How Emotions Impact our Brains and Bodies

Dr. Carla LeHouillier
Wishing Star Associate

Have you ever wondered what happens to our brains when we’re feeling upset, angry, or scared? When adults and children feel these and other emotions, a part of our brain called the limbic system gets activated, along with one of its structures called the amygdala (see the picture below). When we become aroused (e.g., mad, frustrated, disappointed, scared), we move into our “emotional brains”, which are focused on processing and dealing with the emotion at hand. When this arousal is very strong, our ability to use the language centers of the brain and rational thinking (the main job of the frontal lobes at the front of our brains) decreases and becomes more challenging for us. It can be very hard for us to make “good” or “smart” choices in those moments when we are feeling particularly emotional. That’s why we may things we don’t mean to our partners or our children might not seem to be listening to us (or to logical reason!) in that moment.

Our bodies react automatically to these emotions as well. As our arousal increases, there are common and predictable physiological (body) symptoms that occur. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, oxygen moves away from our extremities, and our muscles tense up and get ready for action. These brain and body reactions have evolved in an adaptive manner, as they allow us to be prepared and ready for danger. For example, in the case of perceived threat or fear, our brains react by making us keenly aware of any dangers that may be present, and our bodies get us ready to either fight off the threat or flee the situation as fast as we can (this is termed the ‘fight or flight’ response). As this tension increases in our body, it is very natural to react in physical ways, such as hitting, kicking, biting, screaming or spitting. This is especially true for children who have not learned other skills or ways to express these strong emotions. This behavior doesn’t mean that children are being bad or will grow up to be aggressive, it is just a natural, developmental response to a high level of arousal in the body. Rather than get angry or frustrated, or use punishment, time-outs or removal of privileges, parents can guide their children to find more appropriate outlets for this increased bodily arousal. For example, kids can be encouraged to stomp or run around outside, use a stretchy band with their arms, or bite down on “chewlery”.  Use a warm tone and state calmly something like, “looks like you’ve got some extra energy in your legs – let’s go get that out together by kicking a ball in the backyard”. Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or frustrated at your children when they are experiencing strong emotions, remember – their brains and bodies are merely reacting in ways that they were designed for!

Diagram of the Brain

Diagram of the Brain

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.