Emotions Revisited

Emotions are neither good nor bad – they just are. They cannot be otherwise, for they operate from that part of the brain clearly removed from the values and belief-driven executive function. Much confusion arises when we assume characteristics of mental processing on that part of the brain that operates below any level of awareness. The emotional brain, variously known as the primal brain, the subconscious, or more specifically, the limbic system, is value neutral – relying instead on the awareness (thinking) part of the brain to function in the person’s best interest. Like other living organisms, humans interact with their environment to get their needs met, and our best interests are served when the interplay of emotion and thinking lead to effective interaction and needs – physical and non-physical, being met appropriately.

As described in a previous blog (24.03.2011), emotions facilitate this interaction. They prepare us for action and carry an expectation that the action will meet a need. The crucial thing about emotions is not about  ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘positive’ or ‘negative’,  but whether they are discharged effectively. A continuing state of emotional arousal or undischarged emotion reduces the brain’s processing capacity, places stress on the system, and raises the prospect of low mood instead of well-being.

So, given that emotions just are, how is one to handle this statement from a world authority on well-being, Martin Seligman (Flourish, Random House, 2011): Positive emotion does much more than just feel pleasant; it is a neon sign that growth is underway, that psychological capital is accumulating (p66).

My response, tentative at this stage, is that feelings – pleasant or otherwise – are much later along the stimuli-response sequence. Feelings are not simply emotions, nor are they the product of emotional arousal – they are the result of the successful interplay of emotion and thought resulting in needs being met and signs that growth is underway. Separate the emotion; recognising its function in the below-awareness phase of the sequence, and we are better able to focus on feelings or mood states, which clearly have good/bad, positive/negative dimensions.

This focus on feelings or mood states enables specific interventions at the stages that precede feeling good or bad. A focus that begins with a better understanding of emotions, contains an appreciation of the interplay between emotion, thought, action and feeling as discreet entities, and leads to successful interaction with the environment and needs being met. Growth instead of mere survival; flourishing, with more good moods than bad.

The myth of the chemical cure

Airports are fascinating places. I particularly enjoy observing people – the various games people play while pretending they are neither with others nor game-playing. Anthony was not pretending. He was very aware, at five years old, of the game of pressing his grandmother’s buttons as he out-smarted and out-ran her. On one lagging pass, the mid-sixties lady gave me that tired look and a handy explanation: “ADHD”

The explanation did little to quell the rising emotional climate among other travellers-in-waiting, but, I must admit, it confirmed the appropriateness of what I felt like doing: having a good old game of chasey. Imagine the fun we could have, we mightn’t be able to jump the seats like Anthony could, but we could cooperate and outsmart him when he landed in the other aisle. Then rough him up good-humouredly before letting him go again.

By the time we boarded, Anthony would have been exhausted, and sleeping like a baby halfway to Auckland. Instead, his grandmother had other plans: I’m saving his medication for the plane, as though placing him in a medicated fog was the only sign of relief on the horizon.

I call this ‘the myth of the chemical cure’ after Professor Joanna Moncrief’s remarkable book of that name. Anthony’s grandmother was able to announce to a group of total strangers the four-letter ‘explanation’ for her grandson’s behaviour, and the card up her sleeve was a tiny yellow pill to medically fog her grandson for the next few hours. Acceptable practice because, as we all know, medical problems need medical solutions. It is, as education expert Sir Ken Robinson claims in his latest video with all the viral potential as his previous ones, We resort to giving children quite dangerous drugs for the same reason we routinely removed their tonsils – medical fashion. I suggest it is more than just ‘fashion’ when one considers the marketing advantages of widespread demand for prescription medication. Besides, fashion and marketing have always partnered with each other and in their own interests, and manipulated people to buy a solution for every problem – perceived or otherwise.

