…explains a few things that go on for those of us who have been betrayed. No, we are not losing our minds. There are scientific explanations with regards to how the brain functions that explain things like feeling that we can’t think straight, triggers, emotional hijackings and irrational behavior.
“Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.”
ARISTOTLE, The Necomachean Ethics
The above statement is the heart of emotional intelligence. Researchers have found that emotional intelligence accounts for 80% of a persons potential for success in their relationships and their vocation, and ultimately affects their physical and emotional health as well. The exciting thing is that emotional intelligence can be learned!
Emotional intelligence is about how well we read, understand and communicate with other people, as well as control our emotions, learning to use them in positive and productive ways, rather than allowing them to destroy our lives. It includes the ability to practice self-control and delayed gratification. Here we will examine how understanding emotional intelligence can help us with recovering from infidelity, building positive relationships, reaching our career potential and improving our health.
Each emotion, such as anger, fear, happiness, love, surprise, disgust and sadness trigger certain appropriate physical responses in the body which are actually essential for survival, such as fear which causes the blood to flow to the outer extremities making it easier to run.
Sadness (something those of us recovering from infidelity experience in large proportions), is designed to help us adjust to a significant loss in our lives. It causes an appropriate drop in energy and enthusiasm for life’s activities, and as it deepens it actually slows the body’s metabolism. This introspective withdrawal creates the opportunity to mourn a loss or frustrated hope, grasp it’s consequences for one’s life, and, as energy returns, plan new beginnings.
How the brain works… (I’ll try to make this as simple as possible!)
Our five senses take in information where it first reaches a part of the brain called the thalamus, and from there to the sensory processing areas of the neocortex.
The neocortex is the seat of thought; it contains the centers that put together and comprehend what the senses perceive. It is the thinking part of the brain. Normally, the neocortex processes information perceived, and from there sends out the appropriate response. However, scientists have discovered a bundle of neurons leading directly from the thalamus to the amygdala, something like a neural short cut or back alley.
The amygdala is the brain’s specialist for emotional matters. Interestingly enough the amygdala is like our brains security alarm monitoring system. Through the emotions before we even have a chance to ‘think’ about things, it detects potential danger and can trigger a physical response in us. When it sounds an alarm of, say, fear, it sends urgent messages to every other major part of the brain: it triggers the secretion of the body’s flight of fight response hormones, mobilizes the center for movement and activates the cardiovascular system, the muscles and the gut.
The shortcut between thalamus and amygdala allows the amygdala to receive some direct inputs from the five senses and start a response before they are fully registered by the neocortex. This is often what happens in heroic rescues where a bystander sees someone in danger and instantly springs into action without thinking about the danger to their selves. It also explains the reaction of a parent, say in an emergency, who will often act to save their child at the cost of their own life. This same pattern (shortcut from thalamus to amydala) also explains sudden outbursts of anger, those moments when we say, “I don’t know what came over me…I suddenly just lost it.” This is referred to as an ’emotional hijacking.
This can often explain the ‘triggers’ we experience after our spouse has been unfaithful. For example, during the months following my husband’s affair, while we were in what I call ‘the fighting phase,’ one night the level of frustration in an argument my husband and I were having had reached out of control proportions. In a desperate attempt to be heard, my husband was restraining me. He wasn’t hurting my physically, but he was keeping me from leaving. I had become so upset, that I had completely shut down. I was trying to break free. For me it felt frightening.
Years later, during a much milder argument, my husband had put his arms out in the exact same fashion as he had during the traumatic argument in our affair recovery period. It had resulted in my ‘losing it.’ I found myself screaming hysterically. Later, realizing that my response had been completely inappropriate to the situation, I realized, I had suffered a ‘trigger,’ or an emotional hijacking. “I was only putting my arms out to give you a hug,” my bewildered husband said regarding the experience. Such an incidence is a mild form of post traumatic stress disorder.
Another BAN member reported a similar experience, which I would also label as an emotional hijacking. She was on holidays with her husband having a nice time, when someone mentioned the name of the city, where her husband’s affair partner resided. Instantly and without warning she burst into tears.
What is the Solution?
Awareness. Once we become aware of our own emotional triggers we have the ability to make a ‘mental note,’ so to speak, and upon future triggers we can actually re-engage the thinking part of our brain, sort of saying to ourselves, “I’m experiencing a trigger right now,” and through this level of self-awareness, we can learn to control our reaction. This is one of the things which are at the heart of emotional intelligence.
Harmonizing Emotion and Thought
The connections between the amygdala and the neocortex are the hub of the battles between head and heart. This circuitry explains why emotion is so crucial to effective thought, both in making wise decisions and in simply allowing us to think clearly.
Take the power of emotions to disrupt thinking itself, something those of us recovering from infidelity seem to experience much of. Neuroscientists use the term ‘working memory’ for the capacity of attention that holds in mind the facts essential for completing a given task or problem, like the elements of a reasoning problem on a test. The prefrontal cortex is the brains region responsible for ‘working memory.’ But circuits from the limbic brain to the prefrontal lobes mean that the signals of strong emotion – anxiety, anger, and the like – can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory. That is why when we are emotionally upset we say we “just can’t think straight.” The role of emotions, scientists have discovered, is significant in ‘rational’ decision-making.
Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neurologist at the University Of Iowa College Of Medicine, has made careful studies of just what is impaired in patients with damage to the amydala, the emotional thinking part of the brain. He discovered that their decision-making ability was terribly flawed even though their cognitive/thinking abilities were not damaged at all. These people continually made disastrous choices in their business and personal lives, and could even obsess endlessly over simple decisions such as when to make an appointment. Evidence such as this leads Dr. Damasio to the counter-intuitive position that feelings are typically INDISPENSABLE for rational decisions; they point us in the proper direction. The emotions, then, matter for rationality.
If you would like to further your understanding of these concepts, I suggest reading Daniel Goleman’s book ‘Emotional Intelligence.’ I find the concepts presented explain much of what goes on for those of us who are struggling through the devastating emotions of discovering that our most cherished relationship is not what we thought it was, that we have been lied to and deceived by the one person whom we held in the highest regard, and whom we have relied on to meet our emotional need for intimacy.
If you have an infidelity success story, or can see how these truths have played out in your own life and would like to share your experience with others, please feel free to submit your story to be considered for a future article to appear on this site, where it may be able to help and inspire others. Send articles for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org. Each submission will receive a personalized response.
©Copyright 2005 Anne and Brian Bercht. All rights reserved.