1. The Physiology of Emotions

    May 22, 2013


    by Kady Babs

    We often feel pressure in our bodies as a result of strong emotional experiences. When we are embarrassed we describe it as a “blush” and during intense anger we refer to a “pounding” in the temples. Most often people report a ‘knot” in the stomach when frightened, and when they nervous they experience “butterflies”. These are the simple extreme examples from the common man’s experiences. There are, of course, a number of physiological changes that take place during emotions.

    Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

    The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates the body’s internal environment and usually functioning without conscious control. It has two divisions, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. Both have broadly the opposite effects. The sympathetic division dominates during emergency or stress and promotes energy expenditure.

    The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) encourages the increase of blood sugar, heart heat and blood pressure required for sustained physical activity. But at the same time it inhibits the process of digestion. On the contrary the PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) dominates during relaxation and promotes energy conservation, it brings down the heartbeat rate and blood flow to the skeletal muscles also promoting digestion. Most of the physiological changes associated with strong emotion such as intense fear and anger are caused by activation of the parasympathetic division.

    Brain Structure and Emotion


    The ANS mainly triggers the physiological changes in emotions. The ANS is coordinated by the brain. The hypothalamus, in particular, and some areas of the limbic system are involved in a number of emotional reactions, such as anger, fear and aggression.

    In cases of exaggerated emotional behaviour in human beings, damage to certain limbic areas was found. Such damage can take place before, during or just after birth. It can arise from a variety of causes including diseases affecting brain. Drug abuse, trauma due to auto accident, athletic injuries or gunshot wounds also cause such damages. Charles Whitman of University of Texas was the man who killed his wife and mother one night. Next morning he climbed to top of campus tower with a powerful rifle with telescopic sight. From there he proceeded to fire at every thing that moved. After one and half hour when he was finally shot down by the police he had killed 38 people. Although he had received psychiatric treatment for the last many months, an autopsy revealed a malignant tumor on the amygdala, part of the limbic system.

    Psychologists believed that brain’s control over emotions was largely through hypothalamus and amygdala but recently it has become clear that cerebral cortex is initially involved as well. The most interesting discovery is that the cortex’s role in emotion is asymmetrical. That is the left side contributes more to positive feelings while the right side contributes more to the negative ones. Those who suffer extensive damage to the right cerebral hemisphere are often quite acid and dare free in mood. That means that euphoric emotions are greatly influenced by left brain activity. Injury to right brain may serve to dis-inhibit or let free.

    Image Credit: Natalie Jordan

  2. What Is A Phobia?

    February 16, 2013

    phobia anxiety

    Image credit: Matt & Nicole Cummings @Flickr

    A phobia is an irrational fear, an aversion, a hatred, or acute anxiety over something, or someone, an activity or a situation; which is a trigger that releases fear in that person. These fearful feelings can be generated by anything that normally does not pose a threat to life, they are usually a response to a mental image of a previous experience encountered, where an incident generated some anxiety and the mind was unable to rationalize the situation.
    At what point does a reasonable amount of anxiety and avoidance become a phobia? Increasing anxiety over apparently safe items indicates a phobia. If the level of anxiety is high and bears no relevance to the degree of danger involved, it is a phobia.
    Many people feel slightly apprehensive when boarding an aircraft, or facing a new situation, or meeting new people, but not to the point of being panic stricken, that avoidance is the only relief.
    The greater the anxiety, the stronger the desire is to avoid what is feared, and the greater the avoidance the more disruption is caused to the person’s life.

    False Beliefs About Phobias


    A phobia is not a serious mental illness, nor is it connected to any known physical illness. However painful and distressing your symptoms are, no matter how irrational and inexplicable your phobia and its effects may seem, no matter how dramatic and complete your loss of mental and/or physical control, these are not the first signs of insanity.
    The symptoms do not indicate a ‘nervous breakdown’. The modern view of phobias, which is accepted by the majority of specialists, is supported by a wealth of clinical and research evidence, Phobias are a result of an unfortunate but entirely normal process of learning.

    A Rare and Unique Illness

    Many phobics believe they are suffering from a rare illness, that is little known and nothing can be done, and this belief is endorsed when other people are seen to cope effortlessly with the same things that arouse a phobics’ fears. In fact phobias are very common, studies suggest one person in ten experiences such difficulties at least once in their life. Phobias have been studied for well over a hundred years and a great deal is known about them, effective treatments have been developed, mostly from the field of behavioural psychology.

    A Phobic is Weak-willed Or Stupid

    Sufferers often consider themselves ‘stupid’ or ‘weak’ because they are constantly told that by others. Non-sufferers can be irritable and impatient about the inability of a phobic to do something that most people tackle with ease. Having a phobia has nothing to do with a fault in your character, a weakness or a flaw in your personality. Some of the bravest people are those fighting to free themselves of their fears. People who tell you to ‘pull yourself together’, ‘stop being foolish’ speak with the voice of ignorance about fears and simply do not understand. The distress produced by a phobia can only be understood and appreciated by one who has experienced a phobia.

    Self control and positive thinking

    Telling yourself – or being told to exercise ‘self control’ is not the right kind of positive thinking and will not get rid of the fear. Saying ‘I am not going to feel afraid’ in a situation, without some preparation, is unrealistic positive thinking that will hinder your progress. Positive thinking has to be used in a constructive way and by using simple clear statements that :-

    •  Relate directly to any difficulties you anticipate.
    •  Are realistic about the likely outcome
    •  Must contain practical advice about how the situation can be tackled successfully.


    I know the situation will be difficult but I will be able to deal with it by concentrating on my breathing.
    The situation may make me feel tense but I shall be able to cope if I practice relaxing my muscles.
    Saying such positive statements and adding your own coping strategy will help :-

    •  I may find this difficult but I shall cope more easily if I remember to….
    •  The situation may be tricky to handle at times, but it will prove less difficult if I….
    •  I might find it slightly harder to cope, but I will keep my anxiety under control, if I study the surroundings in detail.
    •  Carrying out this task might make me nervous, but I will manage if I….