This is Your Brain on Feelings


Feelings: The other f-word.


Now, depending on your childhood experiences, significant relationships, and current level of self-awareness,  that word either sent shivers down your spine or warm fuzzies in your heart.

For a long time, feelings got a bad rap. People used to think that logic and intelligence were far superior to feelings (those people probably weren’t in touch with their feelings, IMHO).  

But now, feelings are having a moment.

We’re recognizing that emotional intelligence is just as important, if not more important, than IQ. Turns out that children who are more aware of feelings within themselves and others grow up to be happier, healthier, and more financially successful. The underdog is now the overdog. Take that, LOGIC.

But for real, we still really, really need logic so please stick around.

If there is any place to start on your journey towards mental health and self-actualization, it’s with your feelings. After all, they are the driving force behind everything you do. You thought you were in charge?

Oh, honey. That’s so cute. Think again.


What Are Feelings?

First of all, we’re going to have to have a working understanding of what feelings are.

Now, this is going to be a way over-simplified explanation and just one way to define feelings because if you thought your relationship was complicated, you should study the brain.

A good way to begin is by talking about emotions.

Wait a sec, aren’t those two the same? I’m so glad you asked! The answer is: not really. Kind of. But no. I mean, a little bit. Depends on who you ask.  

Emotions are instinctual responses to external or internal stimuli that originate in the amygdala and travel all throughout your body.

The amygdala, along with the hypothalamus and hippocampus all live in the limbic system within your brain and are basically the three best friends that anyone could have. And you know what they love more than anything? EMOTIONS.

When a strong emotion comes up (especially negative ones, I’ll come back to that later) the drama queen amygdala becomes obsessed like this is a juicy piece of hot gossip and immediately tells her bestie, hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus, or should I say “hype man” (get it?!), pounces on this opportunity and immediately starts dishing out neurotransmitters and hormones to alert the masses. Think of social media accounts any time a Kardashian is seen with a new dude.

The hippocampus is the Gretchen Wieners in this scenario (i.e., she stores up all of the memories – that’s why her hair is so big) and she makes sure to lock in that hot gossip in long-term memory storage because obvi this is important and we’re going to have to remember it just in case it comes in handy later.

This all happens within microseconds and all below our state of consciousness. Even though we are constantly experiencing emotions, the amygdala only sounds the hot gossip alarm for the really big ones. Those besties LOVE to store up super embarrassing memories.

Brains can be jerks like that.

Feelings, on the other hand, reside in the neocortex – the more mature, methodical, and adultier part of your brain. When we become consciously aware of the drama that the limbic trio created throughout our body and analyze and process that experience, we call it feelings.

Feelings are what is going on in our brain as a result of our history, our education, our values, our personality, and – you guessed it – our emotions.

While emotions are primarily instinctual and live in the body, feelings live in the mind.

Feelings can be confusing, dangerous, or addictive, but they can also be rewarding, wonderful, and motivating.


What They Are NOT

Now is a good time to call out some myths about feelings. Let’s clear up the air.


Myth: Fine. Good. Okay. Busy.

No. Sorry. None of those are feelings.

Those are words you tell other humans after they ask you “How are you feeling?” so you can avoid being vulnerable and showing them that you’re actually human, too.

To tell someone else your feelings might also mean telling someone your insecurities and ew, who wants to do that?

So you say “Fine. Good. Okay. Busy.” instead of, “Overwhelmed by new motherhood” (or middle or old motherhood, let’s be real).

Or, “Heartbroken because I just saw my ex-boyfriend got married and there was part of me that was hoping he would come back – or at least be miserable for the rest of his life.

Or, “Proud and relieved because I finally got that promotion that I’ve been working so hard towards.” (Thought people were only uncomfortable with negative feelings? Wrong. People are also super uncomfortable with positive ones, too).


Myth: Feelings should always be trusted.

Feelings aren’t facts. Feelings are a result of the culmination of so many experiences that it would take Twitter a lifetime to fact-check all of the random information that was pulled together to form one feeling tweet.

