How a Neuroscientist deals with Negative Emotions

A common misconception of the general public is that both men and scientists are relatively emotionless. This of course is a stereotype and I could discuss the social and psychological reasons of why men and those in science may appear to be or do not openly express emotion, but that is for another blog post. The aim of this post is to discuss how I, both a man and a scientist, deal with negative emotions. Personally, it does take a lot to truly bother me as I usually have a rather cheerful outlook on life. However, when someone who I was close to does something hurtful towards me, I can experience strong negative emotions. This isn’t an attempt to explain all negative emotions, but rather a piece discussing how I dealt with some negative emotions as both a neuroscientist and a human being. 

     Negative emotions can be very strong, pervasive, and linger for some time. Our brain evolved emotions so that we could quickly flee from predators to avoid being eaten. Now we no longer have to worry about the problem of being eaten as much, yet our brains will dwell on other less life threatening problems such as those regarding social relationships. It is quite common to experience negative emotions caused by other people and they can be some of the strongest and most painful feelings we have. Our brain is programmed to think about our self and our self in relation to others in its default mode which has its own neural network coined the ’default mode network.’ Thus, when someone hurts us, it is automatically powerful, pervasive, and lasts a long time in our consciousness. 

     When I first found out about the actions of a person who hurt me, I felt the basic fight or flight response. I was in no physical danger, yet my heart rate increased, I started sweating, and my mind raced. The genes of my ancestors prepared me to run away or fight to the death from experiencing this emotion. The cause of this was not a tiger chasing me, but a text message from a cell phone which referenced another person. Just reading words on a screen was enough to elicit this primal response. Retrospectively, it was truly fascinating to ponder how powerful social connections are to us. 

     Once the initial flight or fight response faded, my mind still raced, but I could start to process things easier. Rapidly I would replay the actions of this person and wonder why this person would cause me this amount of pain. I would ask questions that I knew would never have answers, yet I initially obsessed over them. I kept playing out in my mind different scenarios of how to act, how I could have changed to situation, how I wish I could have made it different some way. This is my brains response to a problematic social situation since I cannot physically run away. I cannot physically fight my thoughts like I could a predator, but I can fight them with analytic thoughts aimed to resolve the problem at hand. 

     Days and weeks go by. I'm still distraught over how this person treated me, but the initial flight or fight response is long gone. It's a dull pain and always in the back of my mind. Every time my mind wanders, it leads me back to the situation of the pain this person caused me. Again, the default mode network is prone to thinking about these kinds of things and when we add in some powerful negative emotions, it is difficult if not impossible to stop thinking about. To me, this easily answers the free will debate. If we truly had free will over our minds, I would easily be able to stop thinking about the negative situation that occurred. However, our brains are wired to prevent future danger so I have no control over the neurons which make me go through this negative event again and again. 

     I know it is unhealthy for me to keep thinking of it from my knowledge of neuroscience. I know that each time I replay the situation in my mind it only strengthens the neural connectionswhich create the neural representation for it which makes it more difficult to forget and move past it. I know a constant high level of stress releases hormones called glucocorticoids which have been shown to kill neurons in the hippocampus (the part of the brain involved with memory).  I know that sadness and anxiety can negatively affect how I make various decisions. Despite this knowledge, I cannot stop thinking about it. I am trapped within my own mind. 

     I cannot control the actions of the person who hurt me, but I can control how I react to them. Experiencing negative emotions is beyond my control now, but I can take certain actions to alleviate them.  Processing out the emotions by talking things over with my friends can be incredibly helpful. Having a social support group is vital for combating a negative experience. Talking with friends allowed me to climb down the ladder of complex, abstract, and negative emotions to analyze them on a simpler and more basic level.  Through personal introspection as well as talking with others, I can identify what exactly I am feeling and why. I combat the specific negative emotions one by one and I slowly start to feel them weaken their hold on me.  Coping mechanisms and distractions also help as well. For me those were long distance running, playing piano, and doing homework so my I tried to use negative emotions to fuel healthier activities. 

     Once I know what exactly is bothering me on the most basic level, I can then try to make sense of it and learn from it. I am always a huge proponent of being open minded, but this can be difficult when negative emotions are involved. However, if someone hurts you, regardless of the scenario, it does help to try and see their point of view. As I became more grounded with my emotions, I could understand more where this person was coming from due to their own dynamics. It doesn’t matter that I don’t agree with their actions or that no one else thought what they did was a decent thing to do. I still attempted to see their perspective despite how much I disagreed with it and that seriously helped. As tough as it might be to see another person’s side if they do something hurtful you disagree with, it helps to see why they might have done it. 

     Bad things are going to happen in life and people will hurt you. You can't control that. You will feel negative emotions and you cannot control those either. However, you can control how you react to the negative situations and how you deal with your own negative emotions. It's okay to feel hurt when something bad happens. We know our brains are wired to think about it, so repressing or ignoring the situation will not help. The best thing to do is to process through the emotions by talking it out with friends and being introspective on why you are feeling the way you do on a deeper level. Make a concerted effort to try to understand your negative emotions by breaking down each thought and why it bothers you so much. By processing through your negative emotions, you learn why you feel certain things and how to combat them. Also, try to see the other person’s point of view and why they might have done something even if you do not agree with it. By trying to understand another person's point of view instead of labeling them a bad person, you increase your empathy and understanding. Furthermore, it’s important to always consider for every negative situation where someone causes you pain, there are so many more instances of great and wonderful people who truly care about you.

     I probably won't encounter another person like this again, but if I do I will know how to handle them better for next time. Though it would be narrow minded to think the only positive of that experience was how to handle a particular person and situation. This experience was invaluable for helping me become more grounded with my emotions, helping me understand why certain things might bother me and how to combat them, and how to gain a greater understanding for different perspectives. I always try to learn from every life experience and this one is no different. Optimism can be very useful for some of the most seemingly pessimistic situations. I know I will still feel negative emotions strongly, but I am now much better equipped to handle them. A person is not weak for feeling emotions and they are a perfectly normal part of the human experience. The key is to handle one’s emotions in a healthy way and not displace their negative emotions by engaging in unhealthy behavior. The situation I referenced in this post was quite a difficult experience for me, but I persevered. I aimed to not let this situation keep me down from the beginning and use it as an experience for learning and growth. Despite the negative things which occur and torture our mind, we can use what we know about the brain to not only rise above negative emotions, but use them as a tool for immense personal growth.