Today I am looking at some of the factors involved in our changing emotional responses through our lifetime that are hardwired and those that change with the influence of time and our experiences.
First a look at a couple of the hard-wired emotional responses that are activated by the chemical and hormonal balances in our brains and other organs.
Oxytocin is a neuromodulator in the brain that is stored in our master controller the Hypothalamus and then released by the posterior pituitary gland. In essence it is one of the most powerful triggers of emotions in humans and a primary trigger for some of our instinctive behaviour.
Whilst we may aim to be doctors, authors, space explorers or musicians, our bodies from before birth are programmed to do two things as well as possible. Survive as long into our possible lifespan as we can and to reproduce.
To this end at various times in our life cycle the brain will either increase or decrease levels of hormones that regulate both the development of certain cells and organs and also our fertility.
Oxytocin plays a large part in this process and in particular at that moment before birth as a baby prepares to enter the harsh environment that is life. The release of Oxytocin makes for a smoother birth for both mother and baby and it also facilitates that magical and so vital first moments of bonding. This includes encouraging milk production and a baby’s ability to suckle aided by the instinctive need by a new-born to obtain essential immune boosting and detoxing elements of his mother’s milk, Colostrum.
A baby’s entire system has to be kick started gently to avoid undue stress and another very important role of colostrum is to cleanse the new-born’s body of any toxic build-up within the first few hours and days. None of this would be possible if the oxytocin had not been released during the last stages of pregnancy, during delivery and bonding.
So that is the first time that our body will regulate our emotions with the release of a chemical enhancer. Oxytocin however has been shown to have an effect on our emotions as we grow and develop, as it is at certain times released into the parts of the brain that are responsible for our emotional, reasoning and social behaviour.
There is some research that indicates that in fact the release of oxytocin could also be responsible for anti-social behaviour in the form of instinctive rejection of outsiders and aggressive behaviour. This may however also be linked to a break in the natural chain of events at childbirth where perhaps a baby is removed before it has a chance to bond with its mother and then is brought up without the accepted form of nurturing.
A baby will act on instinctive behaviour that can seem to be a voluntary emotional response but is actually nature’s way of keeping it safe. For example we know how powerful and piercing a baby’s cry can be, and in fact it is at a pitch that makes every woman of child bearing years in the immediate vicinity leap into action! There are many parenting advice columns that are happy to tell you to pick up the baby, ignore it, roll over and let your partner deal with, feed or change its nappy. It can be tough for a new parent to understand the variations of yelling and screaming that a new-born baby can utter but each has its own distinct meaning.
Before being able to use language a baby will use verbal and non-verbal communication to make its feelings known. The terrible twos are an example where frustration and emotional intensity can become more voluntary as a baby begins to understand the power of manipulation to achieve an end result.. This is also a great time to bring in gentle but also persuasive strategies to encourage a more social element to a young child such as socialising with other children of a similar age where another form of bonding takes place and a better understanding of how to deal with your peers.
Children begin to identify objects with words and slowly language builds. Emotional responses die down accordingly and as a child goes to school, learns more and works within a group and has other adults to emulate, more voluntary emotional behaviour develops.
Social etiquette is one thing, but for many children this can also be a time when their natural personality can be repressed. Discipline is needed within a social environment so that we can exist side by side peacefully. Thankfully we have moved past the very strict discipline environment of schools 40 to 50 years ago but there are some who feel we have moved too far the other way.
Then we hit the teenage years when the sex hormones such as progesterone, oestrogen and testosterone begin to be released, maturing our reproductive organs and throwing both brain and body out of whack until our early 20s. To parents who have been through this phase with their offspring I probably do not have to say too much more.
After about 24 years old things settle down again except for women who have babies and are affected by the oxytocin during and after pregnancy. There might also be postpartum depression caused by the reduction in oestrogen and progesterone, physical and emotional changes following the birth, and in some cases the stresses resulting from being a parent of a new baby. Women until their 50s are also subject to monthly hormonal changes that can have a very powerful effect on emotions at certain times of the month.
Then comes a gap until we hit our mid-40s when there is again a change in our hormonal make up. Changes begin to take place in our bodies and it can lead to a period of time when emotions fluctuate. The good news is that after about 55 for both men and women the instinctive drive to reproduce subsides as the hormonal balance reaches its new level which will last the rest of our lives.
This is not to say that you cannot fall in love, enjoy a physical relationship or feel all the normal range of emotions. It does mean that there is room for more voluntary participation in the process.
Although our hormone levels decrease in middle age they are still produced in other tissues of the body such as the adrenal glands. This means that new lovers will still be affected by oxytocin, and in fact it is still as important in bonding between two adults, as it is between a mother and child.