If you feel confident about something, it doesn’t mean you’re right. If you’re afraid of something, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dangerous. If you’re feeling incompetent and like you’re fooling everyone around you into thinking that you actually know what you’re talking about, you’re probably in graduate school.


Myth: Feelings get in the way of more important things.


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Now, I know this is in the myth section and this may be misleading, but this statement is tricky. It’s kind of true. But also a lie. If you’re feeling confused right now, that feeling is totally valid.

Also, good job identifying a feeling.

Now here is the unfortunate (or fortunate) truth: we are emotional beings. All of the information we take in from our external or internal world is first evaluated for emotional significance.

The amygdala (remember that drama queen?) is constantly scanning our environment for anything that could be potentially threatening – physically or psychologically. If she finds something that fits into that category, she hits up her limbic besties, they trigger the whole fight-flight-freeze response, and then she cuts off connection to the prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex (or PFC) is basically the teacher in a room with a bunch of rowdy 5th graders: he’s in charge of planning, setting goals, keeping the class calm and settled, making sure everyone is paying attention, etc. So when the amygdala finds something threatening and stops paying attention to Mr. PFC, good luck trying to get any learning done! The rules of grammar just aren’t as important as avoiding imminent danger.

On the other hand, we sometimes need those negative feelings to get our work done.

Lost? I’m sorry, I told you this was complicated.

For example, if you’re feeling totally relaxed and cool and content, just vibing in the back row of your classroom, you aren’t going to feel motivated to write that paper or perform well on that test.

You’re over it. Working hard is for losers.

But, if you’re a little stressed because mom told you that you can’t play X-box unless you make at least a C on this test, then you’re going to try a little harder.

A little bit of fear tells us to double check that last math problem, a little guilt makes us think twice before cheating, a little anxiety helps us to re-read the question because you know how sneaky your teacher can be.

So, in other words, feelings get in the way of important things but also help you do important things.

Got it? Good.


Myth: Feelings are either good or bad.


We are constantly experiencing emotions. When we check in with our bodies and minds, we can usually identify a feeling or two. Pause right now and ask yourself: What am I feeling?

You might notice that you’re still harboring a little resentment that you had to wake up early this morning even though that Zoom meeting was completely useless. Or, it might come to your attention that you’ve been anxiously clenching your jaw and tensing your shoulders (hi, welcome to the global pandemic). Or you might realize that you’re hungry. Or bored.

Or really freaking confused about how the brain works and what this article is even about.

While we tend to notice really strong emotions (fear! anger! disgust!), we also do a pretty good job of shutting down feelings that are uncomfortable or inconvenient (I’m not attracted to my sister’s husband, YOU are).

When we’re able to identify our feelings, they can give us important information about what’s going on inside of us — but it’s up to us to make the decisions on what to do with that information.

Feelings can attract us towards our ideal career, help us appreciate the beauty of our favorite song, or motivate us to finally ask for support. They can also cause us to lash out at our siblings, drain our bank accounts, or sabotage our dissertation research. It’s not necessarily the feelings that are good or bad – it’s what we do with them that matters.


This is the crap part: We can live our whole lives unaware of feelings that are driving our behaviors and decisions.


An unconscious fear of abandonment may keep you in unhealthy relationships. An unconscious feeling of worthlessness may keep you striving for superficial success despite the havoc it is wreaking on the rest of your life. Avoidance of painful feelings may be the source of an addiction to substances. Unconscious biases, like prejudice or racism, may affect how you treat people.

And we’ve seen how tragic those consequences can be.

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Positive vs. Negative Feelings


Now here is where things get tricky.


Okay fine, this whole thing is tricky.

But here is something else that’s tricky.

Your brain does not dig positive emotions as much as it does the negative ones. Drama queen amygdala LOVES when people break up, but is less pumped when they get back together. It’s called the negativity bias, and it’s why we are so good at remembering insults and not as good at remembering compliments. For this reason, you need to train your brain to pay attention to and savor those positive, loving, peaceful feelings.


