Limbic hijackings: learned emotional responses

Alcoholics/addicts have been said to be “hard wired” with their propensity to abuse substances or behaviors. As I understand it, there is a genetic predisposition that is often a contributing factor, but that people with this disposition can still become addicts/alcoholics.

I’m currently reading “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman.

(This happens to be one of those really long term loaners from my friend Jodi. There’s something really wonderful of about having a book for so long that belongs to someone else, nothing from a sense of keeping it away, but more as a sort of connection.)

The beginning of the book has introduced scientific research from a scientist named Joseph LeDoux. He pioneered a deeper understanding of the fundamental mechanics of individual parts of the brain, especially in regards to the processing of emotions. Two aspects of his research were striking to me:

1) The amygdala is the portion of the brain that is centrally responsible for the depth of emotional weight assigned to an experience or memory. This is independent of
intellectual processing.

2) In very intense situations, the amygdala can communicate this emotional weight and invoke a response faster than intellectual thought by sending these limbic/emotional impulses over a shorter distance than the cortical/intellectual impulses from the thalamus.

Taking an example of people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), people can be overwhelmed by experiences regardless of age (abused children vs veterans and victims of adult crime). These experiences are so strong that they overload emotional systems. The lasting results of these experiences disallow reason to be processed before the emotional impression has already dictated a person’s response. A person’s response is often triggered by a similar emotional state, not a similar rational state. Thus, a shellshocked veteran doesn’t have to be in a foxhole to lose contact with reality — a car’s backfire in a rural setting or a crowded city can invoke the same response. An adult victim of child abuse can be fully grown and distant from the perpetrator, yet a similar feeling with an intimate partner can shut down their ability to reason and think clearly in the present moment.

From the other side of the emotional spectrum, I think the same can be said of people with depression. They are often as out of control of their responses to stimuli as people with PTSD. I’m sure there are other manifestations or conditions of brain development that fall into this context.

Frankly, much of this made sense to me as I had come to believe my mind had developed in similar ways because I could recognize my hard-to-shake tendencies for habitual or long standing behaviors and thoughts. I’ve come to see that I had responses that made little sense in hindsight when my intellect was not emotionally overloaded and I have _not_ been diagnosed with PTSD.

The last thing I wanted to say is that I have experienced, for myself as well as in friends who have been diagnosed with PTSD, that therapy works to desensitized, relearn, and redirect thoughts and behaviors for people that have entrenched emotional responses due to strong experiences. It takes willingness to keep trying different responses from those that might seem instinctive. It takes patience as this changing of behaviors can take time, and it take compassion to understand that people who have difficulty changing behaviors and thoughts are at the throes of a brain that has been conditioned into these responses that react faster than thought — these people are out of control of their intellect at times.

I am not a scientist, but I am an advocate of personal change through many varied approached including therapy, meditation, and 12 step recovery among others. I believe that all of these approaches toward personal change must be done with the assistance of trusted advisers — they cannot be done alone.

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