Confusing an Emotional with a Physical Problem (or vice versa)

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Emotions are symptoms: they give you feedback on your internal state.  If they are positive (love, joy, peace, excitement) then they are telling you something is right in your life.  If they are negative (anger, fear, sadness, grief), then they are telling you that something is wrong in your life.

Most of us don’t analyze our positive emotions too much, because nothing needs to be done about them; they’re telling us to keep doing what we’re doing.  But our negative emotions, just like physical pain, are signals that something needs to change.

But what needs to change?  This is the hard part.  Negative emotions can stem from one of three broad categories: something wrong in your body, something wrong in your thinking, or something wrong in your circumstances.  This article will focus on the first of these three: how to recognize when a physical problem underlies an emotional response.

Basic Human Needs Influence Emotions

Most parents know how this goes.  Your two year old starts to throw a tantrum at 10 pm and you correctly interpret the tantrum as exhaustion, not anger.  He doesn’t understand the signals his body is sending him; he just knows something is wrong and he’s not happy about it, and he’s gonna wail his little head off until you make it better.

Kids (usually) grow out of this – as we get older, we recognize that when we’re exhausted or hungry or in pain, we tend to get short and irritable.  Recognizing that this is the issue often diminishes the emotional response, and leads us to solve the problem.

Every so often I see a patient who complains of irritability when it turns out he is just chronically sleep deprived, staying up late to solve business problems and waking at 3 am to ruminate over the same.  These patients often do quite well with a few simple sleep hygiene techniques, and perhaps an appropriate homeopathic remedy.

Hormones Influence Emotions

One patient in particular tells me she becomes an emotional wreck the week before her period, but it’s manageable for her because she knows what the problem is.  She can talk back to the tormenting thoughts that assault her, and remind herself, “No, that’s not true.  That’s just my hormones talking.”

Labeling the source of the problem often diffuses the corresponding emotion, so notice your patterns.  Did your moods change sharply with pregnancy, childbirth, perimenopause, or at certain times in your cycle?  Keep a calendar if you have to, and write down in graphical format how you feel on each day, and superimpose the days of your cycle.  If you notice your moods are correlated with your cycle, a) that will diffuse a great deal of the power of those negative thoughts, and b) if that’s the case, you should get your hormones balanced!  For most women, it’s not that hard to do.

Neurotransmitters Influence Emotions

Emotional eating is all about this.  Very often, for instance, if your serotonin is low you might think you are hungry for carbohydrates, when in reality, you’re just feeling depressed and instinctively craving those foods that will boost your “happy” neurotransmitters.  (Side note: whole grains are a much better choice for this than processed carbs, because the latter lead to a blood sugar crash that will leave you feeling worse than before.)

You can tell the difference between emotional and physical hunger if you pay attention.  Emotional hunger tends to strike all at once, while physical hunger comes on gradually.  Emotional hunger also tends to crave specific foods (usually sugar, salt, or white carbohydrates) while physical hunger thinks most food categories sound pretty good.  For more on comfort eating, see here.

Over- or Under-active Areas in the Brain

This is where it gets more confusing – I’ll go into more detail in a future article.  Certain areas of the brain can be overactive due to external circumstances (something sad happened to you so you feel sad and your limbic system is therefore hyperactive), toxic thinking (you’re stuck in a negative thought loop and so your cingulate gyrus is hyperactive), or physiologic predisposition (perhaps you sustained a head injury to your temporal lobes and you’ve had anger problems ever since).  Or even more confusing, it can be a combination of all three!  If you’ve narrowed it down to this, you might consider enlisting the help of a mental health professional to help you unravel the source of the problem.

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