Anthony’s grandmother had bought the package: a fashionable explanation and a ready medical solution. Too bad Anthony wasn’t consulted before his brain was bombarded with chemicals with a yet unknown longer-term effect. As I said, a game of chasey was my preference, no need to consult Anthony on that one.



Brain Growth

I came across an interesting question last week: “How much of the psychological and spiritual suffering in contemporary affluent cultures is due to unrecognized failures of growth?”* The writer, his credentials of professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology, and religious studies at UCLA notwithstanding, did not provide an answer. Nor shall I, but as a therapist who sees a fair share of human suffering and distress, it is possible to suggest: a lot.

One of the central tenets of the Human Givens approach is that psychological suffering is not present when a person is getting their physical and emotional needs met appropriately, and one of these important needs is the one for growth – to be challenged and stretched mentally. According to Walsh (2008) “the mind contains an inherent developmental drive towards growth, and given appropriate conditions and practices, the mind tends to be self-healing, self-actualising, and self-liberating”. It is clear then that ‘inappropriate’ conditions that fail to provide opportunity for intellectual nourishment, stimulation and learning; and practices or interaction with the environment that leaves the need for mental challenge and stretching unmet, will remain unhealthy, unfulfilled, and stagnating.

Now, it is not as though the distressed people who see therapists can describe their malaise in this way, hence the ‘unrecognised’ in Walsh’ question. Contemporary affluent cultures tend to create the illusion of growth; people are immersed in a constant flow of information, yet remain essentially ill-informed; their senses constantly stimulated yet so often they remain detached and bored. They become perplexed and believe in the ‘myth of more’ – without realising more of the same will bring in its wake, more of the perplexity and sense of stagnation.

Walsh provides four antidotes to stagnation:

  • Awareness: for with awareness comes choice, and a sense of autonomy and control over their environment and interaction with it, leading to mental challenge and growth.
  • Growth-orientated relationships: couples, groups or communities provide the benefit of shared endevours, mutual support, encouragement and enthusiasm.
  • Teachers: and the love of learning. As James Michener once proclaimed at a life-enhancing moment: “I am going to associate with people who know more than I do” – perhaps explaining his accumulation of 35 honorary doctorates in five disciplines before his long and productive life came to a close.
  • Regular sustained practice: perhaps the most important of all as Walsh concludes: “I have seen some very impressive friends and colleagues fall into traps of stagnation, depression and addiction”.

Antidotes that are all possible in an affluent culture, providing that innate drive is allowed to express itself fully and appropriately.

*Walsh, R. (2008) Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, 4:3

Depression Breakthrough (part 2)

The question becomes: What can be done to break this dreadful cycle and lift the black cloud of depression? To break this cycle, to move away from the sad end of the scale, the orientation response mechanism needs to work again. Working properly, it enables us to concentrate and focus, to prompt motivation so that emotions are discharged by purposeful action during the day and not overload the system at night. Although some sufferers can, given enough time, make this shift along the scale themselves, many people suffering depression find they need professional help.

A professional that fully understands this recent understanding of what depression actually is, and is up to date on new insights from various fields other than their own, is usually able to make a difference quickly and simply. They would start by lowering the emotional arousal allowing the clear-headed part of the brain to think properly. Remember, emotions are designed for action, not thinking, and they are capable of ‘hijacking’ the thinking part of the brain.

I must stress, that working with the emotions first in order to influence thinking is crucial. Emotions are in place before thought, so any attempt to fix emotional problems by changing the way people think, is working against the way the brain works. If it works at all, it will take a long time – most psychological intervention is based on this faulty assumption, leaving depression rates to rise alarmingly.

With emotions calmed and thinking in place – therapeutic in itself for a depressed person – it is possible to look for things that once gave them pleasure, something they were passionate about – usually something they have not done for a long time. Notice that I am not looking for why they are depressed – dredging up events of the past only makes them emotionally aroused again.

While concentrating on some activity that they used to get pleasure from, we put in place a simple goal, something they can start and complete before they sleep that night. The goal is clear, achievable, and will meet a deep emotional need, a need for purposeful action; to feel alive, and engaged again with this thing called life.

