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  • Writer's pictureHugo Menard

Why we lose emotional control

Losing emotional control happens to us all. It can be small things like lashing back at someone in an argument, using profane language in heavy traffic or just losing your civilised composure for a few moments. On the more extreme end it can be punching a wall, throwing something in frustration or collapsing into the foetal position when it all just gets too much.

Even if you’ve mastered a stoic face, and the last time you outwardly expressed your upsets was when you were two years old, you probably still have the internal experience, and that affects you whether you express it or not.

Seeing as we will all probably lose control again in the future, it’s worth understanding this loss of control better so that we can manage it better.

What exactly are these moments when we lose control?

These are the moments where despite our best intentions, our impulses and our feelings override our rational mind. Where behaviours we thought we had outgrown come to the surface. The thing that makes these moments so important, is that an act that is done in the heat of the moment, can take two seconds, yet have ramifications many decades later.

But what’s actually happening here?

Are we to blame?

After all, when the moment passes, we often look back and think things like “that wasn’t me, why did I do that? What came over me?” Understanding what is going on can help us be more compassionate and understanding with ourselves and others, and thus enable us to better handle such situations in the future.

You can think of these moments when you lose your shit as an “emotional hijacking” or a “neural hijacking”. Keep in mind that these aren’t all bad. When you lose control of your limbs because you’re laughing so hard at a joke, that is also a type of emotional hijacking.

The shortcut in the brain

We have a part of our brain (called the amygdala) that scans everything around us for danger. If something is perceived as dangerous, this part of our brain reacts instantly by sounding the alarm. This is our fight-or-flight response. It’s this reactive part of our brain that essentially takes over or overrides our better judgement and rational thinking.

What’s important to understand is that while danger starts out as a perception, the cascading effect of that perception turns into biology. Hormones are released, muscles tense up and our system goes on high alert as we go into survival mode. This is why, even if we realise that the “danger” is just a friend playing a prank on us, we still feel edgy and alert after the fact. It’s because we’ve still got hormones of survival in your system, Our blood has physically been moved to your limbs to help us stay alive. No amount of mental intelligence can help us out there.

This is where an emotional and physical intelligence is vital for getting us back to a centred state more quickly.

The signal carrying the information of what is around us, is split in the brain (stay with me here). A small part of that signal is sent to this reactive part of the brain in a kind of back alley shortcut (this is faster but less precise and less well informed. This is because you don’t need to know the exact type of bear that is swinging at you to know that it’s dangerous. You just need to know that there’s something big and scary that you need to flee from). The larger part of the signal takes a longer route to the more rational part of our brain.

This explains why we often react before we even know what’s going on. The signal literally bypasses our rational mind. It takes a pathway to our reactive brain which is objectively shorter than the pathway to the rational brain. The part of the brain that does our higher functioning and reasoning literally hasn’t gotten and processed the information by the time we jump out of the way, say something mean, show disgust on our face or sigh in exasperation.

You can be a university professor with more degrees than you can fit on your wall, but all that knowledge and intelligence doesn’t do much in emergency situations, because not only do intense emotions over power intellect, but they also get the signal first. In stressful situations, your intellect is playing catch up with your emotional and primitive brain.

We’ve all had that experience where we go in for an academic test and go blank. Often it’s not because we didn’t study, it’s not that we weren’t smart enough, it’s that our emotions got out of hand.

This is something that should be taken into consideration when working under pressure (or looking at peoples test scores to see who to hire or who to put in a certain position). Just because someone did poorly on a test, does not mean they have a low IQ. The pressure of the situation may have interfered with their IQ. You could consider seeing how they do in a position that requires high IQ but maybe has less pressure.

Similarly, learning to manage emotions can mean that someone with a lower IQ may actually do better in test situations because they will be better able to manage the emotions like fear and anxiety that can hamper performance. Thus the need for emotional intelligence.

What experiments reveal

There was an experiment done with rats where their auditory cortex was destroyed. They were then exposed to a sound which was accompanied by an electric shock. In a rat with full hearing, you would expect the rat to begin to fear the sound, as it would associate the sound with the electric shock.

It’s the same concept from the famous experiment with Pavlov’s dogs where ringing a bell and then giving the dogs food, overtime caused the dogs to salivate simply when hearing the bell as the two things had become associated with one another.

