Why does my heart race? Why do my muscles tense? Why do I think differently under stress?
Our bodies have evolved perfectly to help us navigate our experience on Earth. The physiological responses we experience in response to stimulus were developed to help us move away from what we don't want and move toward what we do want. Before modern civilisation, this would have meant keeping us safe from falling off a cliff edge or becoming food for a bigger creature! It meant developing connections with other humans and discovering food sources. We used the guidance we received from our emotions to become creative with tools and building shelters.
Our bodies are designed for action. We have finely honed hormonal responses that are generated in order to gear our bodies towards a particular action. These hormones act as chemical messengers, coursing through our bodies, preparing us to engage or retreat.
In the case of stress hormones the idea is to mobilise our defenses. Our body prepares for danger by curbing unnecessary functions in order to divert all available power to fight or flight. We will find our heart rate and breathing speeds up. Our muscles become tense and our ability to reason diminishes. Our brains have one intention only - to survive. In a dangerous situation we don't need to perform higher brain functions or digest food. That would be wasted energy. This is a great response to have when you need to leg it to escape a lion but is less helpful in the modern world when we are stressed because our modem goes down or the boss just called us into the office. Long term effects of repeated or continuing stress response are hard on the body. The popular term for this is anxiety. Which is a fancy way of saying we are quietly freaking out- just a bit, a lot of the time.
We talk a lot about stress hormones and the damages, but for me, the more interesting side of biological responses are the happy hormones. These are the ones responsible for us moving toward what we do want. It is also a survival response but one that is less obvious, or at least less talked about. The connections we made with other ancient humans meant we could cooperate and build things together for the benefit of everyone. We engaged with the world in order to explore. We would be able to find things to nourish ourselves and share information on the safe things to eat and where to get water. The happy hormones are the ones responsible for us to be able to bond and feel connected to friends, partners, children. When this response washes through our bodies we become receptive and open. It is the response that was evolved to help us create. Our impulse for discovery and innovation comes from this response.
The ability for our minds and bodies to function well depends on positive emotions. When we feel happy our bodies sleep well, digest food, manage pain, heal and commit new learning to memory. We connect with others, bonding through empathy and trust. These happy hormones are so desirable that we have developed a massive culture, both medically and socially, around stimulants that alter our brain chemistry. This includes alcohol and drugs - prescription or otherwise. Unfortunately, the effects of these are temporary and disruptive to our ability to create these hormones naturally. But instinctively we know we need to feel good and are driven to great lengths to chase that feeling.
Everything we have become today has been through our experience of being in our bodies and the interpretation of the guidance of our emotions. So what makes someone better equipped to deal with stress, while another person struggles?
The world has changed since our early days of pure survival. But our physiological responses have stayed the same. Do you enjoy riding a roller coaster or watching a scary movie? The thrill-seeking behaviours we seek out today are leveraging those same responses to create a stress response in our bodies.
What is it then that makes one stress response pleasurable and one detrimental? It is our emotional awareness. How much we are aware of the thought processes that influence our emotions determines how we interpret the physiological responses within our bodies.
More simply, I might think a roller coaster is great fun. My thoughts will be positively oriented about my experience and the physiological responses that are produced in my body will be interpreted as excitement.
What would happen if I didn't think that a roller coaster was fun? Biologically speaking, this would be a natural response! My body doesn't know that engineers have worked on a machine that is (hopefully) correctly installed, well-maintained and operated safely. All my body knows is that I am hurtling through space in a way that I cannot control. My heart will race, adrenaline will course through my veins and my body will prepare for action. If my thoughts are fearful then this will not be a pleasant experience. If my thoughts are confident and I feel safe then my interpretation of my bodies response will be a positive one.
If we take this a step further we can look at how our thoughts originate. We have all had the experience of a stress response to a misunderstanding. I might think something is lost or broken but then find it or fix it. I mishear something and have it corrected. I get bad news which turns out not to be true. In reality, nothing has changed here aside from my perception and my subsequent thoughts.
What is the difference between someone who loses or breaks something and shrugs it off, or can hear bad news and not freak out? It is the ability to observe our responses and make choices about how we think about it. We all get the little jolt of adrenaline when something happens but we don't always take a step back to choose how we want to think about it. But if we can do that then we can further influence our physiological response and change our emotions.
If I have emotional awareness I can make the choice to perceive situations to my advantage. I have the ability to influence my physiological responses and I can feel better when I want to.
How would this work? And what effect would this understanding have on our lives if we knew the purpose of our emotions from a young age?
Thoughts and feelings (both mental and physical) tend to create a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Without understanding that this process is happening within me, rather than to me, there is little I can do to change it. Learning to listen to my emotions means I can be in tune with the advantages or disadvantages of a moment. I can be aware of potential danger and I can be open to new discoveries. Emotions are guidance! The wonderful creations and connections we make are a result of following that guidance.
Translating that guidance relies on our ability to choose our thoughts.
My work focuses on providing young people with the information to make choices. It is not just okay to feel, it is good to feel. We can observe our bodily responses, our thoughts about life and make empowered choices when we understand how our emotions serve us. The intention is not to preserve children from the emotion that will guide them, but to inform them of their opportunity to tap into those emotions to create the kind of lives they want to live.
This is what it means to me to have emotional awareness.
If you would like resources to support the teaching of emotional awareness to children click see the following titles: