Understanding How the Brain Manages Emotions

The Brain

LETS START AT THE TOP

The brain is made up of many different regions that work together to process the information received from the outside world. Most of the time each region works well and contributes to the overall decision making and actions an individual takes. At other times, one region takes over and dysregulation occurs.

 

 

 

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fMRI of a brain visualizing the variety of regions engaged depending on the type of laughter, from volentary to uncontrolled.

The Limbic System

GROUP OF STRUCTURES IN THE BRAIN ASSOCIATED WITH EMOTIONS AND DRIVE
 

Deep in the brain is the “emotional center.”  This region is called the limbic system and it drives and manages the way emotions are processed.

To keep it simple, the limbic system manages the inflows of inputs, carrying sensory input from the person’s environment to the brain. Two large limbic system structures, the amygdala and hippocampus, play important roles in memory. The amygdala is responsible for determining what memories are stored and where the memories are stored in the brain. It is thought that this determination is based on how huge an emotional response an event invokes. In addition to the structures of the brain, neurons, send signals through neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that are either sent or received.  Neurotransmitters are how different regions of the brain communicate.

When faced with an event, the brain quickly assesses the situation and based on memories, responds.

 

 

MAJOR REGIONS

  • The Amygdala
  • The Hippocampus
  • Portions of the Limbic Cortex
  • The Septal Area

These structures form connections between the limbic system and the hypothalamus, thalamus, and cerebral cortex.

The hippocampus is important in memory and learning, while the limbic system itself is central in the control of emotional responses.

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AMYGDALA

The amygdala drives conditioned responses to situations and interactions. The amygdala triggers these automatic behavioral responses based on previous experiences of the individual.

HIPPOCAMPUS

The Hippocampus impacts context dependent emotional learning.  Reactions based on past associations triggers memory response - do what you’ve done before.

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Prefrontal Cortex

The Prefrontal Cortex controls emotional recovery time. It can override or inhibit the amygdala. 

The brain develops in a back to front pattern. Making the prefrontal cortex the last portion of the brain to fully develop. That doesn’t mean your student prefrontal cortices aren't functional. Rather, they have are still in the process of developing the complex decision-making and planning skills adults possess. Your students’ experiences play a role in the development of their prefrontal cortex. Role of the Prefrontal Cortex is involved in a wide variety of functions, including:

  • Impulse control
  • Focus and attention
  • Complex planning
  • Prioritization of competing and/or simultaneous external stimuli 

COGNITIVE BEHAVIOR THEORY

Is based on the premise that if we change our negative patterns of thought, over time, we will learn to think differently and this in turn will positively impact our overall mental health.  These new thought patterns will lead to a change in behavior.

Cognitive Behavior Theory is based on the concept that how we think impacts how we feel. The goal is to change the thinking, emotion, and behavior that is "behind" or underlying a person's issue and difficulties.

Using Cognitive Behavior Theory, we create new strategies that will develop new behavior on how to respond to an event, circumstances or a challenge. By changing behavior the person will be positively addressing their underlying issue. 

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EMOTIONAL REGULATION

Although the term emotion is frequently used in our daily life, it is not easily defined. Emotion regulation has been defined as “[…]the extrinsic and intrinsic processes responsible for monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions, especially their intensive and temporal features, to accomplish one’s goals.” 

A large and growing number of studies have investigated the association between the ability to regulate emotions and various aspects of mental health. The findings suggest two important points. First, the inability to effectively regulate emotions poses serious risks to a person’s mental health, and second, enhancing effective emotional regulation skills is a promising way of fostering or restoring mental health.

For example, when people suffer from depression, one of the most prevalent mental health problems of our time, they often report difficulties identifying their emotions. People suffering from anxiety display deficits in emotional clarity, a poorer understanding of emotions, greater negative reactivity to emotions, as well as less acceptance and less successful management of emotions.

THE ADOLESCENT BRAIN

The University of Rochester Medical School suggests that “the rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so."

In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala -- the emotional part of the brain.

In teen brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not necessarily at the same rate. That’s why when teens experience overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.”

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Adolescent brains' frontal lobe are less developed.
Our brain continues to change well into our twenties. 

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