It is possible to have agreement, commitment, and an intention from the depressed person, but little emotional buy-in because I have not impacted the part of the brain where the problem lies. A lot of head nodding because it sounds like a good idea, but the emotional brain doesn’t do words, so the person goes away and soon the old feelings of not doing anything come up again.

To reduce the chances of that happening, I work with the emotional brain, in the language it understands. As it doesn’t do language, I simulate a healthy dream process and use metaphor, images and stories to effect change at the feeling level. The goal of purposeful action that will set them up for a better sleep becomes embedded in the emotional brain, it is like a script complete with what it feels like – I have made a difference where it matters.

It is called a ‘breakthrough’ because it makes so much sense to therapists, to people who used to be depressed, and, I am sure, to you as well. It makes sense because it is based on what depression actually is, not on what we thought it was. It makes sense because the therapy is simple and effective, and lifts depression for good.

See this on YouTube:


See also:  www.depressionbreakthrough.com.au

Depression Breakthrough (part 1)

Depression rates are on the rise, and curiously, rates of anti-depression medication prescriptions are going up also. Either depression is not what we think it is, or drugs are not working. I suggest it is both.

What if depression is not what we think it is?
What if it’s not a chemical imbalance?
What if it is not hereditary or faulty genes?
What if it is not a medical problem at all?
What if it is not helped by dredging up the past looking for reasons?

What if we consider a mood scale that everyone of us is on, with happiness up one end, and sadness down the other; and what if depression was too far and for too long at the sad end of this mood scale? That would sure be a breakthrough.

Moods are emotions – and emotions are a preparation for action. What if there was emotion and no preparation – no action; no movement along that scale. One doesn’t have to be a rocket surgeon to work that out … notice that?

Did you realise that seriously depressed people would miss that (rocket scientist/brain surgeon) because the part of the brain that helps us notice things and sets us up to respond is not working. Called the ‘orientation response mechanism’, this vital mechanism directs our focus and triggers the motivating brain chemical called dopamine to prepare us for action.

Now, with action, the emotion is discharged, and mostly as a reward, a ‘feel-good’ brain chemical floods the brain and then is withdrawn to reward us next time we act in a purposeful way. With no action however, the emotion – the preparation for action – is not discharged, no feel-good reward comes, and we stay where we are on the mood scale, or if the emotion was prompted by a basic physical or emotional need, and the need remains unmet, chances are we move toward the sad end a bit more.

Of course, not all emotions can be acted out. They centre around basic drives like food, sex, love, and status, and in civilised society, we learn to inhibit inappropriate actions. Since 1997 with the first comprehensive explanation of why humans dream – or more specifically the function of REM sleep – we know that these undischarged emotions are discharged by the action being metaphorically completed, allowing us to wake refreshed.

Depressed people however, don’t wake refreshed. They dream a lot, and even after lots of sleep, they wake feeling exhausted, unable to focus, concentrate, or get motivated.

Understanding REM sleep tells us why – the orientation response mechanism used to process the undischarged emotions during the REM sleep phase is exhausted. While a healthy sleep cycle has about 20% REM sleep; depressed people go into REM earlier, stay there longer, and use up a lot of energy so that they wake tired. They wake tired because they missed out on the restorative sleep, but, worse than that, the mechanism that gets us going in the morning –  helps us notice things, focus on what needs to be done, and motivates us toward purposeful action, does not work. They usually have another lousy day; emotions running high (although it doesn’t look like it); but no action, setting them up for another night of poor sleep as the overloaded system wades through a swamp of emotions that prepared us for action that didn’t take place. The dreadful cycle continues, they stay too far, and for too long at the sad end of the mood scale.

