Recognise the emotion!

Recognising the red brain is triggering

How do we recognise that the red brain is triggering?

There are three main effects: negative emotion, narrowing of focus and rumination.  The biggest clue is a welling up of negative emotion.

Our very complex organism – trillions of cells - moving through an external world full of risks and surprises, communicates to itself by producing feelings that ripple or flicker momentarily to let us know what is happening.  There are five: fear, anger, sadness, joy and disgust.  If we feel a flicker of feeling then it is a normal bodily response, bringing our awareness to a current situation.  Watch out! There is something dangerous in our vicinity - a flicker of fear.  It’s OK! We are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things - a flicker of joy.

When a feeling is longer than a momentary flicker (even sadness at the loss of a loved one, which seems to persist for longer, is experienced in waves) then it is not coming from our current state, it is being created out of memory. Memories of things that have happened to us in the past.

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As soon as we recognise that the feeling we are having is coming out of memory then the red brain is starting to trigger and the brain’s resources – oxygen and glucose – are being redirected away from the pre-frontal cortex where executive control resides, and towards the rear and lower areas of the brain, where the locus of control resided when we were children and our responses were impulsive or instinctive.

The sooner we recognise that this is happening the sooner we can do something to halt it and re-activate executive control over our responses.

The three levels of action are: distract, describe and re-label.

Distract means to try and focus our attention onto something else, rather than what is triggering the emotional flood.  Describe means to use our executive functions to analyse what we are experiencing, the more detail the better – we can only do this by re-directing resources back to the pre-frontal cortex.  Re-label means to see the emotion as something else: it is not inadequacy we are feeling, but the healthy scepticism that occurs when we embark on something that we know nothing about.

The key is to jump in and respond quickly before the red brain has taken over fully.

John Corrigan