Regulating your emotions
Emotions are experienced and expressed in a variety of different ways, to feel is to be human however; for survivors of trauma identifying or dealing with these emotions can be extremely difficult. It is common for survivors of Childhood developmental trauma or complex interpersonal relationship trauma to experience more intense negative feelings which are expressed quickly or directly. Because of this, individuals who have survived trauma may try to consciously forget, dissociate push feelings away and cut off. Unfortunately, the more survivor's try to suppress negative emotions, the harder it becomes to manage them and the potential for issues arising due to further mental health problems increases.
For individuals who have also suffered trauma; experiencing and feeling emotion becomes a tangled Web of uncertainty as survivors commonly rely on some of the 4f responses as an automatic coping mechanism for uncomfortable feelings and insecurities.
It is also important to note the brain changes that can occur within a survivor of trauma which can make identifying and regulating emotions more difficult. The frontal lobe is the area concerned with planning reasoning, emotion, creativity and judgement. Any act that we purposely do or feel is controlled by the frontal lobe. Damage to the frontal lobe can result in changes in sexual habits, attention and socialization as an individual undertakes more risk-taking behaviours. A less activated prefrontal cortex can be found as a response to stress and is impaired with its ability to regulate threat responses and individual emotions.
The cerebral cortex controls individual thinking, reasoning and perception; this can have an effect with regards to the perception of others and our own self.
Most significantly, is the cerebellum which controls movement and balance, but it also has the "emotional brain" buried deep within. This emotional brain or "little brain" makes up 10% of the total size of our brain but accounts for more than 50% of the total number of neurones in the entire brain. The hormones which are also associated with stress does not only damage the temporal and frontal lobe, but each area of the brain itself.
The hypothalamus controls our temper, emotions and sleep. It connects with many other regions of the brain and is involved in secretion of hormones. The hypothalamus plays an important role in the stress response which can be altered by trauma. CRF (corticotropin releasing factor) is released from the hypothalamus; mediating fear related behaviours. A change to the structure could cause a survivor of trauma to become overly fearful or less than vigilant and their behaviour; both of which are critical in coping with a threat and processing and regulating emotions thereafter.
The amygdala controls our emotions and regulates our mood. It is part of the limbic system meaning it has the important role in the control of emotional responses. The amygdala function is seen to be increased in individuals who have experienced trauma however smaller amygdala volume has been found in patients who also have borderline personality disorder and an increased volume found in depression.
For survivors of trauma; emotions can be mixed with memories from our past. Those with PTSD have been identified as having a smaller hippocampal area following a traumatic event; this results in alteration of memories as it is the most sensitive area to the effects of stress. Traumatic stress can be associated with lifestyle changes and an individual brain structure due to an increase in cortisol and norepinephrine responses to subsequent stresses.
Trauma occurring at different stages of an individual's life cycle will have the potential to alter the developing brain. This is not to say that the alterations cannot be reversed as the brain is viewed as a muscle; very capable of change and personal growth.
Last week, I looked at how to stimulate, engage and balance the prefrontal cortex which undoubtedly would be useful in the beginning of identifying and dealing with any emotion.
Along with improving PFC function; physical strategies will help to improve our health safety. These techniques may take longer to see benefits from, but it will be worth it due to the long-term gains. Physical strategies include exercise for 30-minutes at least; exercise that doesn't have to be strenuous or exhausting; but maintaining a regular exercise that you enjoy such as going for walks, skipping, running, dancing or joining exercise classes can be really beneficial and not only in terms of social interaction but emotion regulation also.
Setting aside time for exercise or pleasurable activities, going to bed at the same time; adding regular meal times; allow your body to develop a routine and will improve physical and psychological health.
Undereating causes low energy t,iredness and has a negative effect on your mood. Nutrients found in food affect the chemicals in your brain; therefore under eating reduces nutrients and can cause a low mood, iritability and anger.
Overeating is often a response to low self-esteem, anxiety or depression. low self-esteem can also be the result of overeating. Identifying the reasons for overeating will help you to reduce this behaviour and allow you to focus on the real problem.
Obtaining a good sleep hygiene routine is also helpful as the more restful sleep can improve daytime alertness, concentration and mood. However individual survivors of trauma can have issues with their sleep hygiene whether that is being fearful of nightmares or not being able to sleep at all. In such cases it is highly important to visit your GP in order to gain more guidance on this.
There are some behavioral strategies that are easier to make than the physical or cognitive changes. Practicing behavioural strategies regularly can lead you to notice a difference in the way you are able to regulate and identify your emotions.
Structuring time and setting goals for yourself is a helpful way to improve your mood. Achieving your goals may improve your mood; but it will also increase your motivation to do more activities. These goals must be small and attainable as setting goals that are too large to then attain can actually be more counterproductive.
Activities that give you a sense of accomplishment or pleasure is also important for creating a positive mood. When you're doing an activity, whether it is watching the TV, socializing or tidying up, notice how pleasurable you find it or how much you gain (or lose) from accomplishing an activity. The more pleasurable activity, the more it will help mood. It is also a helpful way in identifying helpful coping strategies, i.e for some people cleaning can actually not be a helpful coping strategy!
Having a low mood can make survivors avoid certain environments and situations as they may feel they will get upset or overwhelmed. Avoidance will actually only maintain a low mood and stops an individual moving on.
Keeping a mood diary or journal can also be effective in identifying emotions. This diary can be self written or can be full of pictures and drawings, it is entirely dependent on the individual and what they prefer. A creative outlet stimulates a different side of the prefrontal cortex which eventually will allow for a balance between all areas of the PFC.
I hope that this was helpful in understanding the reasons why a low mood can occur within a survivors brain structure and function as well as aiding in the acquisition of safer strategies to help cope with emotional regulation.
Our research group can be found here;
Currently we are conducting research into the causes of trauma. I have included a link to the survey here : https://surveyheart.com/form/5f06e63b3ed8765392fe12d0
If you would be interested in taking part, please feel free. If you would like to share this study i would also welcome you to use the link, many thanks!