See this on YouTube:


Teen Depression

Not sure the title is appropriate given that yesterday’s news reports mental health checks of three year olds, and children as young as eight are suffering depressive disorders. I noticed the name of the child psychiatrist quoted, for some years ago in an address to a national audience in the Blue Mountains, I quoted the psychiatrist’s research into an increasingly common disorder among young people, a form of depression known as ‘dysthemia’.

The symptoms present a challenge to parents:

  • innattentiveness
  • poor organisational skills

and behaviours that are:

  • aggressive
  • contrary
  • oppositional and
  • defiant

Parents, of course, are not the only ones challenged by this less-than-ideal set of attributes. Teachers have to deal with the disrupted learning environment caused by such behaviours, and health professionals, if the young people consent to seeing them, are usually faced with resistance to the normal therapeutic interventions. Research shows there are perceptions of major barriers in the minds of young people to getting help – they just don’t want to appear different to their peers, or acknowledge to their families they need help.

If parents are the closest ‘significant others’ to the problem, the notion of skilling them to firstly understand what is going on in the child’s interaction with their environment to result in unmet needs; and secondly have simple and effective techniques to develop emotional resilience makes a lot of sense.

The question of course is how. My response to this question is to point to the most amazing skill development any of us have ever undertaken: learning to walk and communicate, each without formal training. This learning model is better understood now, and surprisingly enough, examining how young people play computer games has given us strategies that can be used where traditional teaching does not work. One such situation where teaching fails is dealing with teen depression, and their lack of acknowledgement – largely because there is so much change going on in their emotional, physical, social development – is a big factor in this.

Three vital characteristics raise the prospect of natural learning:

  • the learning takes place in a wider context
  • the learner is emotionally engaged
  • the prospect of failure is removed

Currently, I have a group of young people well practiced in the above behaviours immersed in a project designed with these three characteristics at its core. And, I have a group of parents who have completed a one-day workshop on the Human Givens approach and are working through eight online modules. For both groups, the wider context is they are being treated ‘as if’ they are experienced, qualified, professionals (called a ‘persona’ from our understanding of computer game skills). This context promotes emotional engagement, removes fear of failure, and allows for learning by ‘stealth’ – another aspect of gaming.

It is the first time this award-winning learning model has been used outside schools, and indications thus far are exciting to say the least. Watch this space.

Needs and Resources – the critical balance

Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. From this definition, two things can be said with some confidence. Firstly, all behaviour is needs-driven; behaviour is an expression of an individual’s attempt to get a need met; a demonstration of a need being met; or the perception that a need currently being met by that behaviour is threatened. This is a significant principle, for it provides an answer to that rhetorical question: “Why would they do this?” It removes the often frustrating search for an explanation for behaviour that to our minds does not make any sense.

Secondly, the definition allows for this statement to be made:

…if a person with an undamaged brain is getting their emotional needs met well, they will not have psychological problems. There is no more profound statement that can be made about mental health. 

Tyrrell, I. 2005

The Human Givens therapy and education approach is based on the proposition that every human is born with an enormous amount of innate knowledge that has accumulated over centuries. This knowledge facilitates our survival and ability to adapt to and interact with our environment.

This innate or instinctive knowledge is expressed in two ways:

  • as needs, physical and emotional expectations seeking fulfilment
  • as resources, the guidance systems that help us get our needs met.

This needs and resources balance results in sound emotional health, and problems arise when needs are not met, or resources are not used appropriately.

Physical needs include a wholesome diet, regular exercise, restorative sleep, as well as shelter and security.

Emotional needs, previously thought of as things that get in the way of clear thinking, are becoming recognised as equally important as physical needs. Emotional needs (with the corresponding fears that arise when they are not met or getting them met is threatened) may include:

  • Life/growth/survival, and the fear of death, annihilation, danger
  • Love/intimacy/connection, and the fear of rejection loneliness and alienation
  • Challenge/exploration, and the fear of losing problem-solving ability
  • Significance/meaning, and the fear of insignificance, meaninglessness
  • Control/autonomy, and the fear of being overwhelmed and not coping.

