Coaching Myth Busted: Your Emotions Only Come from Your Thoughts

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Note: The PAG (periaqueductal gray) is not actually part of the reptilian brain as you might assume from the stock image I purchased for this one. The PAG, is an area of gray matter found in the midbrain, located around the cerebral aqueduct.

If you are still thinking that emotions only come from the internal monologue of thoughts in our heads, then you might find this to be super-fascinating: Some people do not have an internal monologue.

Here’s the TLDR;
Emotions are complex and don’t just come from our thoughts. They can be triggered by immediate reactions to our environment (like jumping at a falling piano), which is known as bottom-up processing, a concept from Panksepp’s work (he identified 7 primary emotional circuits, found lower in the brain of mammals). But they can also come from our thoughts and reflections, a process known as top-down processing. Moreover, our emotions can be shaped by past experiences and learning, such as associating certain stimuli with traumatic events. Other factors like our physiological state and hormones can also influence our emotions. So, it’s important to understand that our emotions are influenced by a combination of these factors, not just our thoughts.

Feel free to share the above GIF and this text:

Meet Amy the Amygdala, your brain’s vigilant security guard. She’s part of the behind-the-scenes squad that springs into action 4x faster than the blink of an eye. Think of her as the rapid-response unit of your “biological spacesuit.” The fierce protector.

Havening Techniques® explains the neuroscience of C.A.S.E.: Cognitive, Autonomic, Somatosensory, Emotional—it’s an excellent way to unpack what’s really going on. Your smarty pants (thinking brain) is pretty much last to the party. 🎉

From the moment the amygdala jumps in, to when your cognitive brain catches up, it’s all over in milliseconds. Amy can kick off a response in a swift 20 milliseconds, and your cognitive functions may roll in a tad later, sometimes taking up to a few hundred milliseconds. So, we’re talking about thousands of microseconds from start to finish! ⏱️

Thanks to Dr. Kate Truitt for coming up with “Amy the Amygdala.”

In line with this, we’re reminded of Deb Dana, LCSW’s concept that “State precedes story.” This means that our nervous system state sets the stage before our cognitive brain starts crafting narratives about what’s happening. Hence you see “neuroception precedes perception.”

Trauma Encodings

The above video was created to beg, plead, sweet talk or other wise urge coaches to just add that word “sometimes” in there. Emotions sometimes come from our thoughts. (In addition to top-down and bottom-up descried in the video, emotions can come from a wide variety of interconnected sources).

It is also very important for coaches to learn what it means to be trauma-informed. You also need to stay in your lane — that is, if you are not a licensed therapist, refer your client to one if you suspect that they have a diagnosable disorder.

Sometimes emotional reactions come from trauma encodings or SISP (stress-induced structural plasticity) based on felt sense memories (not the “story” kind of memory). The two videos below show how trauma is encoded, how it can be un-encoded, and what the criteria is to install the trauma encodings in the 1st place.

Further Reading:

The Preparatory Set (Neat concept; I like to call this “a flash mob” under the hoodie… the hoodie being the “biological spacesuit”)

More on “The Ladder” (The 3 states we covered plus blended states, eg sports and meditation)

Window of Tolerance (Article with excellent graphics)

Window of Tolerance (PDF assessment)

Hand Model (Puppet – for purchase on Amazon)

Polyvagal Flip Chart (For purchase on Amazon)

6 Guiding Principles to a Trauma-Informed Approach (CDC)

How Stress Affects the Brain (YouTube)

Responding to Stress and Dysregulation in our Nervous System (YouTube)

Relias has a lot of great resources, for example this video and slide deck

For regulation vs dysregulation, see Figure 2: Dynamic patterns of regulated and deregulated autonomic arousal. Adapted from Porges (1997)

Mental Health Trends to Watch in 2022