discharge the energy or arousal in the nervous system.
We’re starting to understand that the frontal part of the brain doesn’t have much ability to change the deeper parts of the brain which is often where the trauma responses take place. Talk therapy is helpful when you’re online, meaning you can think rationally however when the rational part of the brain is off-line, which is what happens when your body is hijacked by trauma, has little effectiveness.
To calm the parts of the brain that are being hijacked, we must calm the body and the nervous system. When someone is activated, whether be anger, anxiety or self-loath, they’re in a hyperarousal state. When one is in that distressing state, the trauma is being imprinted in their limbic system, which is further strengthening the trauma.
EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is an effective psychotherapy a therapeutic tool that engages the right (emotional) side and the left (cognitive) side of the brain. It does so by using bilateral stimulation, one way this is done is by the client following the therapist’s finger back and forth, in front of them (their vision filed). This causes the traumatic memory that’s stuck and looping on the right side of the brain to integrate with the left side of the brain.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy (body or somatic psychotherapy) offers many tools and techniques that are helpful in calming the nervous system and brain. The therapist works with the client to help notice the body responses, (observing when the client is experiencing hyperarousal or hypoarousal in their nervous system. Being mindful and curious about that is happening supports the left side of the brain to come back online. The therapist also helps the client become more in-tune with their body’s messages and symptoms to heal.
Tools to Calm Anxiety, Manage Anger and Relieve depression:
Here are some techniques you can use at home to calm anxiety, manage anger and relieve depression:
– Take 5 minutes to gently rock your body back and forth and side to side. Notice what happens in your body. Does one way or rocking feel more relaxing? Just get curious.
– Practice deep breathing. Exhale through your mouth making a whoosh sound. Then, close your mouth and inhale through your nose counting up to 5. Hold your breath for the count of 5. Then slowly exhale counting up to 5. Repeat this sequence 4 or 5 times to feel the calm in your body.
– Find music, with or without words, that bring you into a state of relaxation.
– Mediate for 5-10 minutes a day.
– Get moving! Do some form of exercise for 12-15 minutes a day to increase dopamine and serotonin levels.