Emotions from the Inside Out, Part 2

“It takes courage to let go of the familiar and embrace the new.”-Alan Cohen

By Kelly Miller, LCSW, RPT

Everybody has emotions and feelings, but not everybody feels or expresses their emotions. For many years, I thought that emotions and feelings were synonyms, but they are in fact different. Feelings are defined as a physical state or reaction, according to the Webster dictionary. Emotions, on the other hand, are how we are expressing the feelings we have. In fact, the root of the word emotion is actually to move out, as Lisa Dion has said, “Emotions are simply energy in motion.”

What I have come to learn is that we assign categories of these physical states or energy in motion to specific words. For example, my fists are clenched, jaw tight, face turning red, and that means I’m angry. Or if I have a lump in my throat, tight chest, eyes welling with hot tears, that means I’m sad. As a society, we then assign meaning to feelings typically as good or bad, rather than just what they are as energy in motion.

Furthermore, emotions can get complicated, as you and I may have similar physical reactions but actually be experiencing two different feelings. For example, when the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2016 I cried (emotion) with joy and excitement (categorized feeling). I have also been known to cry (emotion) when the Broncos loose out of disappointment and sadness (categorized feeling). This is a silly, but true, example of how internally I am having two different emotions, but the intensity of those emotions is displayed similarly.

Let’s bring this to an example with our children. I often have parents come to my office for Play Therapy services, and in our initial meeting the parents state their son or daughter is very angry and aggressive. After working with the child I quickly learn the primary emotion the child is challenged with is fear or anxiety. It may look like anger and aggression, but it’s actually fear and anxiety. As you can see emotions and feelings are complex, and understanding them from the inside out is key to our success as parents and play therapists.

In the Pixar movie Inside Out, characters come to life as Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, and in doing so exemplify 11-year-old Riley’s emotions. What captivated me even more than the cunning humor in the film were the references to the neuroscience behind our emotions. I often refer to myself as a brain dork, so you can imagine my excitement about the film and its relevance to my work supporting children, parents and therapists alike. Throughout the movie, Riley and her parents’ emotions interact as they adjust to several major life changes. So let’s get down to the brain dorkiness and share a little about how the brain works to better understand how we perceive change.

Our brain is a threat seeking organism, meaning that we require enough information to prove everything is OK or else we automatically engage our fight/fight/freeze (stress) or collapse response (Dion, 2015). Our brain is constantly scanning the environment for signs of potential threats. When we are going through a change or transition there is inevitably new information so our fight/flight/freeze or collapse response is most likely going to activate. Lisa Dion refers to this as one of the primary threats the brain is looking for, the unknown. New classrooms, new teachers, new coach, new activities, new routines, new jobs, new siblings, new environments are all unknowns to the brain. For Riley, a cross country move presented her with multiple unknowns and she experienced everything as new–new house, new school, new kids, new job, new, new, new… you get the idea. When we are operating out of a stress response or what Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (2011) refer to as the “downstairs brain”–we are reactive and driven by emotions. This reactive state of the brain can lead our children and ourselves to engaging in challenging behaviors. When we can engage the “upstairs brain” we are logical, understanding, problem solvers and reasonable (Siegel &Payne Bryson, 2011).

Knowing that transition and change have a high probability of getting an impulsive emotional reaction, let’s identify a few things that can help reengage the “upstairs brain:”

  1. Give warnings. When we can prepare our children for changes it gives our brain time to regulate and anticipate the change. This can be as simple as giving children a five or 10 minute warning before leaving to go somewhere. For example, “Kids we have 10 more minutes until we need to be in the car to go to school.” I suggest giving a 10 minute warning, then five minutes, three, two and one. When giving a warning for a transition or change make sure you have your child’s attention. Eye contact, gentle physical touch like hand on their shoulder, and or checking for understanding are ways to ensure your warnings are actually being heard to help head off the dreaded last minute melt down. For example, go over to your child, meet them at eye level, and gently put your hand on his/her shoulder and say, “we have five more minutes until we leave for school. So how many minutes do we have until we need to leave?” Warnings help engage the ‘upstairs brain’ about what is coming next and when it is going to happen, so we are more likely to have a successful transition or change.
  2. Use visuals. Visuals can be helpful for big or small transitions or changes. For a bigger change or transition I suggest using a calendar to count down days. Simply print off a basic calendar, and then your child can put and ‘X’ on each day counting down to a large transition like moving to a new home, starting school or even going to another parents’ home. Visuals can also be useful to identify the steps children needed to be ready for the transition. I suggest snapping pictures on your phone of your child practicing each step and or Google images work great as well. For example, a “getting ready for school” step might include a picture of your child getting dressed, brushing hair and teeth, eating breakfast, getting backpack, putting shoes and coat on and sitting in the car. Once you have all the pictures, print them out and make a vertical or horizontal visual schedule/routine. This can be helpful for children of all ages, but especially children who are not yet reading; their brain is going to be able to understand the pictures even when their brain is too overwhelmed to listen to your verbal reminders. Bonus tip: when you practice the transition while taking pictures you are letting the brain know what to expect, reducing the unknown. Every time you repeat the routine it assists in decreasing the unknown as well.
  3. Be prepared. The primary way we learn is through observation, and our children are continuously watching others to learn how to do things (Dion, 2015). Notice if you are frantically getting ready, in a hurry and anxious during transitions or changes. First, normalize that you may be operating out of your “downstairs brain,” and then begin to identify how you can give yourself warnings, visuals, lists, timers, alarms, etc., to help keep yourself on track. When we are in a hurry and or stressed our children are even more likely to engage in challenging behaviors, often creating a vicious cycle of chaotic transitions or changes. As Ghandi says, “Be the change you wish to see.” Remember little steps can have a big ripple effect.

Transitions and change can often feel chaotic and overwhelming. So use some of these helpful tips and information to move them to brainier, prepared and calmer action.