Physical and Emotional “pain”—The same to the brain.

About a year ago, a column (Ask the Doctors) appeared in my local newspaper written by two medical doctors in which these doctors discussed a study conducted by Naomi Eisenberger, Ph.D. at UCLA. Dr. Eisenberger discovered that the same parts of the brain which react to physical pain also react to emotional pain.

The two doctors concluded from a psycho-evolutionary perspective that “physical pain alerts us to injury (and) emotional pain warns us that we may be drifting too far from our fellow humans.  Both types of pain put us at grave risk (and) we need to take emotional pain just as seriously as we do physical pain. (Emphasis added.)”

I found this article fascinating as it is highly consistent with the Emotions as Tools Model I have written about in this blog and my two Amazon bestselling books.

Pain is a messenger that alerts us to a situation that needs our attention and prepares us to take specific action.

Examples of physical pain include:

You touch the hot handle on a pan, you feel pain, and you remove your hand.

You pick up an object, your back says “ouch”, and you stay away from lifting anything for a while.

If you don’t have pain sensors which give you this kind of feedback, you can find yourself in serious trouble.  I know of a person who was born with no nerves in his legs.  While this is not usually an issue for him as he gets around in his wheel chair, is an athlete, and is “normal” in every way, when he was a young man, some hot grease fell on his legs, he did not know it, and he sustained some nasty burns.

Emotions, in this context, are the same as the pain sensors in your body. And, it is the reason that you want to welcome your emotions eventhough they may sometimes may be experienced as painful or seem to force you to do things you later regret.

By the way, your emotions never force you to do anything.  All your behavior comes from the decisions you make.

The primary emotions (mad, sad, fear, and disgust) evolved as primitive threat detectors.  (The other two primary emotions of glad and surprise have different functions.)

The primitive emotional threat detectors work just like the security detectors (smoke, carbon monoxide, glass break, motion, etc) in your house which constantly scan your surroundings and when they detect a specific threat, they send out an alarm and give you the opportunity to take corrective action.

Each emotion looks for a specific threat.

  • Mad (anger) reacts to a threat you believe you can eliminate by throwing enough force at it and prepares you for battle.
  • Sad reacts to loss and prepares you to retreat and heal.
  • Fear detects a threat that will kill you and motivates you to escape.
  • Disgust detects a distasteful or nauseating situation and leads you to avoid the noxious stimuli.

But, unlike your home detectors, whose only function is to alert you so that you can take action to avoid a potentially life threatening situation, your emotions both alert you to a possible threat and prepare your body to take action.

It is through your body that you become aware of your emotions and the information they are communicating to you about how you perceive your surroundings.

If you get to know your body, you learn to distinguish the pain you need to listen to and heed immediately and the pain you can ignore and work through.

One example those of you who work out in the gym will be able to relate to is the “pain” you feel when you exercise. Your muscles “hurt” but you know the difference between muscle burn and muscle strain.

Burn is good, strain is not.

Years ago, I did something to my back and I was out of work for about 6 months.  I went to my physician, tried OTC pain meds, massage, acupuncture and chiropractic.  I was “confined” to the couch, nothing seemed to work and nothing could be found that was wrong.

When I came across a book suggesting that back pain  could be psychological, I decided the pain was “in my head”.  I then chose to master my pain.  This involved walking, mild exercise, and working through the pain.  The pain eventually went away and has never returned.

Now, I am not a physician and I am not saying you should do as I did.  This was my pain and my “intervention” worked for me. My point is that I learned that this particular pain, while it did hurt, could be ignored.

When it comes to your emotions, people do not know how to interpret, or adequately deal with their “pain”.  They tend to assume that the emotion controls them, and to give in to the emotion by taking an action they later regret.

They do not understand that they can master their emotions and use them as tools to improve their lives.

The Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC), a copy of which you can download by scrolling up to the Welcome Post above and which is specific to anger , presents a model that clearly shows you how to deal with all emotions.

