Rewiring How We Experience Feelings

Illustration of heads with circuits overlaidWe have feelings. Hard-wired emotions come with the equipment: anger, sadness, disgust, grief, joy. The list is longer, but you get the idea.

We also have an inborn blueprint for “building” the house that will hold our feelings. The blueprint doesn’t designate a value on the feelings. There is no rolled-up page that, once flattened, delineates in architectural graphics which feelings are unacceptable and which are OK. Our wiring just is.

What do we do with all this emotion that sometimes comes with such profound intensity? Sometimes feelings are simple and easy to experience. Sometimes they grab us in such forceful waves that our whole being feels tossed about and flooded. When we are born, we don’t yet have the capability to have feelings and stay on course within ourselves. The compass that directs us back down out of any intensity of internal experience isn’t fully online. We need that regulating of our internal state to come from the outside. We need adults who notice that we are having these internal experiences, which show up as distress: Hunger. Too cold. Wet diaper. Lonely. Stomach hurts. When we have adequate attunement from the adults in our world, our needs will be sufficiently addressed. Our caregivers notice. They take care of us. Our feeling of distress calms. Our nervous system is learning something very important. Connections are getting made in the wiring in our neurological circuitry, and pathways are being established that will be important for us throughout life.

I like the analogy of learning to drive a car. It’s simple to understand and easily explains the concept of neural pathways becoming established. We don’t know how to drive a car when we first start learning. We have to think ourselves through the necessary actions and the appropriate order for each of those actions: Put the key in the ignition. Turn the key and press the gas pedal. Release the emergency brake. Put the car in gear. Each action must be consciously determined. Eventually, we’ve practiced these actions enough that we get into the car and no longer have to think ourselves through what to do. The neural pathways are established. They have been rehearsed and are now automatic. The same is true for anything we learn: Driving cars. How to behave in public. Calming our states of distress. Our brains and bodies become wired in accordance with our experiences, and things then are automatic.

When we are not yet developed enough to do things on our own and have adults who are responding, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, we are learning from this. If we are being calmed and our needs are adequately addressed with caring attentiveness, our neurological system is learning various important things. It is learning how to travel the pathway out of distress and into a regulated state. We are learning that help feels good and reaching out is a positive action. We are also learning that feelings are permissible experiences and can be negotiated with a feeling of internal support.

When attention from caregivers comes from a constantly distracted, careless, rough, or otherwise misattuned place, we are also learning. The lack of attunement to our need and state of distress can set up a pattern in our wiring of pulling in rather than our continuing to follow the impulse to reach out. When this becomes rehearsed, we no longer feel connected to the impulse to reach out from need. It goes off our radar screen, and we potentially don’t recognize that others are sources of comfort and help. We also are not having the experience of what will help us learn to best regulate our own states.

None of what I’m talking about is immutable. We relearn and develop different patterns in our neurological circuitry all the time. We can learn how to drive a stick shift after having learned to drive an automatic transmission. We can develop the awareness it takes to notice the impulses of which we’ve lost conscious connection. The impulse to reach out can come back into our conscious awareness. The ability to reduce and calm our own state of distress can be more effectively learned.

No parent is perfect. No life travels a path of never facing either difficult childhood dynamics or critical incidents like birth shock trauma (which can include loss of biological mother at birth), car accidents, surgeries, or horror and pain from service in the military. Having good attunement from our caregivers helps prepare us for whatever gets placed on our path. We can learn, with this early help, how to have feelings and needs in a comfortable way. We can learn how to regulate our feelings of distress from all those circumstances we will confront throughout life. We can learn that our internal states are experiences, not problems. And when we’ve not adequately had the opportunity to learn this or our wiring has been interrupted by critical incidents along the way, we can learn how to rewire. We can make possible the ability to more fluidly traverse those sometimes tumultuous waters of life.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sherry L. Osadchey, MA, LMFT, SEP, therapist in Farmington, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Juan

    Juan

    November 14th, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    it must take a lot of time and work to rewire those connections and pathways that have been created over time

  • Sherry Osadchey

    Sherry Osadchey

    November 15th, 2012 at 3:51 AM

    It can take some time, Juan. It’s a somewhat unpredictable time frame because of the different variables and ages in which the patterns began. Thanks for checking out my article.

  • Valerie

    Valerie

    November 15th, 2012 at 5:26 AM

    Too many people go around thinking oh I can’t change this or that about me because this is the way I am, It’s who I am so there is no use even trying to change.
    So untrue!
    there are always things that can do to better ourselves and improve ourselves, and yes, even the way that we process our emotions.
    If you are that perosn who is rules by their emotions and are always on the verge of falling apart, there are things that you can do to make life a little easier.
    Many times it is just about changing your mindset and allowing yourself the time and the opportunity to become a better and stronger person.
    hard work, but it can be done.

  • Sherry Osadchey

    Sherry Osadchey

    November 16th, 2012 at 3:46 AM

    It sure can, Valerie! Thanks for reading my article and contributing your thoughts.

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