Harnessing our emotional horses

by Claudia Cararra, Ph.D.

Emotions guide our choices, shape our preferences, help us to keep away from danger and motivate us toward rewards. In fact, in every emotion is implicit a response (the word emotion derives from latin moveo = to move) that – based on our previous experiences with the given situation – prompts us toward a specific reaction. In other words, emotions cover a crucial role in our survival by representing our own fundamental perspective on the world around us1. Before our intellect is even able to process all the elements of a situation, our emotional brain detects its probable meaning and prepares the body to the specific response2. Although the list of so-called basic emotions differs among authors, there is no dispute that happiness, fear, sadness, and anger belong to this group3.

Happiness is associated to lower levels of cortisol (i.e. stress hormone) and to higher levels of dopamine which is the neurotransmitter linked to rewards and pleasure. To strengthen this positive loop, dopamine also facilitates the activation of reward-related memories4. Bottom-line: Feel positive to think positive, and vice versa!

Fear prompts the sympathetic nervous system to trigger the release of a number of hormones – among which adrenaline and cortisol. This mechanism a) increases the blood pressure and blood sugar, and therefore enhances the functionality of lungs and heart to prepare us to the fight, b) reduces the production of salivation (hence our mouth feels dry), and c) causes tunnel vision (to help us focusing on “the enemy ahead”). Fear is also associated to an increase of blood flow toward the large muscles of our body to prepare us to run away (in fact, most body muscles become tighter causing the so-called goosebumps).5

Sadness – which gets hold on us when we experience the loss of someone we love (grief), when our football team misses the World Cup qualifications (disappointment), or when we fail to achieve a goal (defeat) – will instead lower our metabolism and determine a general decrease of energy. This “bodily lock-down” is intended to give us the chance to process our emotional pain and to concentrate on finding new hopes6. Increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and increased respiration are also often associated to the experience of sadness7,8. More so, when we feel sad, we are more prone to think about situations and events that can further increase our despair – Again, our feelings can affect our thoughts and vice versa.

Anger, similarly to fear, activates our sympathetic nervous system to boost the production of adrenaline and noradrenaline, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure. Although the inability to control our anger can lead to rage – which significantly impairs the function of our pre-frontal cortex (i.e. our “reason & judgment center”), anger protect us from the “bodily lock-down” effects of hurt and sadness. In this sense, anger can be understood as a physiological defense mechanism that prompts us to overcome fears and to muster the confidence to face dangers. Often, just like other animal species, the more vulnerable we feel, the more aggressive we may become9.

Although considered in the past as “interferences” to our logical and functional thinking, emotions – and our ability to recognize and regulate them – are today central in many therapeutic approaches.

Emotional regulation refers to our ability to modulate the emergence, intensity and duration of our emotions within the specific situations. Emotional regulation is – to some extents – embedded in our brain skills before birth when fetuses have been observed to suck on their thumbs to soothe themselves (suckling function triggers serotonin, and consequently reduces stress and enhances relation)10. As we grow up, the repertoire of our emotions expands as the range of stimuli and situations that can have emotional impact on us becomes broader. It is then of crucial importance that, as we grow, we learn how to identify our emotions and to acquire effective tools to ensure both their intensity and adequateness in different contexts. But functional emotional regulation does not always develop naturally and, at any point in time, children’s ability to regulate an emotion depends on the interactions between their social world (e.g., child-caregiver relationship and peer interactions) as well as their biological and environmental mechanisms. In fact, adults play the most significant role in the child´s ability to develop functional emotional regulation11. Kids observe their parents’ responses to challenges and stressors, internalizing and then mimicking their behaviors, and ultimately learning how to react in the given situation. For example, it is demonstrated that children of parents unable to regulate their emotions often suffer of dysregulation11,12.

This is because, if parents yell or show aggressive behavior whenever something upsets them, children may learn to be reactive and misbehave when things don’t go as they wanted. On the other hand, if a parent behaves calmly and tackles problems in a controlled and reasonable manner, the child will be more likely to learn to stay calm and to look for solutions instead of blames. More so, emotions can be transmitted: When the child sees her parents angry and losing control over their emotions, she will be more prone to get distressed, angry and emotionally out of control12. The inability to control own emotions can have significant effects on the child who for example might experience difficulties interacting with peers and shaping close friendships. Once an adult, the individual might have difficulties fitting in a work place and/or enjoy less job satisfaction, and might experience difficulties in noticing, monitoring and recognizing different feelings13. Conversely, parents who might lack the ability to recognize and acknowledge feelings in themselves and in the child, might prompt the child to develop overcontrol feelings. The regulatory style that represses any sign of emotions, leading to the inability to acknowledge own states, wishes, and preferences, can lead to higher levels of anxiety, sense of purposelessness and social inadequacy.

In sum, emotions are one of our greatest allies to help us live in harmony with ourselves and with those around us. In the symphony our life, it is not about playing too loudly or too softly – The secret is about learning how to finetune our emotional instruments.


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