Yes, you can TRAIN YOUR BRAIN.


This is why life coaches, therapists, counselors, psychologists, wise old women who wear long skirts and surround themselves with crystals and incense exist – to help you re-train your brain when things get all funky.

Next time you feel something positiveappreciation towards your spouse, the elation from the first sip of your chai tea latte with almond milk,  realizing that there are 5 more seasons to a really good show on Netflix that you just discovered – soak it in.

Let it simmer in your brain for a few seconds (it takes at least a few seconds for the hippocampus to realize that you actually care about something that doesn’t totally suck). Strengthen that neural circuit so that you can re-access it later on. The more you do this, the easier it will be for you to experience joy, immerse yourself in pleasurable experiences, build healthy relationships, and maintain an optimistic outlook on life.


Now, I’ve hinted to this a few times before, but your brain is, like, totally obsessed with negative emotions.


Negative emotions (and then, once processed, negative feelings) are basically our best defense against complete and utter destruction and a painful, untimely death.

Sound dramatic? Good. Because it IS dramatic.

We (humans) created these defense mechanisms way back when we were hunting woolly mammoths and trying not to accidentally poison ourselves.

Now, our bodies basically FREAK OUT LIKE WE’RE GONNA DIE when we sense danger. Will you die if you mess up during your presentation at work? I mean, probably not. I hope not. Is your body warning you that you might? Yes.

The amygdala wants to make sure that her squad KNOWS that this awful feeling sucks and you never want to feel it ever, ever again. So the limbic system trifecta works really hard to fast-track this totally horrific experience and sears it into your long term memory so that you don’t have to experience it again.

Those besties think that if you have this super vivid memory of that time you accidentally said “orgasm” instead of “organism” in high school, their handiwork will prevent you from ever doing it again. Because now you KNOW. That was embarrassing. And embarrassing doesn’t feel good. So don’t do it again. Now think about it every night as you are about to fall asleep. If you forget about it, you might accidentally do it again. Just trying to help. You’re welcome.


What to Do With Feelings


Now that you’ve realized feelings are kind of important since they rule everything you do whether or not you are aware of them, you might be thinking… oh, crap. You might also be thinking, what now?


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Accessing Feelings


Here is where I tell you that it’s time to get in touch with your feelings. You knew it was coming, right?

There are a few ways to do this, and if you’re out of practice it might feel a little awkward. But that’s okay. Keep going. It’s worth it, I promise.

A great place to start is by checking in with your body.

Remember how the hype-man hypothalamus spreads gossip through neurotransmitters and hormones throughout the body? Well, he’s also in charge of homeostasis meaning, telling everyone to CHILL OUT.

In other words, the news never stops.

Your brain is constantly reading the room, getting information from all of your senses, and then telling your body what’s up. Check in with your body throughout the day to access and process this information.

Get comfortable with figuring out what’s making you uncomfortable.

If you’ve been detached from your body’s internal experience or if you’ve had trauma in your life, this might feel too invasive. If that’s the case, try to identify feelings in others. Put on some reality TV and try to put yourself in those shoes (they have feelings, too!).

Start small.

After all, baby steps are the only ones that get applause.


Identifying Feelings


The movie Inside Out taught us that there are 5 major emotions — Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness.

Some experts argue that there are more, some say there are less, but these core emotions are just the quickest way to get your attention so that you can take action (e.g. This is disgusting. Spit it out! It might be poison!; This is scary. Run away! It might try to eat you!; This makes me happy. Here’s some dopamine! We gotta do this again!).

Feelings, on the other hand, can be much trickier and much more intricate. When you seek to identify your (or others’) feelings, the more specific and nuanced you are, the better.


Identifying feelings is a process that helps to integrate the brain in two very important and powerful ways.


