Most of us think of emotion purely as a feeling. We might feel happy or sad, for instance, or love, joy, or grief. But there is much more to emotion than a feeling. Emotion is really smeared all over and all throughout the body.
The diagram below shows how this is so.
Let me explain. When you feel an emotion, a pattern of brain chemistry follows it. For example, happiness is often accompanied by changes in serotonin, dopamine and even endogenous opiates (the brain’s own versions of morphine). If you then feel a different emotion, brain chemistry shifts to a pattern that reflects your new emotion. Brain chemistry alters in response to how you feel at any moment. So far so good.
Your emotions also affect your muscles. You smile when you feel happy while stress causes your brow to crease and your shoulders to tense. These muscle movements are not conscious choices you make. They are like reflex reactions because your muscles are in communication with emotional centres of your brain.
Emotions also play tunes throughout the autonomic nervous system (ANS). OK, they don’t actually play tunes but I like the sound of that expression. I basically mean that your ANS responds to your emotional state. This is why an emotion is technically smeared all over your body. Your ANS connects your brain to your heart and other organs in your chest, your abdomen and pelvis, and also to your eyes, larynx, and through your blood vessels and sweat glands to your skin.
Via the ANS, your skin actually responds moment-by-moment to the contents of your mind. Let’s say you have a stressful or worrisome thought, for instance. Your skin starts to sweat. It’s quite obvious when you feel really stressed and your palms become moist. But even a little stressful thought causes micro amounts of sweating. In fact, this is the basis of the polygraph (lie-detector) test. When a person tells a lie and knows it’s a lie, the tiny (or large) amount of emotional stress they feel increases sweating. This is detected by sensors that measure the electrical conductance of the skin. When there’s sweating, conductance goes up!
So you can see how emotions are connected with brain chemistry, muscles, and all throughout the autonomic nervous system. And the connection is ‘bi-directional’, meaning ‘both ways’. Just as emotions affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, so chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotions.
Here’s a few examples. That brain chemistry affects emotions is the basis for the pharmaceutical model of treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. If serotonin can be increased, for instance, it can cause a person to feel happier. Similarly, low levels of EPA or DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) following childbirth has been linked with post-natal (partum) depression where higher levels seem to have antidepressant effects.
We can also use our muscles to affect our emotions. Straightening your spine, relaxing your shoulders and breathing comfortably can boost mood and confidence. Smiling on purpose can also improve mood. It is the basis of laughter yoga.
Changes in ANS activity affect emotion too. The ANS has two components. There’s the sympathetic strand, which is the fight-or-flight part. It’s the bit that’s active when we feel stress or worry. Then there’s the parasympathetic strand, which is the rest-and-relax part. People who are stressed or worry a lot have more activity in the sympathetic portion and less activity in the parasympathetic portion.
Conscious breathing exercises (like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi) are a good way to increase parasympathetic function, and with the increase in parasympathetic function we tend to see an increase in positive emotion, coupled with a decrease in negative emotion.
So not only does emotion affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, but chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotion. That’s what the double arrows in the diagram mean.
You can see why we can’t actually disentangle emotion from the brain or body and that we really can think of emotion as ‘smeared’ all over and throughout the body.
In some ways, we can start to think of the body and mind as a single thing – the bodymind – where changes in the mind affect the body and changes in the body affect the mind, with neither operating independently of the other, but rather operating as a single holistic entity.