Notice that once you identify (label) the message of the emotion (anger in this case),  you manage the emotion and S.T.O.P. the process.  This involves stopping the reaction (taking a breath),  taking a step back, observing, and practicing emotional intelligence. You then begin to master the emotion by assessing what is going on and choosing a response.

You begin to demystify and master your emotions when you think of them in the same way you think of physical pain. That your brain already does this is a bonus.

An analogy…

There is an electronic perimeter around the US which is constantly monitored.  If a plane, a missile or a flock of geese cross that perimeter, we know about it because an “Alert” is sounded. This alert is a message that must then assessed so that any needed action can be taken.

Do we scramble the jets, arm the nukes, or decide it’s a false alarm?

Pain sensors as messengers…

The pain sensors in your body are tools which give you information you have to assess and evaluate.  The pain message says “danger”.  You have to decide how you want to respond.

Emotions as messengers…

It is the same with your emotions.  They may signal danger or a misunderstanding.

  • In the case of anger, you have to decide  if you will seek more information, go to battle, or just ignore the “false alarm”.
  • In the case of fear, you need to escape and later think about what you can learn.
  • In the case of sadness, you need to find some time to recluse, recover and rebound.
  • In the case of disgust, you need to avoid and protect.

When asked, some people might say that they would like to get rid of their emotions because they are messy, do not feel good, and seem to cause bad behavior.  Yes, they can be messy and not feel good.  No, they do not cause behavior.

If you were to ask someone with chronic pain if they wished there was no such thing as pain, they might, understandably, want to eliminate pain.

But, physical pain and emotional pain protect us.  The goal is knowing how to interpret pain and how to master it.

I welcome your comments.


Using metaphor: Ready, Aim, Fire or Ready, Fire, Aim?

Do you know someone who gets angry, does something others view as inappropriate and, later upon reflection, realizes the inappropriateness of their actions and attempts to deny, justify, avoid, or apologize for their actions?

The following post may help you (and maybe them) get a better understanding of what is going on.

Ready, Aim, Fire

As a boy scout, learning to fire a weapon (rifle, bow and arrow, cannon), I remember the commands to prepare the weapon to be used (and myself to use it), take aim on the target, and (when authorized), fire the weapon.

This progression from preparing to execute a response (ready), to focusing your attention on the task at hand (aim), and, finally,taking effective action (fire) makes sense intuitively.

In other contexts such as project management, the same progression might involve brainstorming (ready), goal setting or gathering resources (aim), and starting a project (fire).

Okay, I think you get the idea.

Ready, Fire, Aim

But, what if a person got an idea (ready) and jumped right in to the implementation phase (fire)?

If the result turned out badly, we wouldn’t be surprised.  The failure to focus one’s attention on all the issues (aim) before rather than after the fact would lead to unwanted results.

We would describe the above process as– Ready, Fire, Aim.

For people who believe that their anger controls them and who tend to take action too quickly when they experience anger , this is exactly what they are doing. Their regret and subsequent reflection come later  when they experience unwanted consequences from their behavior.

In other words…

Ready: the subconscious reaction to a situation which is initially perceived as a threat.

Fire: a disproprotionate angry response.

Aim: the consideration, after the fact, that one’s behavior was not proportionate to the perceived threat.

Those who react in this way to a perceived threat are often described by others as “having an anger problem”.

While, as I have noted in previous posts, that there is no such thing as an “anger problem”, revisiting the Anger Mastery Cycle should be helpful in teaching someone a more adaptive way to interact with their anger.

Ready, Aim, Fire and Anger Mastery

Ready:  This is the subconscious reaction to a situation which is initially perceived as a threat.  We are on alert status.

The Anger Mastery Cycle (a free copy of which is downloadable above) notes that we subconsciously scan for, and react to, perceived threats (injustices, our values being ignored or challenged, our beliefs being infringed upon or our boundaries being violated, our security at risk being put at risk, etc).  This scanning is both hard-wired and ancient and prepares us to go into battle.

Aim: The mastery process of assessing and validating the situation to determine whether the initial perception was accurate.

When we master our anger, we S.T.O.P the process from moving to a response from our reaction.