As well as needs, we are all given a set of resources that can help us get these needs met. Things like imagination, long-term memory, the ability to learn through metaphor, a dreaming brain, and the capacity to observe ourselves. This latter resource, called ‘the observing self’ is particularly useful therapeutically in separating the person from the condition – one can often see the effect of this in response to the question “How does this thing called depression con you into thinking is such black or white; all or nothing thinking?”

Tyrrell, I. (2005) Tuning in to our natural endowment: the human givens. Journal of Holistic Healthcare, Vol 2 – 4.

Environment – our context for living

A basic law of organic life states: every living thing interacts with its environment to get its need met. This is a ‘given’. In other words we are interacting with our physical, social, personal, non-physical and even virtual environment all the time. And while our mind may be elsewhere, part of our brain is scanning the environment, mostly below our awareness, for the opportunity to satisfy an innate need, often one of four basic ones – food, love, sex and achievement.

Of these four needs, you will notice that only one, food, is a physical one, and deprive the organism of this and it will die. The others are non-physical or emotional needs, and while the organism – in this case – humans will not die without them, they will suffer distress. Humans have more in mind than just staying alive. So often the reason life-support is switched off is not because the person can’t be kept alive, but because there is little point in living if there is no chance of meaningful interaction. While survival is important, for humans it is not the main game – they need to interact with their environment to flourish.

If a person displays signs of distress – emotionally charged or agitated, drained of purpose, bereft of joy, suffering low mood or generally not flourishing in their interaction with their environment – according to this law, it comes down to one of two things: poor environment, or insufficient interaction with it. Usually the latter.

Some environments are poor in their capacity to provide opportunity for emotional needs to be met. A situation of constant threat (an abusive relationship for example) will reduce the chance for people living in that climate of fear to flourish.  Their needs for love, connection, privacy, control and autonomy, all important human needs, will have little chance of being met.

Other environments may appear ‘poor’ to one person, and be fine for another. If you have seen the movie Samson and Delilah one could be tempted to explain Samson’s petrol sniffing in the context of limited opportunities for anything else in his environment. Delilah, however, lives in the same environment and has a rich source of meaning and connection. Her behaviour is purposeful (artwork) and caring for her grandmother provides her with a sense of significance. So, it is not necessarily the environment per se, but one’s perception of it that matters.

Given that for most of us, our environment is neither abusive nor an outback settlement, most emotional distress can be attributed to the lack of interaction with it. And while these needs are mostly innate, the successful interaction skills required for western society are not. They are skills that have to be learned by good parenting, positive peer relationships, and, especially during formative years, a supportive and encouraging circle of friends. If the individual has missed out on these vital interaction skills – and it could be their environment prevented or hindered their development – they can be taught later in life. Many of the people I see for therapy are in this category, and given direction and mentoring, can become fluent in negotiating their environment in order to flourish again. The basic law of organic life is a useful starting point to this success.

Emotions – an introduction

Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. Sounds simple, deceptively simple. One of the useful aspects of recent research in psychology is the focus on the emotional brain (often called the ‘limbic system’) or that part of the brain that operates largely automatically and without the influence of the rational thinking part of the brain. Another useful recent focus is the role context plays in our understanding of the brain. Up until fairly recently, cognition (knowing or perceiving) was thought of as an essentially individual affair – what’s going on in a person’s head. However, we don’t think inside a vacuum, it takes place in a context, an environment of some sort. So these two aspects – the part of the brain that has first call on all sensory information and can act without much input from our thinking; and the notion of interaction with our environment,  give us a good start in un-ravelling our definition of emotions.

Let’s look at the three parts of this definition. Firstly emotions prepare us for action. Now there is a chemical (neurotransmitter) explanation for this preparation; certain chemicals get us focused and moving, leading to the somewhat faulty view that if people can’t get focused or moving, it is a lack of certain motivating chemicals. If the problem is defined as a chemical one, it follows that the solution will be framed in chemical terms. However, unless we are in the business of marketing chemical treatments, this explanation has little benefit for people looking for a better understanding of emotions.

