Emotions are shaped by the balance the body’s hormones and neurotransmitters (the chemicals which transfer messages around the brain and body) and play a large part in motivating and affecting our behaviours and decisions. Our basic human emotions can be roughly split into eight primary categories and these in turn can be divided into the survival emotions and the attachment emotions. Survival emotions, which include fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness, are associated with the release of the hormone cortisol. In contrast attachment emotions such as love, trust, joy and excitement are often the result of the release of the bonding hormones oxytocin.
Survival emotions are those basic instinctive feelings which historically existed purely to ensure physical survival. These emotions are associated with high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which prevent or slow down access to our brain’s executive functions, such as emotion regulation, retaining information and flexible and creative thinking. Cortisol can also lead us to reverting to unconscious biases and stereotypes about ourselves and others. Maintaining the brain’s physical health will help override these survival emotions by preventing chronic high levels of cortisol in the body.
At the other end of the spectrum, the attachment emotions, joy/excitement and love/trust correlate to the bonding hormone oxytocin. This is the hormone behind falling in love, making friends and the bond between parent and child. Humans are ultimately sociable creatures and oxytocin is what binds together a harmonious society – an absence of oxytocin will lead to mistrust and hostility between people.
The wiring in our brains is such that our survival emotions have a much stronger effect on the brain than the attachment emotions. All emotions are contagious so we need to work to engender attachment emotions in order to get the best out of our brains. Dealing with stress can help to lower cortisol and practicing mindfulness will also help you be more aware of your emotions and manage your thought processes.
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