Behind the Scene of Emotions

By: Megan Muñoz IMH

            What comes to mind when you think about emotions? Does the subject make you curious, uncomfortable, or excited? Thinking about emotions may make you reflect back to the last time you had a strong emotional response, or it may take you back to the way emotions were handled in your family when you were growing up. Whatever your first reaction, it will be significant as we attempt to understand the complexities of how our internal world is constructed by emotions. In talking about emotions, you may think about categorical ones such as anger, fear, sadness, or joy. You may even begin to feel one of these emotions. One response we rarely pay attention to is the response of our body on a physiological level to the topic of emotions. In fact, most of us do not tend to pay attention to what we are feeling at all, let alone notice how our bodies are responding as we go about our day. Learning to listen and pay attention to what is happening on an emotional as well as a physiological level inside of us is extremely important to gaining a clear picture of our emotions and what they are trying to communicate.

            Emotions are more than feelings. They are more than thoughts. In fact, emotions are the energy by which our brain and body respond to our environment and make meaning of our experiences. The better we learn to pay attention to our emotions, where they came from, and what they are trying to communicate, the better we will be able to choose how we will respond to situations in our everyday life. When talking about emotions, I have found it helpful to use the workings of a smoke detector as an analogy. How does a smoke detector work? Most homes are equipped with several detectors strategically placed around the doors, kitchen, and living spaces and are programmed to give off an ear-piercing sound when their sensors pick up a whiff of smoke. A smoke detector’s job is to sense fire in the house and notify the occupants of the threat. In the same way, our brains and bodies are programed by our past experiences to bring our attention to something that is happening around us. This is the beginning of an emotion - the moment our brain and body become aware of change in our environment. But as with a fire detector, we need to pay attention to what is causing our internal physiological alarm to sound. Sometimes, a fire detector goes off when birthday candles are lit in the living room and other times it goes off when toast is burning in the kitchen. These events may not cause major damage if ignored. But sometimes the smoke detector sounds because the whole bedroom is on fire.

            The sound of our internal indicators is only the beginning of our emotional process. As with a pre-programmed smoke detector, the initial warning inside of us happens before we are consciously aware of it. Our stomach begins to hurt, or maybe we feel pressure in our chest and our heart rate goes up. These responses and many more are how our bodies are programmed to respond- even before we are aware of them. When we become conscious of these sensations, our interpretation of them falls into an emotional category such as anger, fear, joy, or sadness.

However, many of us respond to emotions by doing the internal equivalent of taking the batteries out of the smoke detector. We get tired of hearing the beeping and don’t know what to do about it, so we find ways to silence the warning signals. When we do this, we not only lose the ability to become aware of serious problems (like our bedroom on fire), but we also lose the capacity to experience more positive emotions like joy and happiness (as with the birthday candles).

So next time your internal smoke detector makes a sound, pay attention and be curious. Your body and brain have something to teach you.

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