It’s no secret that understanding ourselves and those around us can help us control our emotions and behaviors. But it’s easier said than done.
– Guest Blog by David T. George, M.D. / Author of Untangling the Mind: Why We Behave The Way We Do
As a psychiatrist, I am impressed by the fact that people are often fearful to confront some of their inner-most thoughts and feelings. A number of unsettling questions are often buried in their minds: What is wrong with me? Why am I the way I am? Why do I behave the way I do?
Ever since Darwin’s groundbreaking work, we’ve known that the nervous system is driven by survival i.e., to respond to threat and to pursue reward. Here is how these “threats” translate into everyday life:
How the brain processes sensory information:
Taken from: Untangling the mind. Why we behave the way we do. Page 79
Nerve connections between the cortex (the cognitive portion of the brain) and the amygdala (early warning portion of the brain) serve to process sensory information, thereby affecting our behaviors.
Periaqueductal gray (PAG), a small structure located deep in the brain, serves as the final common pathway where emotions and behaviors come together to promote survival. Each dot represents a specialized group of neurons, which when activated, give rise to the listed emotions/behaviors.
Under normal circumstances each of these emotions and behaviors are tightly controlled and occur in direct response to environmental threats i.e., someone steals your identity and you get angry, a tornado is coming and you get fearful, or a close relative dies and you feel depressed. In contrast, problems arise when the cortex fails to process the sensory information appropriately (the cortex is disengaged and often the person feels out of control), and there is a loss in the relationship between the emotions/behaviors and the environment.
Symptoms of emotions/behaviors that get derailed:
Anger may arise from a look, a tone of voice, a perceived slight, a horn in traffic, or for no appreciable reason. In some cases the anger morphs into rage and the person’s whole demeanor changes; they transform from Jackal to Hide. Their voice gets loud, their face looks mean, and there is no reasoning with them. If the state occurs acutely, they can engage in road rage or acts of violence. However, if it occurs chronically, they are controlling and may behave like bullies. The world, and many of the people in it, are often viewed as “threats” which serve as the seed bed for hostile relationships.
Fear occurs on a continuum from feeling uptight and anxious to full fledged panic, where the person feels like they are going crazy or about to die. Chronic states of fear are incapacitating, often resulting in plummeting self-confidence and reduced energy. The world, and many of the people in it, are often viewed as “threats” which serve to foster retreat and isolation.
Depression is an emotion that drives shutdown. Shutdown can range from emotional isolation where the person adopts the attitude of “I don’t care” to physical states affecting sleep, appetite, and energy. Their view of the world is colored by depression much like it is by anger and fear, only with depression the person feels like they are living in a room with no doors and windows. The following study provides insight into how depressed people see their world.
Normal participants and depressed participants were presented with checkerboard patterns with little contrast – to vivid, high contrast patterns. The electrical signals obtained from the retina are shown for both conditions.
Adapted from an article by Bubl et al. “Seeing gray when feeling blue? Depression can be measured in the eye of the diseased. Biological Psychiatry 68: 2010, pages 205-208.
Bottom line- the evoked responses obtained from the depressed individuals indicates that they see the world as GRAY.
The trials of life affect everyones emotions, and therefore behaviors. This is normal and fosters survival. However, for some, emotions and behaviors are present without a defining cause, or persist after a cause is long gone. By confronting and learning about our psychological undercurrents and neurological makeup, we can shift fears of bewilderment, inner loneliness, and despair to hope. Just remember – treatment works for most people.
David T. George, M.D. is board certified in internal medicine and psychiatry. He is the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington School of Medicine and is the Senior Scientist at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one of the National Institutes of Health.
The more we know about the mind, the more control we can have over our minds and behaviors!
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