What causes negative emotions and why do we have them?

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

We’ve recently explored the difference between emotions and feelings but this does not explain what causes negative emotions in the first place and why we have them.

To understand the cause of negative emotions it’s worth touching on some theory around how the brain works. There are two main areas that contribute towards emotions and how they are regulated, the Limbic System and Autonomic Nervous System.

The Limbic System It is the Limbic System that is primarily responsible for our emotions and memories. There are three main elements that help us understand how the limbic system works.

1. Hypothalamus The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating things within the body, such as thirst, hunger, levels of pleasure, response to pain, aggressive behaviour and anger. It also controls the operation of the autonomic nervous system (see below), which means it adjusts things like blood pressure, pulse, breathing, and arousal in response to emotional situations.

The hypothalamus receives inputs from a number of locations. For example from the optic nerve, it gets information about changes of light and darkness. The reticular formation in the brainstem gets information about skin temperature, balance and pain. For the vagus nerve, it gets information about blood pressure and also whether the stomach is full or not.

2. Amygdala The amygdalas are two almond-shaped masses of neurons on either side of the hypothalamus. They play an important role in how we respond to emotions, by sending information which triggers the fight, flight or freeze response.

Historically, when animals were stimulated electrically, they naturally showed an aggressive response. However, when the amygdala was removed, animals became very passive, tame and no longer respond to things that would have caused a temper before. Interestingly when the amygdala is removed, animals also become indifferent.

3. Hippocampus Due to the symmetrical shape of the brain there are two hippocampi resembling two “horns” that curve back from the amygdala. The hippocampus is important in converting the information within the mind instantly (stored in the short-term memory) then sending them into things that you will remember for the long term (long-term memory). If the hippocampus gets damaged, a person can struggle to build new memories while older memories from the time before the damage are untouched.

Studies carried out on London cab drivers showed that there was a link to hippocampus growth and being able to remember the vast city streets. It is the hippocampus that is one of the first areas to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. An early sign of Alzheimer’s is when a person begins to lose their short-term memory. However, it is not uncommon for people suffering from Alzheimer’s to be able to maintain their longer-term memory.

4. Autonomic Nervous System The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two parts, in which the two parts primarily operate unconsciously in opposition to each other. The first is the sympathetic nervous system, which starts in the spinal cord and travels to various other areas of the body. It works by priming the body for the types of dynamic activities associated with “fight or flight,” such as, running from danger or being wary in a dark street.

Activation of the sympathetic nervous system has the following effects:

· Increases the heart rate

· Opens the eyelids

· Stimulates the sweat glands

· Dilates the pupils

Figure 1: Autonomic nervous system.

If the sympathetic nervous system is referred to as the ‘fight or fight’ mechanism, the parasympathetic nervous system can be considered as the ‘rest and digest’ system. It is housed in two areas; the brainstem and in the spinal cord of the lower back. Its function is to bring the body back from the heightened emergency status that the sympathetic nervous system puts it into. Both elements of the autonomic nervous system act as though they are Ying and Yang to each other. Behaviours of the parasympathetic stimulation include:

· Decreasing heart rate

· Activation of the salivary glands

· Stimulating the secretions of the stomach

· Pupil constriction

When the biology previously mentioned is combined with external events someone has experienced, there is a vast array of reasons why negative emotions occur. Typical examples could be: -

· Stress caused due to financial commitments.

· Joy of seeing your new-born baby for the first time.

· Anxiety from a work based situation (Presenting in front of people).

· Sadness of relationship break-up.

· Anger at being caught up in traffic.

· Frustration at not being able to stick to a new workout regime.

Similar to our ancestors millions of years ago, emotions are a source of information that helps us assess what is going on around us. Negative emotions, can help you recognise potential threats and feel prepared to positively handle potential dangerous situations. However, this does not always mean that the actual outcome will be of danger.

If you are experiencing negatives emotions and would like to know about 1-2-1 coaching packages to help you manage these feelings, using techniques such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Timeline Therapy® and Hypnotherapy please get in touch at info@mindevolutioncompany.com or via our website at https://www.mindevolutioncompany.com/.

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