emotions and control

I recently heard an interesting phrase in the context of dementia: emotional incontinence. It seemed a very colorful way to describe uncontrollable outbursts of pathological laughing or crying, and is a distinct medical condition,  the proper name being: “pseudobulbar affect”; the disorder occurs in patients with brain injury caused by many types of neurological disease, including stroke, tumors, and neurodegenerative disorders.

But of course, my interest was related to things not quite that medical.

The word incontinence is quite loaded for a caregiver, who often finds herself balancing between not breathing, and between sniffing hard enough to figure where exactly the source of that smell is. You enter a room, get that whiff that we have been conditioned in childhood to find repugnant, and we have to solve it. (I sometimes wonder why humans take such pains to find repulsive the body odors that other animals use to mark territories and distinguish between strangers and clan members 🙂

Anyway, the moment I heard the word emotional incontinence, I pictured someone unloading emotions at improper times, and that led me to wonder, do most of really have control over our emotions? Is such ‘incontinence’ is restricted to dementia patients, and how much control all the rest of us (people who consider themselves normal) have on our emotions. I mean, the truth inside, not what we pretend we do…

What, too, is an emotion, and how does it occur?

I remembered reading somewhere that emotions, at least the base emotions, are a limbic reaction, and they arise well before the more intelligent parts of the brain find reasons to rationalize/ explain them or device ways to hide them. The need for quick emotional reactions is an evolutionary one, needed for survival, needed to stir the body to respond instantly to possible threats.

So I picked up a few books to check out.

Antonio Damasio (The Feeling of What Happens) takes a biological view of emotions. According to his view, (or what I understand of it), the biological machinery that determines emotions does not depend on consciousness. He writes of emotions and the feeling of emotions as a progression and continuum, with emotions being public, and the feelings being private (he describes feeling as a private, mental experience of an emotion, and emotion as the collection of responses , many of which are observable).

In Emotional Intelligence, Danial Goleman talks at length of the evolutionary relevance and necessity of instant emotions that propel someone to act in time.  Today, I also flipped through Healing Emotions, Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions, and Health (edited by Danial Goleman). In this, Cliff Saron explains that the word ’emotion’ is difficult to define. On the physiological level, there are two components, (1) a body feeling (such as a jittery feeling) that involves the lower brain and affects the autonomic nervous system and affects the hormones and other body functioning for hours, and (2) a response in the cereberal cortex. Later in the chapter, the Dalai Lama asks, (quote)  “In other words, there is a preconscious activation in the brain that triggers emotions, and only afterward are you actually aware of what’s going on?” and Saron says, “Yes….”

This frightens me. If the base emotional reactions are a biological imperative that occur without conscious intervention, how do we ensure that our emotions are not excessive and damaging? We all have read of fight or flight, and of how we react to adverse situations by choosing between these–run from the tiger or stay to fight an enemy. The extra strength the body needs, the higher supply of oxygen, the ability of the muscles to power you, the setting aside of the immune system to use all possible resources to tackle the threat–all get kicked into action by the instantaneous emotion triggered at the sight of the threat/ smell of threat, whatever. Best would be not not get triggered into such reaction, rather than to get started and then try to make it run its course with minimal damage to the body. And the next best would be to find ways to recognize and dissipate the emotion internally, rather than  just grit the teeth and smile and pretend.

I do not think we are  trained to handle simple problems or challenges in a genuine, gentle way. We focus, instead, on hiding extreme reactions. Most of us grow up hearing that we should not (or should) express anger, and that we need ‘will power’, and we should learn to ‘ behave’. That means, we are acting after the emotion is triggered, hiding it, pretending it does not exist. The body knows, though, and while we may paste on a pretend smile, it switches off our immune system till the perceived threat subsides, and it focuses on survival, not on optimal use of resources. It tenses up inside, coping with the tiger that may well be a bank teller who frowned at your signature and scrutinized it more carefully than what you consider justified 🙂

My perception is that social norms and culture focus more on the behavior we exhibit rather than the feeling we have which the behavior grows from. Behavior is seen as control, a tight sphincter over an eruption that may be coming.That hardly seems optimal, and there are tools and mechanisms suggested across books to re-program ourselves to reduce inappropriate triggering of emotions (not just suppressing their expression). What puzzles me is, why is this not a focus while teaching children? It is only when we are adults, and only if we go around exploring such aspects, that we encounter tools to amend our way of responding at the gut level. I am not even sure there is an agreed, well-tested or prove method of tackling this very basic requirement–making sure our bodies respond in ways suitable to situations, and remain healthy (and we remain happier).


The problem is, if we are too loaded inside, our control sphincter relaxes.  Also, if some trauma, or some neurological or other disorder compromises our ability to control, our behavior seems inappropriate and out of proportion. The emotion may have been out of proportion all these years, but that becomes apparent only when we lose our social veneer.

In his book (well-known in part to Oprah Winfrey’s excellent series on it) A New Earth, Tolle describes an incident where he was preoccupied and said out aloud what was the ‘voice in his head’ and someone nearby gave him a funny look, like he was crazy or something. I found that very interesting (not the least because even Tolle can do such things 🙂 Possibly, the  difference between an apparently sane person, and an obviously crazy one is mainly the extent to which we manage to not say what we are thinking, thus hide our incoherence or the way our mnd leaps from topic to topic, never properly exploring a thought.

Maybe next time we see someone act disproportionately angry or sad, we can think–this person is just honestly showing the type of reaction many of us feel, but manage to hide. Tomorrow, if we  lose our ability to hide, we’ll seem as out of control, obnoxious, or ridiculous. More basic work is needed if we want our bodies to be genuinely happy, not just have a forced pleasantness in apparent behavior.

A sobering thought, indeed.

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

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