The Neurobiology of Emotions: How Therapy Can Repattern Our Limbic System

By Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP


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Emotional and psychological pain — in fact all emotional learning — is held in our bodies, recorded on our vast, interrelated neural networks. This is why, when we’re scared, anxious, or angry, we have physical reactions like muscle tension, stomach churning, shortness of breath, head pounding, and aching backs. Both negative and positive emotions are corporal; we experience them in our bodies. Until we honestly confront and work through our deeper truths, our bodies will hold us responsible for what we can’t “remember.”

How emotion travels through the body
Until recently, emotions have been considered to be location-specific, associated with emotional centers in the brain such as the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. While these are emotional centers, other types of centers are strewn throughout our bodies. Emotions travel through our bodies and bind to small receptors on the outside of cells, which are much like tiny satellite dishes. High concentrations of almost every neuropeptide receptor exist in many locations throughout the body. Emotional information travels on neuropeptides and is able to bind to its receptor cells through the binding substance of ligands. The information is sorted through the differentiation of receptors. That is, certain information binds to certain receptors. So our emotions are constantly being processed by our bodies.

This clearly paints a dynamic picture of emotional development; not nature versus nurture, but nature and nurture. The brain and body are exquisitely intertwined systems that are constantly interacting with the environment. All five senses are connected to this system and field information that determines our unique response to anything from petting a soft rabbit to being slapped. In fact, the more senses involved in an experience, the more the brain remembers it, the deeper the imprint onto our emotional systems. Traumatic experiences create deep, long-lasting physical/emotional impressions that do not easily yield to insight alone or resolution in 10 therapy sessions, especially if they have been stored and built upon from childhood. Here’s why.

The role of the limbic system
Altering deep emotional patterns imprinted onto our limbic system is slow and painstaking work. The limbic system “sets the mind’s emotional tone, filters external events through internal states (creates emotional coloring), tags events as internally important, stores highly charged emotional memories, modulates motivation, controls appetite and sleep cycles, promotes bonding and directly processes the sense of smell and modulates libido,” according to Daniel Amen, MD, author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life. Moreover, our neural networks are not easily altered, says Thomas Lewis, MD, in A General Theory of Love. “Early emotional experiences knit long-lasting patterns into the very fabric of the brain’s neural networks,” Dr. Lewis explains. “Changing that matrix calls for a different kind of medicine all together.”

Our emotional life is physical; it imprints itself on our bodies. When we have problems in our deep limbic system, they can manifest in “moodiness, irritability, clinical depression, increased negative thinking, negative perceptions of events, decreased motivation, floods of negative emotion, appetite and sleep problems, decreased or increased sexual responsiveness, or social isolation,” says Dr. Amen. Our neural system carries with it our emotional sense memories from childhood. Familiar smells, sounds or places can send a cascade of memories flooding through us that either wraps us up in their warmth, or challenges us to maintain our composure. Along with the memories comes the cognitive sense we made of what happened at the time. That’s why when we go to the circus with our children we, too, can “feel like a kid again” — or when we get hurt by someone we love, we can also “feel like a kid again” — but this time, that may mean vulnerable and helpless. Our early emotional memories are being relived in each case. When the memories are wonderful, this is a great boon in life; our child selves color our current experience with innocence and gaiety. When the memories are painful, they can color our current experience in darker hues.

Impact of drugs and alcohol
When Dr. Amen shows his patients scans of their brain after using alcohol or drugs, they gasp to see the “holes” in their brains resulting from using cocaine or the “overall shriveled appearance.” Alcohol and drug abuse “is associated with cerebral blood flow abnormalities ... overall de-creased brain function ... reduced cerebral blood flow and cerebral metabolism, especially in the temporal regions of the brain. The main abnormality [from alcohol] was decreased activity across the whole cortex.” Our emotions are processed by a brain/body system of which the limbic system is a part. We need good cortical function to add and subtract, and to make sense of what we feel. Alcohol is well known as a physical depressant while drugs can be a stimulant, but they both interfere with our bodies and our limbic systems when used to excess.

People changing people
Psychotherapy, treatment, and twelve-step work are some ways of repatterning our limbic systems, and are most effective when combined with other healing relationships of all kinds. “Describing good relatedness to someone, no matter how precisely or how often, does not inscribe it into the neural networks that inspire love or other feelings,” says Dr. Lewis. “The limbic system is associated with our emotions and the neocortex is associated with critical thinking. Both are operative in processing emotions.” While the neocortex can collect facts quickly, the limbic brain does not. Physical mechanisms are what produce our experience of the world and we need new sets of physical impressions to change or alter those impressions. Our neural systems respond to reparative relationships, not only to insight. Healing requires time and new relationships in which we can experience ourselves in different ways and explore new patterns of behavior. This is why treatment, therapy, and healing networks such as twelve-step work play such a critical role in our healing. Through them we inscribe new neural patterning that helps us to reregulate our neural systems, thus improving mood, modulating emotion, and lightening our emotional tone. This is one of the ways the “terminally serious” adult child of an alcoholic slowly and steadily grows freer and less burdened and the low frustration tolerance of the addict gets reregulated.

The twelve-step process offers us a safe container in which to experience or re-experience emotions of pain, anger, and sadness without acting out on them. (“Don’t just do something, sit there!”) It also sets a goal of amends-making us part of the healing process. But forgiveness is a multifaceted operation. Are we making amends to those we’ve hurt, forgiving those who have hurt us, forgiving ourselves for our own hurtful actions, or all of the above?

The alchemy of forgiveness
The beauty of forgiveness is that in order to consider asking for forgiveness or forgiving ourselves, significant emotional work needs to be accomplished. It also sets a goal of returning to a positive way of thinking and feeling and reducing negative forecasts and the types of thinking and feeling that are hard on our bodies. In short, forgiveness is limbic-friendly. Feelings of anger, resentment, and sadness must be directly addressed in order for forgiveness to be genuine and useful to our recovery. There are two manifestations of forgiveness that I generally see clients struggle with. The first is rational: when our actions have directly hurt others or theirs have hurt us, and we need to forgive ourselves or them in order to move on in our lives. The second is irrational: on the one hand, we hold ourselves responsible for pain that others have caused us, and on the other, we feel guilty for pain we may have been a part of causing others even though we could do nothing to change the situation and did not intentionally cause pain. We may feel guilty, for example, for “getting out,” a form of the survival guilt that those who have found recovery often feel towards family members who are still mired in the disease of addiction. The beauty of the amends process is that it encourages us to work through feelings of pain and alienation toward a better psychological and emotional position — one that gives joy and inner peace a chance to grow and prosper in our inner world and our relationships.

Ways to help clients
So what does this mean for the everyday client, and how does this information impact the way we do treatment? As counselors, we can:

It appears that mammals need other mammals to limbically revise. “Keeping our soles in the room” evidently has a scientific advantage. Encourage clients to stay in therapy not only to gain insight but to undergo a slow and gradual re-regulation of their trauma wiring. Help them to understand that this is how they will go from being “black and white” responders to life to developing some shades of gray. This is how they will learn to tolerate intense emotions without being immediately triggered and acting out.

Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP, holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. She was a professor of Psychodrama at New York University for eight years and is currently director of Program Development at the Caron Foundation. She is a national speaker, media expert, and author of 12 books.

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This material is partly excerpted from The Magic of Forgiveness by Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP. For more information, log on to

This article is published in Counselor,The Magazine for Addiction Professionals, August 2003, v.4, n.4, pp. 64-66.


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