Why Should I Talk About My Problems? A Neuroscience Perspective.
“It will help.” This is the response we often use when we know others are troubled, and we are encouraging them to share their burden and talk about them. But will it? And if so, why? When people are contemplating counselling, I am often asked these questions. We are encouraged to talk about our problems, but is there really value in this? I think it is a good question and worthy of a solid answer. Research in psychology and neuroscience tells us why.
Why Do I Resist Talking About Personal Things?
The first thing to identify is that fear is usually associated with resistance or avoidance to sharing our emotions and thoughts. This may be fear of judgement, fear of dredging up painful memories, and fear that it will make us feel worse. We may be afraid it will be used against us in the future and that we are viewed as weak, unworthy, or stupid. We may fear that talking about the past with cause us to relive painful events that we prefer to leave behind and forget. We fear we will be left feeling raw, vulnerable, and ultimately worse off. When you’re fighting the exhausting uphill battle against your negative feelings, it can seem like talking about it is the least productive thing you can do. For these reasons, it is obvious why we need a sound rationale for opening our hearts and minds and sharing our experiences with others.
Your Brain and Your Body Get a Lot Out of Talking: Let’s Talk Benefits!!
There are millions of minute-to-minute neurochemical reactions in our brains that drive our state of mind. The good news is that we have the ability and power to influence these neurochemical reactions and responses in our brains. Good news, right? Who doesn’t want to have more mastery of their brain? With new understanding, the power of conversations can play a pivotal role in regulating how we feel every day.
1. Labelling Emotions
There is a healing effect with being mindful of our emotions. By consciously noticing and labeling our emotions such as “sad,” “angry,” or “resentful,” the naming itself helps us acknowledge what we are experiencing and at times even help those emotions dissipate and fade from our minds. Sounds good, right? We can assume we know our emotions, such as sadness, fear, or anger, but there are usually many more emotions underneath that. Primary emotions such as sadness, anger, and surprise can be broken down further into secondary ones and then tertiary ones. The more we break down our emotions, the more clarity we can get to the underlying issues and deeper emotional states (9).
Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor is the author of Stroke of Insight (15). She describes human’s ability to regulate the neurological process of emotional activation that she calls the 90-second rule: “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens; any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop.” (15). I encourage you to check out her book in my references at the end!
2. Calming the Amygdala
The amygdala is viewed as our emotional processing center. These tiny almond structures in our brains (we have two) are like air traffic controllers that sort through prominent information and categorize it as pleasurable or threatening. If we believe it to be threatening or potentially harmful, the amygdala creates the stress response (fight-flight-freeze) (4). The amygdala’s job is to store threatening information in our memory to recognize the threat late (17).
When the amygdala’s experience is ignored or suppressed, it goes unchecked, and the messages it may perceive as threatening are never explored and challenged. In other words, the emotional experience gets stored unchecked. The act of discussing and verbalizing our emotions (talking) has been found to reduce activation in the amygdala (the brain’s alarm system) (6,16). By giving words to our emotions, we can shift away from limbic system reactivity (where the amygdala lives) and activate the part of the brain that generates language and meaning, which is the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) so that increase processing can occur (6). Processing emotions through talking can reduce and even prevent the stockpile of stored unprocessed emotions.
3. Producing a Clear Thought: Engaging the Prefrontal-Cortex
Talking requires us to select words and join them together to form sentences. Even if we have trouble identifying our thoughts clearly, the very act of talking forces us to organize and structure our thoughts into words. The creation of words requires us to engage the part of the brain that deconstructs and analyzes things (prefrontal cortex) (6). Using this part of our brain, we can turn down the threat-based messages we are getting from our amygdala (6, 17). By talking, we can translate initial negative impulses to help us make judgement calls that may differ from our emotional state.
It is faulty to think that because we live with our thoughts in our head, that they are automatically correct or well organized. We are all capable of errors in thinking. Sometimes our emotions need to be validated, but not our associated thoughts. We may omit specific facts and get into thinking traps such as black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, and mindreading. We can overlook important information and make faulty assumptions that may need to be checked. Talking with someone outside of ourselves, we create the option of examining a situation for additional clarity and insight. Sharing helps us get outside of ourselves and find out what we have not already found within.
4. Trust and Oxytocin
Trust is the belief in feeling safe and supported by another and seeking to determine if we can open up. The experience of trust is detected by our brain and is associated with releasing the brain neurotransmitter oxytocin (3,12,13). Better known as the “love hormone,” Oxytocin’s receptors stretch all the way to the heart. To summarize:
Oxytocin is associated with love, bonding, and collaboration, increasing our feelings of safety(14).
Oxytocin plays a role in new cell growth (neurogenesis) (7,8,10).
Oxytocin also influences our hippocampus (where long-term memories live) and protects memories from stress (5,8,10).
When our brain is full of oxytocin, we can lower our guards and begin to connect with others because we feel safe and can bond. (1,3,4).
The presence of oxytocin can enable us to push past conditioned reactions to suppress emotions and flee and create opportunities for a deeper understanding of ourselves (4).
On the other hand, distrust is linked to releasing the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Two very separate areas of the brain are activating: trust activates the prefrontal cortex (thinking brain), and distrust activates the amygdala (flight or fight) (4,17). A trusted listener is key.
5. Co-Regulation and Emotional Contagion
Ever notice that it can be infectious when we are around someone laughing or having a good time? Ever notice when we are in the presence of someone sad, we also feel our mood drop? Co-regulation is often used with children to enhance a warm and responsive interaction along with coaching, and modeling to help them understand, express, and adjust their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours (2,9). Adults are no different. All mammals need connection, and human mammals even more. Connection with others helps in the mutual regulation of physiological and behavioural states (2,13).
A thing called “neural coupling” between speaker and listener creates a sort of synchronized communication dance. The neural coupling occurs when the speaker and the listeners' brains are paired during successful communication (14). The deep connection causes brain patterns to mimic each other, and we can start to see the world through the eyes of the other (5). Cool, eh? We can learn how to regulate our neurochemistry in real-time with others (2,4). The basics are, when we are in physical proximity with other’s nervous systems, we create emotional contagion, whether we are aware of it or not (11, 14).
6. Validation and Receiving Feedback
Expressing our thoughts and feelings to another can provide the opportunity to be validated. For example, someone who has unique insight into our challenge can understand feelings of frustration and sadness and can validate our experience. Where we were once angry, distressed, and determined, having someone understand our emotions and thoughts can help us feel understood and valued.
Next Steps: Find an Active Listener
One of my favourite quotes comes from Brene Brown, who states we should tell our story to someone who deserves to hear it. An ‘active’ listener is someone who intends to stay with you when you speak, not rushing away and fully concentrating on what is being said, both verbally and non-verbally. The stronger the relationship is between the speaker and the listener, the more powerful, stronger, and successful the interaction will be.
Imagine living your whole life not exploring and reflecting on what is occurring and limiting the potential for added joy and happiness, or at least added understanding. Perhaps if you explored your experience a bit more, you might have known and understood things better. One of my favourite quotes is from Socrates ~ “The unexamined life is not worth living”.
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11. Noah, J. A., Dravida, S., Zhang, X., Yahil, S., & Hirsch, J. (2017, March 09). Neural correlates of conflict between gestures and words: A domain-specific role for a temporal-parietal complex. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5344449/
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