Day 49 of 100: On emotional breakdowns.

I had an emotional breakdown this week. I was feeling discouraged with how my work wasn’t going anywhere (especially with all that realtime business), and I just started feeling quite inadequate as a researcher.

This hasn’t happened in a little while, but I do have emotional breakdowns with relative frequency. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to think about and figure out why they happen, because emotional breakdowns are not fun and sometimes I feel like I just need to grow up and get over it.

So here’s what I’ve learned, maybe you can identify with some of this: My emotional breakdowns are caused by a buildup of emotional pressure, where I start feeling inadequate but I stuff it and push past it, then eventually it bursts and I get comforted by people or I just cry it out myself, and then I start the cycle again. Sometimes, I’ll start crying when I feel misunderstood by someone else or frustrated that I can’t express myself well.

Basically, I’m trying to train myself to not have emotional breakdowns, because I find them quite hindering and derailing and I would much rather learn from my mistakes and persevere well (Hebrews 12:1-2). So I’m going to take some things I’ve learned from internet research and talking to some neuroscientist (and non-neuroscientist) friends, my counselor, and other members of my Christian community, and try to figure out what’s causing emotional breakdowns so I can work to prevent them from happening too much.

The amygdala is the brain’s emotional “danger” detector, and will cause an emotional reaction to an event before our brains have time to process it. Let’s say, for example, that someone gives you criticism for something you’ve done or said. Your amygdala may immediately signal “danger!”, and you feel like you have to defend yourself, or you become fearful and anxious and depressive, or maybe you end up criticizing the other person.

Why is this happening? Why do we freak out upon criticism or failure, and why can’t we just take it, improve if it’s in our power to do so, and move on? Remember the whole “survival brain” stuff I talked about last week? Your amygdala is that survival brain, and it is conditioned to react a certain way. Maybe a parent/teacher/coach was constantly critical of you, and they only seemed pleased with you when you were performing well. So criticism was an indication of poor performance and therefore a denial of love and belonging. You’ve probably unconsciously trained your amygdala, with really no fault of your own, to freak out during criticism or poor performance because your very “survival,” your identity or need to be loved, feels like it’s at risk.

Turns out when your amygdala senses danger, it will shut down the prefrontal (“logical”) area of your brain. Which is actually good for us socially: the amygdala allows you to intuitively sense negative emotions in others, which allows us to feel empathy and understand each other. But it also prevents us from thinking logically about a problem and a solution.

So what can we squishy emotional and sometimes overreactive humans do about this? Force your brain to engage the prefrontal (logical) side. Think about what you’re feeling and put it into words: what am I feeling? Why am I feeling it? Where have I felt this before? What do I need to do about this feeling? What actions should I avoid doing when I’m feeling this way?

There is scientific and psychological defense behind Ephesians 4:26: In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down on your anger and James 5:16: Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Open up the conversation about emotions with people in your life, especially the ones closest to you. Allow them to encourage you and remind you of some (sometimes hard) truth. Seek reconciliation with those who you feel have offended you through explaining (calmly, try not to trigger the other person’s danger sensor too!) that you feel ____ when they say or do ____ or when ____ happens. Maybe you just need to be reassured that you’re wholly lovable even when you make some mistakes. Maybe you need to start telling your amygdala, “See? It’s not dangerous. We’re okay.” Maybe the other person needs to work on saying things more gently. Maybe you two need to pray for each other, accept and extend grace in each other’s faults. We all need to own up to our weaknesses, as it’s never only one person’s fault. If the other person isn’t willing to reconcile, well, you may have to learn to let it go. I realize that I’m trying to combine a couple of different possible scenarios in this post (conflict with another person, fighting feelings of inadequacy at work, burying your emotions in general…), but I hope that we can all recognize places in our lives where our brain signals “danger” and learn how to appropriately deal with and sooth that sense.

Basically, train your amygdala. Talk about your emotions, think about why you react the way you do, and make a genuine effort to improve your emotional stability. Any family/friend/SO relationship will be improved because of it. I’m working on it too, because this takes a lot of time.

Also, check out this TED talk on giving yourself emotional first aid.


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