First, you’re giving your responsible PFC the opportunity to soothe the chaotic amygdala by giving the experience some meaning, promoting present moment mindfulness, and creating space to make a decision on what to do next. The tighter the amygdala and PFC are, the more likely you are to respond instead of react to emotional situations. This will protect you from having to say things like: “I’m sorry for all the things I said when I was hangry.”

Identifying feelings also integrates the right and left sides of the brain because, like strong opinions and the internet, they NEED each other.

The right brain is like this beautiful, expansive, colorful flower child who speaks in the language of symbols and art and feelings, while the left brain is the logical, linear, structural engineer who speaks in the language of… well, language. That’s where our words live.

When we are able to put our feelings into words, we connect the right and left hemispheres of our brain, and those feeling becomes less intense, more manageable, and we feel more human.

Because sometimes humans feel (fill in the blank), and right now I feel (fill in the blank).

The trick here is, you have to be specific.

Anyone would agree that there is a huge difference between feeling upset and feeling outraged. Or, between feeling mad and feeling disappointed — just ask your Mom.

So keep digging.

Underneath that anger might reside some despair, some loneliness, some guilt. If you’re still having trouble, look up “feelings words list” to guide you. You may be feeling eight different things at once. Or you might just be looking for the word alexithymia, which basically means you can’t identify how you are feeling.

You have to know how you’re feeling in order to know what to do next.

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Sharing Feelings


Human beings were not meant to be islands. We cannot survive without each other. As much as our culture wants to glorify independence, autonomy, and individualism, your body and mind know better.

From birth, babies instinctively seek comfort and safety from their caregivers. We are born with an instinctual drive towards attachment, and when that is disrupted we are left with a faulty neural circuitry of human connection that can make us fearful, anxious, or avoidant in relationships.

With the help of another healthy person (e.g., life coach, counselor, or therapist), we can repair the old, unhealthy patterns of protection and rebuild a more stable and integrated foundation for connection.


The best and most effective way to heal our minds is in a relationship with another human being.


When you have an honest conversation with someone about how you are feeling, and if they are truly listening to you and attuned to your experience, the result is a powerful right-brain to right-brain connection that can result in the rewiring of neural structures within your brain.

This is because the feeling of safety allows your brain to relax a little, lower your cortisol levels, maybe release some oxytocin and dopamine, and allow your hippocampus to remember that, although that one experience that I’m currently talking about truly sucked, it feels a lot better now that I’ve shared it with someone else. Maybe when I think about it again, I’ll remember this feeling of validation and comfort, and it won’t hurt as much.


How to Get Better at Feelings


Want to know how your brain gets better at doing a thing? By doing the thing.

Whether you’re trying to learn the French horn or unlearn society’s unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies, the mechanism through which the brain learns best is repetition. This is because the brain is kind of like a muscle, and the more you use a muscle, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to lift heavy things. Or play French horn. Or identify and express your feelings.

And who better to start practicing this whole talk-about-your-feelings thing than with a mental health professional who can help you navigate those feelings because, well, it’s their job. The focus is on you, so you won’t hear things like: “That reminds me of a time where I experienced the exact same thing except it was happening to me so it was way more interesting.”

A safe, encouraging, and collaborative relationship with a life coach or therapist can provide the ideal environment for the brain to identify, process, and sort through difficult feelings.

Plus, we keep those feelings confidential, even the really, REALLY embarrassing ones.

So next time someone asks you “How are you feeling?”, first, thank them for the opportunity to connect your rational prefrontal cortex and your dramatic amygdala, integrate your logical left brain with your emotional right brain, and rewire your faulty neural structures through right-brain to right-brain human connection.

Then, and here is the hard part, tell them how you are feeling.

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Quotes about Feelings


“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

Mr. Rogers

“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.
Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Brené Brown, Ph.D.

“Hurt feelings don’t vanish on their own. They don’t heal themselves. If we don’t express our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will eventually come due.”

Marc Brackett, Ph.D.

“Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”

Carl Jung, M.D.

“You feel what you feel, and your feelings are real.”

Sven, Frozen 2

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