A better explanation of the preparation for action can be found in a basic law of organic life: every living thing interacts with its environment to get its need met. (I can feel another blog topic coming on already, and this from a reluctant blogger!) In other words we are interacting with our physical, social, personal, non-physical and even virtual environment all the time. Emotions are a vital part of that interaction, they stimulate the action around four basic drives – food, love, sex and achievement. So, emotions are more than chemistry, they are an essential part of staying alive by interacting with our environment.

Secondly, this interaction with our environment has a purpose: to get a need met. The need may be physical; hunger drives us to search for food, and the act of eating leaves us with a sense of having our appetite satisfied. Or, equally important is the range of non-physical or emotional needs; a need for connection with another person is satisfied with a sense of companionship driven by a powerful emotion called love. While physical needs have been understood for a long time, it is only recently that emotional needs have been recognised as an essential part of being human. For lower forms of organic life, survival is the main game, but with humans, they have more in mind than just staying alive. They need to flourish; to be challenged and solve problems; to feel in control and have some sense of autonomy; they need to derive meaning and significance from their interaction with their environment, and so on. Getting these needs met contributes to emotional wellness; not getting them met arouses the emotional brain to prepare for action, usually with a corresponding reduction in our capacity to think clearly. Remember, emotions are designed for action, not thinking. Raise the emotional arousal – such a someone ‘doing their block’ – and thinking virtually shuts down.

Now, for the third aspect of the definition – the expectation that the action will meet a need. Emotions are innate, they are purposeful (to get a need met), and they are below awareness in that they are pre-thought, pre language. Hunger carries an expectation eating will satisfy the need for food. Love carries the expectation that intimacy will satisfy a deep longing for such connection with another person. Expectation completes the sequence: emotion prepares us to do something; it carries an expectation of result; action usually results in the need being met. In this case the emotion is discharged, the expectation is fulfilled and validated (ready to have the same expectation again), and the need met. A healthy cycle, a characteristic of emotional wellness.

Does the world need another blogger?

Seems like I have answered my own question with this; a new blogger with his first post.

In a restaurant with a group of friends last week, the conversation revolved around the question: Why have people become so uptight? … just a minor upset and WOW they think it is full-on war. Good question, no simple answers.

My response was to explain what emotions are. Useful if we are discussing a general level of heightened emotion and an increasingly common response that does not fit the situation.  I noticed someone reaching for a pen; writing on the paper serviette, “Say that again slowly”. Before saying ‘it’ again slowly, another asked if I had a blog, to which I replied ” Does the world need etc …” Both affirmed that a blog providing this sort of information was surely needed. I was chuffed – and it sure beats trying to write on a serviette.

What sort of information is seen by my restaurant friends as useful? Well this blog will probably focus on emotions, and the way they influence everything we do. I guess I can claim some authority on the topic having won state and national awards for designing and implementing curriculum programs that have the development of emotion management at their core, and more recently becoming the first Australian qualified in a revolutionary approach to emotional health from the UK. Being in private practice as a therapist/counsellor gives me opportunity to keep current in what information is useful for people interested in keeping emotionally buoyant. Information that you may find useful in your contact with ‘up-tight people’.

Emotions are a preparation for action with an expectation that the action will meet a need. This is a ‘given’ – no argument, no exceptions. Future blogs will flesh-out the implications of this definition, sufficient to say here that emotional arousal is linked with getting needs met, and it is possible to conclude that in a society with many vital emotional needs unmet, emotions will remain high. And as emotions are designed for action not thinking, chances are that clear-headedness will be absent as simple events trigger an outburst more appropriate in a war zone or the jungle than a city street.

There you have it. The world has another blogger whether it needs it or not.