S.T.O. P. stands for stopping or pausing the anger, taking a physical and psychological step back from the perceived threat, observing what is happening and practicing emotional intelligence.

Fire:  The expression of anger proportionate to meet the perceived threat.

Using “ready, aim, fire” as a metaphor

If you have ever attempted to “explain” anger to a person whose anger is perceived by them as more powerful than they and as controlling them, you have discovered that it is difficult to get their attention.

Metaphors tend to cut through defenses because they approach an uncomfortable subject indirectly.

The effectiveness of a metaphor stems from…

  1. You are talking about firing a weapon or planning a project and how ready, fire, aim  is not productive.  You are not talking about “managing anger”.
  2. The person knows that the actions they have taken while angry have elicited unwanted consequenses.
  3. You are putting their actions (and anger) in a different context than others who have tried to address this issue.
  4. You are implying that they can learn a different approach (ready, aim, fire).

Once you have their attention and they are interested in what you have to say, you may be able to address their anger directly.

Please note that this post is intended only to raise some issues and is in no way comprehensive.

If you have additional questions about using metaphors to deal with “touchy” subjects or about anger, please leave a comment or email me.

TheEmotionsDoctor at


The 3M approach to feelings. Part 2

In my last post, I introduced you to the 3M approach to feelings and discussed the first M: Management.  In this post, I will talk about the second and third M and conclude with how you can apply the 3M approach to the emotions of another person.

The second  M ==> Mindfulness

When you are mindful, you are present in, and aware of, the moment.

While we experience an emotion in the moment, our  perceptions of the situation we are facing may be impacted by extraneous information. As these perceptions elicit our feelings, “irrelevant” information can lead to misunderstandings and misperceptions.

This irrelevant information can involve:

  • any experiences we have had in the past which are similar to, but not the same as, our current situation,
  • our tendency to project ourselves into some unwanted future, or
  • our tendency to overreact for a number of reasons.

When we talk about our “buttons” being pushed or “jumping to conclusions”,  we are referring to these three sources of misinformaiton.

Examples include:

  • getting anxious (a future based emotion) because we didn’t do well in a previous interview and we react “as if” our next interview will turn out the same way
  • getting angry (a present based emotion) because we misinterpret the actions of another as mistreatment without getting all the facts
  • becoming jealous because our spouse seems to be giving attention to someone else without really understanding what is going on

Mindfulness says that you should stay in the moment and fully understand what is actually taking place before you “interpret”, “judge”, “draw conclusions about”, or take action concerning the perceived threat your feelings are telling you exists.

When you are mindful, you ask questions about what is going on, you gain the information you need to decide what actions you will take, and you reserve to yourself the option of choosing what you will do.

The third M ==> Mastery

The anger mastery cycle, which applies to all emotions including anger, can be downloaded from this website and involves the third M or Mastery of the feeling.  Mastering an emotion picks up where Managing one’s emotion ends.  Once you have lowered your arousal, you can remain mindful, or in the moment, and assess or validate the threat you perceive exists.

The process of assessment involves:

  • gathering information about what is happening by asking questions,
  • learning about the process and intent of the other person with whom you are interacting,  and
  • evaluating your own perceptions.

Assessment sets you up to make a decision about how valid your emotion is and how you want to respond to what is happening.

If the perceived threat is genuine, mastering your emotion dictates that you use all the energy the emotion provides to develop and execute a plan to eliminate the threat.

If the perceived threat is not genuine but is due to a misperception of what is happening, mastering the emotion dictates that you change the thoughts which are giving rise to the feeling and, by so doing, change the feeling or let the feeling diminish and go away by ignoring it.

The same three M’s can also be applied when you are dealing with someone else who is directing their emotions at you. The process involves lowering your own arousal (managing) so that you don’t react and escalate the interaction, (This can also result in the other person “powering down” somewhat.), remaining mindful so that you gather information about how the other person perceives you as a threat (mindfulness), and mastering their emotions by assessing how they see what is going on and responding to their perceptions (if they are open to this) by acknowledging or validating their emotion, apologizing (if appropriate), and suggesting a resolution.