Interestingly, even though the sound could not be registered in the part of the rats brains that was damaged, the rats still feared the sound.

This points to how fundamental and base some of our reactions and behaviours are. We don’t just remember things in our rational, intellectual mind. It seems that the part of the rats brain that dealt with emotion and survival remembered what the sound meant even though the rats couldn’t consciously hear the sound. The emotional/reactive part of our brain can operate independently of our higher brain function.

This means we can form emotional reactions, memories and associations (such as the association between a sound and an electric shock) without being consciously aware of it. This explains why we sometimes react in ways we don’t understand. It’s because our analytical mind hasn’t been involved. We end up thinking “where did that behaviour come from?” or “Why did I just do that?”. The signal is simply taking a shortcut in the brain. It was helpful in hunter-gatherer times in survival situations, but it’s often harmful in the modern world.

This reaction happens very fast. Within milliseconds, we not only unconsciously understand what something is, we also make a judgement on whether or not we like it. For example, we might consciously reason that a co-worker is a nice person, but for some reason we don’t feel completely at ease around them. More than likely, our subconscious has made a judgement on that person.

Another way of seeing this is when people say “I’ve moved on from that person who dumped me / that friend who betrayed me / that opportunity I missed” etc and yet it is clear when listening to them, that it still affects them.

This is because they may intellectually have come to a resolution, but their subconscious, their nervous system, is still being affected, there’s still an emotional memory.

These memories are there to keep us safe, but we’ve often outgrown the need for them to be there. The training wheels that helped us stay on our bike back in the day, now don’t allow us to turn and move as freely as we could.

It’s about balance, not extremes

Although these hijacking’s occur, the goal is not to remove these reactive parts of the brain or use some mental hack to shut them off. While these parts of the brain become a hindrance in stressful situations or when our buttons are pushed, they are also a vital part for human connection.

Take the emotional parts of the brain away and you end up with no emotions, no meaning, no connection to friends and family. And yes, there have been experiments to prove this: when these parts of animals' brains were removed, the animals no longer felt fear or anger. But they also no longer competed or cooperated with one another. They lost connection, and they lost their place in the social hierarchy.

In humans who have impaired brain circuits associated with their amygdala (the part of the brain that scans for danger), their decision making is flawed. Every option can have many pro’s and con’s, and small decisions can take a lifetime.

Despite this down side, their IQ is perfectly fine. Again, this shows the importance of emotions.

Said differently: our feelings (or at least our emotional learnings) are important for making decisions. If we need to decide what colour to paint a wall, which person we should collaborate with, how to lead a team etc, our emotions, our humanity, our preferences and our beliefs help us. We can look at the dry facts to know someone’s qualifications and assess their previous work, but there’s a human element in deciding whether or not they would be a good person to work with.

Ideally it’s about having balance, using both intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence, and letting both of these work together in a synergistic way.

Creating change at the source of the problem

Rather than trying to be completely fearless or remove that part of our brain, we can essentially re-wire our brain at a subconscious level. We can change our perceptions of what things mean.

For example, if you believe that all snakes are highly dangerous, even if you learn to manage your reactions over time, you will still likely have a negative reaction when seeing a snake. But if you change your belief about snakes, to one of cautious curiosity, to an understanding that some snakes are dangerous and others aren’t, the alarm signal will never be sent in the first place when you see a snake that isn’t dangerous.

Much of our emotional learning is out of date. While our rational mind is mature and knowledgeable, our emotional mind can not be changed or updated using the same methods. Because there is so much for us to learn in the first few years of our life, much of our emotional mind comes from this time. A time when we didn’t have words, a time when most things were unknown, a time when we genuinely believed that there was indeed a monster under our bed that would actually eat us.

We carry reactions and beliefs that often helped us in childhood but are a hindrance in adulthood. This is part of why under pressure we can become very immature. The pressure cracks through our rational mind, which gives way to our emotional mind.

But by changing these subconscious perceptions, we can update our emotional mind. We can not just mature intellectually, but also emotionally. Otherwise we’re essentially putting an adult mask on a childish reaction and hoping no-one will notice.


Emotional intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

If you would like to learn how to make changes at the subconscious/nervous system level, click here

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