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Your brain is an amazing, complex, multi-layered work of art.
With something that complex, it's a given that - once in awhile - it will behave in ways that you just don't understand.
This is especially true of emotions.
Sudden, intense emotions usually have an obvious explanation- because there is usually an obvious trigger, like getting fired, or dumped. However moods - those more subtle, pervasive emotional states- can be trickier to explain. Sometimes they appear to just occur spontaneously in your mind, with no obvious cause.
Anxiety, depression, and agitation are among the most common examples of these.
What Triggers Our Emotions?
Here's the thing. Even when you cannot easily identify the cause of your emotions, your emotions are nearly always a reaction to something.
Your emotions are a central part of your survival system, and they can be triggered by a huge range of things, including...
- Your immediate situation
- The people around you
- Your thoughts & thought patterns
- Your diet & nutrition, or lack thereof
- Your level of fitness, or lack thereof
- Your "intuition" - things your emotional mind perceives, that your rational mind hasn't become aware of yet
If you're feeling moody and not entirely sure why, it's worth exploring. There's no need to suffer, and your emotional mind probably knows something that your rational mind hasn't fully realized yet.
So How Do You Figure Out What's Wrong?
When I'm confronted with an emotion or mood that I am struggling to explain, I find it easiest to approach the problem the same way I would "debug" an issue with my computer.
A computer is also a complex, multi-layered work of art where inexplicable things happen every day, and interestingly it has similar layers.
For this discussion, we'll look at six layers;
- User. You, and how you're using your system, or your mind.
- Resources. Energy, memory, bandwidth, storage space. The things you need to accomplish stuff.
- Applications. Describes the types of things you asking your computer, or your mind, to do.
- Configuration. How your system is set up, and whether this supports your applications well.
- Operating System. The underlying paradigm. On a computer, your applications have to be compatible with your OS, or they won't work right. In real life, your frame, cultural biases, socialization, values, education all define your capabilities.
- Hardware Layer. The deepest layer- the physical components including the motherboard, CPU, and memory. In you, it's your brain and how it's functioning.
When identifying a problem, I start with the most obvious on-the-surface-things first, and then work my way deeper, layer by layer, until I find the cause of the problem.
Here's how that works, when applied to your own mind, moods and emotions.
First up is user error. A solid 95% of the things I find in my own life fall into this category.
What are you doing, or not doing, that could be causing these emotions?
Here are some common mistakes we make, that are fairly easy to correct;
- Overthinking. Every part of your brain is designed to maximize your survival. Thoughts often trigger emotions, because your mammal brain and reptile brain respond to your rational brain's predictions of the future. Emotions also trigger thoughts, as your rational mind tries to explain what you're feeling. When you let that get out of control, you create a feedback loop and suddenly find yourself overwhelmed with both thoughts & emotions.
Let emotions happen, and choose your thoughts carefully. Drowning is not fun.
- Pursuing Competing Tasks. Are you trying to enjoy a nice video game while you're defragmenting your hard drive? Chances are, you'll find that neither is working smoothly- and the same is true of your mind. If you're trying to relax and enjoy life at the same time you're doing intensive mental & emotional work, you'll struggle.
Choose the essential thing to work on in every moment.
- Being Un-Realistic About Your Abilities. A normal desktop computer can't bake a lasagne. Often we set our focus on objectives that aren't really in our sphere of influence, which creates unhealthy expectations, a sense of failure, anxiety, and stress. None of these make sense when you never had control to begin with.
Review what you're trying to accomplish and where it fits in the circles of control.
- Doing Too Much At Once. Yes, you can eat a whole turkey, if you eat it slowly and one bite at a time. Try to swallow it whole, and you'll probably die.
Be aware, and realistic about your abilities and your limitations. Pace yourself, and give yourself the time & space you need to recover.
Like your computer, your mind also has limits on short-term memory, processing power, hard drive speed.
Here's how I use this...
- First, Try Rebooting. What's the last time you rebooted your mind? Perhaps you just need some vacation time, or a proper weekend off to reset things. Without that time away, you never get a chance to cool down and de-clutter memory. Things just keep building up until everything grinds to a halt.
Work your body hard, and it needs rest and nutrition to recover. Your mind needs the same. Make that a priority, and the more stress you're under, the more important it becomes... build meditation, or breaks in to help yourself process that extra load.