I have a whole chapter on dealing with someone who is angry with you in my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

I have covered the entire 3M process and I welcome your comments.



The 3M approach to feelings. Part 1

In previous posts, I have talked about the Emotions as Tools Model which

  • takes all the mystery out of the topic of feelings  (Remember that the words emotion and feeling are interchangeable.),
  • reminds you that you can learn how to use your feelings to improve your life and your relationships in the same way that you learn to use your computer or TV remote (gain knowledge about the tool and practice), and
  • ultimately, gives you back control of your life.

I introduced the Emotions as Tools Model in my first book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings.  If you haven’t already done so, you can download the first chapter of my book for free with no opt-in by scrolling up to the top of this page in the Welcome entry.

I also addressed using anger as a tool in last week’s post.

In this post, i would like to give you a quick way to remember and implement the Emotions as Tools Model: The 3M approach to feelings.

As you continue to learn more about the message of each emotion, how your body informs you about a feeling by the way you experience each feeling in your body (your physical correlates), and the thoughts which both inform you about how you perceive your surroundings and which elicit each emotion, you can break the emotional process into three steps, each of which begins with the letter M.  The three steps involve Management, Mindfulness and Mastery.

The 3M approach works both for your own feelings and when you are interacting with the emotions of another person directed at you.

The ultimate goal is to master your emotion so that you can strategically apply it to any situation in which you find yourself.

I will talk about the first M in this post and the second and third M next week.

The first M ==> Management

The emotional cycle is always working and begins with the process by which we all unconsciously and continuously scan our surroundings for any threat. This process is hard-wired in our brains and is a primordial survival mechanism that allowed us to survive as a species when we lived in caves.  Once a threat is perceived, the Amygdala (emotional center in the brain) sends a fast track message to the Thalamus to prepare the body to fight, flee, or freeze (the fight or flight response).  At the same time, a slower message goes to the cerebral cortex (the executive part of the brain) which allows us to make a decision about the threat.

We become aware of an emotion in one (or both) of two ways.

One the one hand, we need to learn to identify how our bodies react emotionally.  In my books, I call this one’s physical correlates.  Secondly, we should learn to identify the thoughts which accompany and elicit each emotion.

As soon as you become aware of an emotion, you should begin to manage that emotion. The process of managing one’s emotion involves lowering your arousal level.

There are at least two reasons you want to do this.

The first is so that you can take a physical step back from the “threat”. This is the establishment of physical space.

The second reason is to give you some psychological distance between you and the “threat”. This psychological space gives you the opportunity to respond rather than react to the threat.

The Amygdala “assumes” that all perceived threats are genuine and will kill us. While this was true when we lived in caves or roamed the Savannah, it isn’t necessarily true now.  Indeed, being stuck in rush hour traffic or being given the “one-finger salute” may be exasperating but is not fatal.  While we have evolved as a species, the Amygdala has (at least in this aspect) not evolved. The Amygdala just reacts and prepares our bodies to take action.  Our bodies being prepared for action is experienced as heightened arousal, muscle tension, and other physical correlates.

When you are energized and ready for action, you are more likely to react to the perceived threat.  While this may be okay if the threat is genuine, if there is no threat, you may do something you might later regret. Lowering your arousal reduces the likelihood that you will react.

There are a variety of ways you can lower your arousal.  You can take a deep breath. You can learn relaxation techniques.  You can remind yourself to slow down.  Taking a physical step backwards can act as a reminder to “take a breath”.

While the process of managing an emotion applies to all of the “threat detector” emotions, the field of “anger management” specifically has tended to focus on the process of management as a desired end result. Because I believe that one can go beyond managing one’s anger to mastering one’s anger (the third M), I tend to take issue with many anger management approaches.  I talk about this in my second book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool.

Once you have lowered your arousal, you can continue the process of emotional mastery by assessing the nature of the threat.  In order to do this you must be “mindful”.  Mindfulness is the second M.

I welcome your comments.