Emotions and faith

August 21st, 2015

“What is going on inside their head?”

In the opening scene of the movie “Inside Out,” the above question is asked. And who hasn’t wondered what is going on inside someone else’s head, or even their own? Pixar released their 15th animated feature film this summer on June 19, receiving widespread praise from movie critics as well as psychologists since the movie deals with how our brains process information and emotions. Because of its appeal to both adults and children, “Inside Out” became the highest-grossing opening for an original, nonsequel movie. It was expected to earn $60 million on its opening weekend but instead made $91 million. Even though it’s advertised as a family movie, almost all of the people who recommended the movie to me were adults without children of their own, and the college-age adults in my life were the ones who seemed to enjoy it the most.

The main character in the film is Riley, an 11-year-old girl who lives in Minneapolis, loves to play hockey, and is a happy child. In the movie, we get to see inside her mind, referred to as Headquarters, and we meet the personified emotions who control her mind: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. Joy’s goal is to keep Riley happy, but when her family suddenly moves to San Francisco, Riley’s adjustment doesn’t go well, and other emotions take over. “Inside Out” manages to take incredibly complex psychological topics and turn them into an engaging story that helps us understand how our brains work. The film tackles the concepts of emotions, memory, imaginary friends, thought processes, dreams and abstract thinking with creative visuals, imagination and humor.

The movie also helps us better understand how certain emotions interact, particularly joy and sadness. A spoiler alert — but a critical lesson in the film — is the appropriate way to embrace sadness, as it helps Riley understand the changes she’s going through, setting the stage for her to develop a new identity. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Ekman praise the movie for shedding light on how emotions organize, rather than disrupt, rational thinking and social lives. In a recent New York Times blog, Keltner and Ekman write, “The truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Neuroplasticity: Managing our emotions

It’s true we are emotional beings, but we do have some control over our emotions and can use tools to increase joy and overall well-being while letting other emotions arise as appropriate. Neuroplasticity is the scientific concept that shows our brains are not static but rather change throughout our lives in response to our lifestyle, physiology and environment. Our brains have the ability to reorganize pathways and create new connections, and we can intentionally aid this process when it comes to emotions.

In a recent Huffington Post blog, Dr. Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and leading expert on the study of emotions, offers tips for understanding and managing each of the emotions highlighted in Inside Out. He cites the capacity to experience joy as crucial to well-being and that learning to savor positive moments can increase our joy. People with depression can experience joy, but it’s short-lived and fleeting. People who have the capacity to activate the brain regions associated with joy for sustained periods of time report higher levels of well-being and lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Davidson states that reflecting on “innate basic goodness” can increase positive interactions and enables us to respond to others in a way that furthers their well-being and ours. In other words, take time to pay attention to the beauty around you and the goodness in others.

Davidson explains that the emotions of fear, disgust and anger all have in common the amygdala and its role in recovery. The amygdala is the structure in our brain associated with “fight-or-flight” and signals the rest of the body when something is wrong. For example, seeing a snake can initiate the fear response, or smelling rotting food can initiate the disgust response. In context, these emotional responses are healthy. But when they linger beyond the point of usefulness (when no threat or disgusting element is present), they can be harmful. Davidson advises that “mindfulness meditation” can help appropriately regulate these emotions, as it helps reduce worry over things that haven’t happened and speeds up recovery after negative events have happened.

Anger, while also an appropriate response to certain situations, can pose the greatest danger if left in charge of our brains. According to research, anger is biologically toxic and can increase the risk for health problems such as a heart attack. Anger often occurs when our goals are thwarted, and Davidson suggests harnessing that energy to work around the obstacle rather than being frustrated by it.

Sadness is also a contextually appropriate response, but if it controls our brains unnecessarily, it can lead to depression. Surprisingly, Davidson suggests the best antidote to sadness is generosity. Helping others in their own suffering helps us realize we’re not the only ones with problems and moves us beyond ourselves. According to research, generosity activates circuits in the brain associated with joy. Other suggestions by health experts for increasing brain plasticity include mental and physical exercises, healthy diets, and certain nutritional supplements such as Vitamin D.

Neuroplasticity in Scripture

As I was writing the previous section, I realized how often Scripture treats our emotions with kindness and helps us grow into better human beings. A number of Bible verses and stories started popping into my head that can help us retrain our thinking and emotions. On learning to sustain joyful experiences, Philippians 4:8 (NIV) encourages us, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable— if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus reminds Martha, who is distracted by tasks and duties, to act more like Mary. Jesus gently acknowledges Martha’s emotions (“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things”) and then encourages her just to sit and listen (“One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her”).

While others view the lepers, blind people and sinners with disgust, Christ consistently reframes this view with love and compassion by healing, even physically touching, those least among us. And while Scripture understands our propensity to fear things not based in reality, we are given numerous words of comfort, including, “Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear” (Matthew 6:25), and “Throw all your anxiety onto him, because he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).

In Matthew 21:12-13, Jesus displays contextually appropriate anger by pushing over the tables of those who were buying and selling in the Temple, channeling his anger into an important lesson: “It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.” In James 1:19-20, we’re taught why anger can be harmful: “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.”

And Scripture is peppered with stories of those who were generous in the midst of sad or difficult circumstances. Jesus praises the widow who gives two small copper coins worth a penny. While others give out of their wealth, “she from her hopeless poverty has given everything she had, even what she needed to live on” (Mark 12:41-44). Proverbs 11:24 states, “Those who give generously receive more, but those who are stingy with what is appropriate will grow needy.” The Bible confirms a universal spiritual truism that in times of scarcity, we should give more, not less. Science confirms these acts lead to more joy — and a more Christlike life.

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