- Become An Essentialist. How many things are you trying to do at once? You might think you have the bandwidth to take on that new project, but realistically, how will it affect your mindspace, and your ability to give attention to other things that matter more?
If you have too many application windows open, you'll benefit from closing most of them so you can focus on what matters.
- Keep Things Organized. Ever felt overwhelmed trying to find that application or that project file you need? Overwhelm, clutter, and disorganization are your enemy. Yes keeping things tidy and organized adds time, but it's far less expensive and stressful than trying to find your car keys every morning.
Keep your mind, and your home, tidy.
- Declutter Every Day. Ever left dirty dishes in the sink for a week? Chances are it didn't smell great. Your mind, thoughts, and emotions need a regular cleanup too. Give yourself time each day to stop work, reflect, and journal.
Just as your computer will struggle in an environment that's too hot, too cold, or too dusty, you and your mind have an ideal operating environment as well.
Here's where I start.
- Choose Your Tribe. Who is around you? We're social creatures, so people influence our emotional landscape in significant ways. You get to control this, but you have to see it first- and take action.
Healthy confrontations, and choosing your tribe, are a very important part of maintaining your own social, emotional and psychological well-being.
- Accept What's Happening, and Confront It. What's happening around you? If your company is laying off employees, the stock market is crashing, COVID is everywhere, and there's a imminent threat of war... of course you'll feel anxious.
Changing your situation starts with identifying and understanding it, and then accepting that it's real, and then confronting it. Improve it any way you can.
- Watch What You Eat. Technology is great, but food today is engineered specifically to trigger our neurotransmitters and to create dependency. Caffeine, nicotine, sugar, and alcohol are all around you- and these directly affect how you feel. How many espressos did you drink today? In addition to that hit of alertness and energy, is an increase in cortisol- your stress hormone. After a few shots, you'll start to feel all those effects... racing heart, shallow breath, hyper-alertness... your body goes into overdrive because cortisol is part of your threat-response system. Anxiety in a mug.
Know your food. Chances are you're drugging yourself already and not even aware of it. In general, anything that feels unusually "good" now will cost you later, because your chemistry has to balance out.
- Watch Your Habits. Like food, your activities also can impact your neurotransmitters. In particular, we find it easy to get sucked into feel-good things like Netflix, porn, social media, video games, or gambling. Again, these are engineered specifically to trigger our neurotransmitters and to feel good- so look for the cost. Later, sluggishness, lack of motivation, anxiety, depression will be the result of those neurotransmitter levels dropping and balancing out.
Know your habits, minimize the costly, useless ones and maximize those that are good investments in your future and your health- like exercise & socializing.
- Become a Minimalist. The things outside of you- including stuff, events, people, tasks, need to be managed and controlled.
De-clutter your world, and you'll find you de-clutter your mind as well.
- Follow Your Intuition. Your emotional mind is much faster, multitasks, and has a broader "view" of what's happening. Chances are, it will notice things happening around you before your rational mind does.
If you're feeling something you can't explain, ask yourself "What am I missing here?" Dig into that and follow that thread to the end.
How have you set up your life? What does your day look like? Do you have an effective morning routine?
- Create Healthy Habits. No matter your situation, you have far more control than you think over how you start and finish each day. Design that time intentionally around your present situation, life and goals.
Embrace a morning routine. Having a solid daily pattern that kicks off each day will have a tremendous impact on your effectiveness each day.
- Choose Where You Live. Are you living in a place that enables you to live your best life, to access and pursue the things you need each day in your fitness, career, and social life?
Be intentional about where you live, and understand what it gives you.
- Choose What You Do. Your career is a big part of this, but so are your hobbies, your weekends, and your social clubs.
Be intentional with your time. Choose things that nurture you, and progress you towards your goals rather than away from them.
Operating System Problems
Now things get intriguing.
Underlying your thoughts and emotions are very strong influences that developed as you were nurtured by your parents and society.
- Know Your Programming. How were you programmed? The "mental operating system" of a middle-aged Chinese man will likely be quite different from a teenaged American boy, or a mid-20s Indian woman. We describe these differences as culture, upbringing, socialization, and gender roles... but together these form your identity. As a child, your operating system is pretty much installed for you, without your understanding or consent. You just "absorb" much of it from the people and environment around you, and some of it, you may feel conflict with. As an adult, you get to redesign your mental framework.
