When Emotions are High, Wisdom is Low

An angry man low on wisdom yellowing into a speaker
A man screaming angrily into a phone.

How many times have we reacted in the heat of the moment and lived to regret it? We eventually cooled down, but the damage was done. That’s because words and actions can never be taken back. They can lead to lasting relational damage, and people are not dispensable. Family is supposed to be for life, and good friends are hard to come by. Most of us have invested a lot in our family and friends and would feel the loss of alienating them. Even colleagues and coworkers are important, if only for a season. Broken relationships cannot always be restored, and even when they can it takes time and effort. If lack of self-control is so dangerous, then why is it so common?

A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.

Proverbs 29:11

When the brain detects an emotional threat, it activates the fight-or-flight response in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional processing. The amygdala releases chemicals that heighten emotion and impel an individual to take immediate action. The brain behaves acts this way because it cannot distinguish between real threats to survival that require immediate action, like a menacing tiger in the woods, and perceived threats to well-being that have a social origin, like an insulting remark. Entrepreneur Bonnie Bonadeo over at The Beauty Agents summarized it well (here).

When you are upset, angry or scared a part of your brain (the amygdala- where emotional memory resides) releases chemicals that shoot through your body to protect you, the flight or fight syndrome.  So when this chemical gets released to protect you is gives you adrenaline to run, flight, fight or freeze.  However, when the amygdala part of the brain is engaged the Neo Cortex is not and the Neo Cortex is where rational and educational thoughts come from. 

Why does it work this way and so what? 

Here’s why. The amygdala does not know if the threat is real or perceived danger so it automatically jumps to action and if you are in real danger then you do not want your rational part of the brain taking over and creating a do list or suggesting I should call a friend to discuss this danger.  Danger means run, hide, protect. You know those stories of people miraculously doing things like lifting cars that weigh a ton to save someone, or cutting off their own arm to survive. This is the amygdala in charge and we call this getting hijacked!  It is sudden, against your will, possibly forceful, you feel a loss of control and it is taking you someplace you weren’t planning on going and if left unaddressed it lasts 18 minutes and the chemicals released in the bloodstream can take 3-4 hours to clear.

Our emotions are not the absolute truth. They tell only a part of the story. And they are fleeting. Knowledge about how the brain operates in general, and self-awareness about how our brains operate in particular, empower us to successfully manage emotional highs. This usually looks like exercising patience until emotions are quiet enough that wisdom can be heard. When I catch myself getting carried away in the moment, I like to practice deep breathing. Deep breathing subconsciously communicates to my brain that the situation is not worth getting worked up over, takes some of my attention off the issue, and buys me time to think of an intelligent response. But what’s even better than successfully managing emotional highs is experiencing them less frequently.

Some people’s minds are constantly detecting environmental threats to their well-being. This is evidence of poor emotional health. And the only way to improve emotional health is to change the way we think. To stop believing things that generate negative thoughts. For example, if someone believes “I am not worthy of love,” or “I am not good enough,” then their brain will constantly find evidence to support that belief. This is the brain’s reticular activating system in action. In every moment, the brain is flooded with far more information than it can possibly make sense of. The reticular activating system filters this information by only holding on to information that confirms existing beliefs.

When people find evidence to support destructive beliefs–like “I am not good enough,”–they experience anger or fear. This makes them prone to say or do things they regret. Even if they bite their tongue and take no action, that negative emotion causes pain and undermines them from within. So it is in everybody’s best interest to foster positive beliefs. When the reticular activating system evidences a positive belief, the individual experiences positive emotion.

Emotions are the stuff of everyday life. Anyone in control of their emotions is in control of their life. Changing beliefs is admittedly not easy. Beliefs have staying power because they are based on real memories. Memories are the interpretations of experiences. An individual who believes they are not worthy of love has an accumulated backlog of memories that support that belief. An individual can change their beliefs only by consciously reinterpreting their experiences or creating new ones that make old beliefs obsolete.

My favorite technique to change the narrative is visualization. I have discussed visualization in other articles and will definitely publish more content about it in the future. What techniques, if any, do you favor?


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