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Understanding Extreme Emotions

02 August 2019 15:14

Why is it that emotions can be so much more extreme in some people than in others? Authors of An Introduction to Coping with Extreme Emotions, Lee Brosan and Amanda Spong, explain how a combination of biological sensitivity to emotion and our childhood learning about emotions contribute to how keenly we feel emotions.


Biological sensitivity

To think about this, let’s go back to the time of early men and women, managing to survive in an environment full of hostile groups and dangerous animals. All of these need to be avoided or overcome when our group is trying to find food, shelter, and time to relax and bond with each other. Now imagine that everyone in the group is extremely relaxed. When there’s a rustle in the undergrowth everyone says, ‘No need to worry, it’s just the wind.’ Then the lions come out of the undergrowth and eat half the tribe. 

So that won’t do. To survive, the group needs members who are highly reactive, sensitive to danger and prepared to think the worst. When there’s a rustle in the undergrowth the group needs people who react and yell ‘Danger!’ and get everyone to panic and move away. Once the group has moved somewhere else, then the calm people have a chance to say, ‘It’s OK, we’re safe now,’ and settle everyone down. So the group needs both kinds of people, and a lot in the middle, too, to keep the balance. We can’t all be calm and laid back. 

What this means is that within our human population there is a lot of difference in reactivity, because that’s what’s kept us alive. Biological reactivity, or sensitivity, became coded in our nervous system and passed on in our genes. People with extreme emotions are in some ways like the very reactive individuals in our example – much more likely to become highly aroused at triggers, to react as if there is danger, and to take a long time to settle. 

So one reason why some people find it harder than others to accept their emotions is simply that their emotions are much more extreme. All the physiological aspects of emotion get fired off very quickly, are very extreme, and don’t wear off immediately. A small trigger can produce severe reactions for such a person, whereas for someone else they might just create a low level of emotional arousal. 


What we learn about emotions in childhood 

The second reason that some people experience extreme emotions is to do with what we learn about emotions when we are young. If children have been brought up in an environment where they’ve been comforted if they are upset, and where adults help them to understand their feelings, then they are much more likely to be able to tolerate the emotions they later experience. On the other hand, if a child is punished for being upset, or ignored, or told to go away or ‘stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about’, then obviously their experience of emotions is much more frightening. This means that when those children grow up they have learned that emotions are something to be scared of. They can’t accept the emotions, and can’t tolerate having them. 

It seems to be this combination of biological sensitivity, and an early environment that punished and invalidated emotional experience, that is so crucially important in the development of emotional disorders. 

Of course, we should say here that not everyone who experiences extreme emotions finds them a problem. There are people who can tolerate very strong feelings, almost value them. They might like the physical sensations of emotion, and maybe think that it means they are more alive. It seems that it’s what we’ve learned about how we feel that really makes the difference, just as much as what we actually feel.


Personality disorder and the emotion brain

If you have a personality disorder, it is likely that you will have experienced an early environment that made it hard for you to cope with emotions, and it’s also quite likely that you are biologically more sensitive to emotion. As a result, your old emotion brain is triggered more easily, and takes longer to return to a state that enables your thinking brain to come back on line. This means that you may react more easily to triggers, perhaps in a more extreme way, and take longer to calm down again. You will therefore need to work harder and more consciously on developing strategies to help you compensate for this and minimise the damage that may ensue either for yourself or for your relationships.