Start by reflecting on how your were nurtured and molded by your parents, teachers, society, friends, and religious influences, and how these things affect your thoughts, feelings and decisions now. What do you feel right about, and what do you struggle with?
- Develop Your Authenticity. Do you know your core values, and are you living by them? If you're not, you'll find that you feel a disconnect between how you're living and prioritizing your life, and what's truly important to you. That disconnect will create authenticity pain, and eventually escalates to an emotional breakdown, an identity crisis, or a mid-life crisis.
Discover your core values, and seek to put them at the center of every decision you make. This is the only place you'll ever feel "right."
- Deal With Your Traumas. Another deeply installed facet of our psychology comes from major emotional events that have been wired deeply. Remember
The Operating System level is deep, and is full of habits, patterns, adopted values and perspectives that influence our deepest thoughts and feelings. They tend to comprise our "first reaction" to things, since we were wired with them from a young age.
But they are often not the best or most authentic reaction.
Working in this area will give you the greatest improvements in your life, but it's also often the hardest to progress in. Work with coaches, counselors, psychiatrists can help tremendously if you find yourself stuck.
Now we're at the deepest level. This is the level of neurology and neurochemistry.
Problems here will generally take one of two forms.
Neurological disorders, such as autism, Asperger's, bipolar disorders or psychosis. If you are suffering from a neurological disorder, you will almost certainly need a neurologist or psychologist to help you identify and deal with issues at this level.
Neurochemical imbalances, such as high or low dopamine, serotonin, cortisol, testosterone, or estrogen.
The levels of these neurotransmitters is often directly experienced as emotional states.
- Heightened cortisol? You'll feel anxiety.
- Low serotonin? You'll feel depression.
- High dopamine? You'll be severely distracted, and struggle with attention. You may also struggle with addictive behaviors around food, porn, video games, etc.
- Low dopamine or high prolactin? You'll feel lethargic, listless, and struggle with motivation.
It's possible for a neurochemical imbalance to be the result of a neurological disorder, however on the whole, neurological disorders are rare.
For most of us, our hardware is operating perfectly.
If your neurochemistry is unbalanced, it's more likely to be the result of something wrong in the upper layers we've discussed- e.g. your lifestyle, environment, thought patterns, or authenticity.
However to a doctor, finding that problem, and helping you feel better, is a lot of work. It may take years. The easiest and fastest way to give you relief from painful emotions is to simply tweak your neurotransmitters with medication.
- Feeling distracted? Let's prescribe you some Ritalin. No need to learn to control your own thoughts, we'll just artificially increase your ability to focus.
- Feeling depressed? Your serotonin may be low. Let's give you some SSRI's to increase your available serotonin, rather than deal with the fact that your social life sucks.
- Feeling low-energy? Perhaps your testosterone is low, let's add some in, rather than have a good look at that porn addiction.
But will these help you?
Personally, I avoid medications - especially psychoactive medications - as much as possible.
I have three simple reasons...
- There is no safe level of drug use. Taking any type of drug always carries some risk. What's the point of risking additional damage such as, liver failure or other undesirable.
- It doesn't solve the underlying problem. Unless your serotonin is arbitrarily high or low, without any cause, messing with it leaves the original problem unresolved.
- Pain is motivation to change. That's the entire function of pain. Reducing pain reduces my motivation to reflect, identify the problem, confront it, and change my thoughts, behaviors, choices, and world. I need that motivation.
Your choices are your own, and I'm fully aware that sometimes pain feels overwhelming.
Easy relief can be a very compelling temptation- but I encourage you to reflect carefully on this.
I've had some terrible moments of emotional pain in my life, but...
Looking back on my deepest emotional pain, the times I was crushed, depressed, fearful, or anxious... I value that pain now. It was gold, to build my empire with.
If I'd medicated it to a whisper, I'm pretty sure I'd be living the same sh*tty life I was then.
And in the immortal words of Patrick Swayze,
"Pain don't hurt." ( Road House )
It's there for a reason, because it's exactly what you need.
This article is part of the series
This series is under development and further articles will be added soon.
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