{ask gem} now is not then

Every minute there are millions of neuronal patterns flashing.

Whenever we’re exposed to something – a laughing child, a gentle breeze, the scent of the ocean, seeing the face of a lover, hearing the opinions of another – neurons fire.

Once they’ve fired in a particular sequence and the experience is over, the neurons start to chill, but the remnants of the neural activity hang out. Next time there’s a similar experience, the memories trigger the old pattern.

Imagine a line of dominos toppling. Only the first few need outside action, and then the rest follow. Same thing happens with your neurons.

Neurons that have fired together once become connected to each other. These are called neural networks. {I call them maps.} Neurons that have established a network are more likely to fire together than neurons that don’t have these connections.

When it comes to neural networks, the present experience can become blurred by past memories, and the past memories can become blurred by the present experience.

What does all this mean?

If you had many moments of emotional pain during your childhood and you experience a similar emotion in your adulthood, you’ll experience an intense emotional reaction followed by an outbreak of unpleasant thoughts and negative expectations.

Take a child who was physically abused, for example. If this person is bumped into, they’ll have a much bigger emotional response {usually anger or fear} than someone who was never abused.

When we experience an emotion, it brings to life all the memories that are connected to that feeling. Rather than feeling just the present emotion, the experience can be super intense because your neurons are bringing up past memories.

We can see this neurological phenomenon happening when we ask people to recall memories. A joyful person remembers more happy moments, whereas a depressed person remembers more sad memories.

Here’s the kicker: It’s not because the joyful person actually has more happy memories or the depressed person has more bad memories.

If an emotion is powerful enough, it can block out competing neural networks so that the content is super hard to access. As a result, for a depressed person it’s almost as though the moments of peace, joy, and happiness didn’t ever exist.

Another side effect of this neuronal system is that once a negative feeling is experienced, it can spiral.

Healthy emotions should start to diminish within minutes of whatever set them off. If you’re stuck in a past emotional network, you can spiral into the depths of emotional pain for days.

A spiral might look like this :: A minor argument with your husband leads to thoughts like, “He never listens to me, he doesn’t want to be with me, I’m not lovable, there’s something wrong with me, we’re going to get a divorce, and I’ll never find love again.”

For people who have these emotional sensitivities, it can be easy to retreat from life to build up walls and to avoid intimacy and vulnerability. For these sensitive souls, deeply meaningful relationships can be especially scary. In the back of their minds the thought lingers, “He’s going to say or do something to hurt my feelings, and I’ll feel broken for weeks.” People who don’t have this sensitivity will be upset about something for half an hour and move on, which makes deeply connected, meaningful relationships much more do-able.

What’s the solution?

If you’re feeling an intense emotion that is not matching the intensity of whatever set it off, then make an effort to doubt your mind and to question the story it is telling you. Try to see only what is really there. Remind yourself that now is not then.

Your brain is determined to deliver an inaccurate world to you—which can be a very good thing sometimes—but if you find yourself getting caught up in an emotional spiral, or confusing now with then, searching for the inaccuracies that your mind is presenting may be the greatest gift you can give yourself.

xo,