Fear is an instinctive emotion that triggers the body to produce a chemical response. Adrenaline is a hormone that is released by the adrenal gland as a response to the recognition by your mind or your body that something is dangerous, stressful or exciting. It is the body’s natural way of giving you the strength to deal with an extraordinary event. Honed over many thousands of years it is usually referred to as the ‘fight or flight response’
Adrenaline acts fast, it dilates our airways and blood vessels to make sure that oxygen is available to either face the danger head on or run like hell.. In the early stages of our evolution this reaction was probably activated regularly as we tried to survive a hostile environment. However, our modern lifestyle may not have rampaging herds of mammoths or cave lions but we do have the equivalents.
Stress is not always bad as it makes life interesting but it becomes dangerous when it is so frequent your adrenal glands are pumping out adrenaline constantly. This leads to serious health and mental issues.
This requires the intervention of voluntary emotional responses that calm the body’s instinctive reactions. It might involve taking more exercise, changing diet, lifestyle choices and sometimes jobs and relationships. This takes us onto our voluntary emotional responses.
As I mentioned earlier it is clear that we all learn from experience with regard to both the emotion that we offer others and also what we will accept.
There is also a driving force that confuses the issue. Our expectations based on what we have been told by others, have experienced or have read that tells you what you should be feeling. Romance novelists and fairy stories do create the illusion that everyone will meet the perfect person and go on to live happily ever after! Not always the case sadly, but if you have grown up expecting this outcome, it can be easy to feel excluded from others.
We build walls, boundaries, create rules, push away, avoid and develop other strategies that we feel will protect us from past events and hurt. We learn behaviours that we reinforce time after time verbally. For example: ‘Nobody would find me attractive anyway’- ‘I am happy as I am alone’ – ‘I prefer to keep myself to myself’ Etc. I have also seen physical barriers created to prevent emotional involvement. Obesity can be a great way to distance yourself from relationships as can wearing drab clothes and a plain appearance.
It is a complicated business and I have experienced this type of emotional behaviour myself. The one thing that has become clearer as I have got older is that no one person reacts the same way to events or trauma and that at best you can only generalise. Pain in the form of loss of some kind is very hard to overcome and many times we feel that we cannot open ourselves up to that again.
Instinctively we want to belong to a family or group and that is hard wired. It is therefore our own voluntary actions which prevent that from happening.
So how can we make changes to our voluntary emotional responses?
If you find yourself saying that you are lonely, nobody calls you, you find it hard to make new friends, you are bored, then perhaps it is time to think about how you might be putting up barriers to prevent interactions with others. And even though online relationships may lack that face to face element, they are no less valid and certainly I have known people who have gone on to meet people they have met online and to enjoy great relationships both platonic and romantic.
Listening to our instinctive intuition and taking into account common sense regarding our own safety means that we can change our voluntary emotional responses and perhaps get a great deal more out of life.
Having worked with many men and women over the years and listening to them talk about their lives it is clear that apart from the odd and rare narcissist who only loves themselves, most people’s emotional responses are based on their experiences.
It does not take a human long to learn responses that avoid emotional pain as it is as devastating as the physical kind. In fact where most physical pain subsides either with pain killers or time, emotional pain can last a lifetime. Especially when reinforced repeatedly when it becomes hard wired into our personality. As I mentioned earlier part of this repetitive cycle of pain is in partly down to our expectations. After several failed relationships, instead of believing in happy endings, we assume that every relationship we are going to have is going to end badly.
The only way to interrupt this cycle of poor outcomes is to change not just expectations but the decisions we make.
Our happiness is not anyone elses responsibility. It is ours and if our decisions lead to our unhappiness we need to examine those decisions. Hard though it may be… without emotion.
This applies to our emotional investment in our work, family relationships, romantic relationships and the people we hang out with and who influence us.
Life is too short to be doing a job we hate, or to be around people who make us unhappy. And whilst I am not suggesting drastic action and an immediate walk out… I do suggest that you begin to look at solutions rather than the problems.
Do you need to sit down and have an honest talk with your boss, family members, lover or friend to work out how to make this relationship work for you both. Is it also time to look at what you are putting into the equation… none of us is perfect. If all else fails, what are your viable alternatives.. retrain, look for another job, give your family and friends a bit more space or end a relationship?
This requires honesty and it is not easy. There is also the likelihood of pain, not just for yourself but others. But, if you move forward to a much more positive emotional place for yourself, you will find that it will impact your physical and mental well-being and importantly your relationship with others.
If you need help with your mental or emotional health then I recommend that you find a qualified counsellor to help your through the process of regaining your joy of life. It is amazing how just talking to someone you trust can clarify issues, enabling you to make better decisions.
I hope that you have found this of interest.. would love to have your feedback.. thanks Sally