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 Award-winning business author and broadcaster

Leadership trainer and coach

Keynote speaker

  • Writer's pictureAudrey Tang

Why we need to look below the emotional "top line" and how to do it

I'm so angry...

I'm frustrated...

I’m tired…

We use these phrases a lot. They are easy for us to understand, they are easy for others to understand, AND in reality, they probably do explain the immediate “top line” of emotion we are experiencing.

The thing is if we stick only to the headlines, we miss what’s really going on.

The Reptilian Brain

To dial it back a little, the “reptilian brain” – or “Primal Brain” according to Paul MacLean’s “Triune Brain model” is the base of the brain’s organisational hierarchy. It is the first part that develops and is responsible for our primal instincts which are sometimes referred to as the “four F’s” Feeding, Flighting, Fleeing and…reproducing. As such it alerts us to action when those elements are threatened in some way. It is the seat of the “fight or flight” response.

The next part to develop is the Emotional Brain, and then the Rational Brain. The emotional brain makes sense of the instinctive feeling, but it is the rational brain that is able to contextualise and understand it…so while we may feel uncomfortable and emotionally we explain it as “I’m angry” – it might be that when we really think about it, we are feeling rejected, or frightened…but because the emotional brain offers a reasonable explanation we don’t look too much deeper…and who has time in our fast-paced life…or even the money for therapy or coaching.

The emotional wheel

Cowan and Keltner (2017) proposed that there are 27 distinct emotions – which doesn’t account for combinations of emotions, and this is best illustrated by the “Emotion Wheel” devised by Robert Plutchik. Plutchik proposed that there are 8 key emotions from which all the others derive, and in his wheel he grouped them into opposites:





In turn, these can be broken down, for example – joy may be feelings of serenity, or fulfilment, or if combined with trust it might be love…and so on.

The Emotional brain doesn’t always think this deeply when seeking to explain feelings, and the primal brain doesn’t have the capacity – it has moved to take action. As such, according to Plutchick, what can also happen is that when we are moved to action without “thought” – instinctively certain behaviour patterns are initiated eg:

If we feel “fear and terror” we instinctively seek to protect; Anger and rage can motivate us to destroy; or orientation is activated by “surprise”; and reproduction by “joy and pleasure”. However, whether it is in our best interested to follow through with such behaviours is tempered by context and a deeper cognitive understanding…which is helped by the rational brain.

How to engage the rational brain

Unfortunately we don’t always have time to think before action needs to be taken, and indeed our brain is set up to keep us alive so responding to our instincts may well be a sensible thing to do. HOWEVER, let us remember that we have evolved and our surroundings are completely different now to when our brain’s instincts were essential. Now, for example, reproducing just because we feel “joy and pleasure” in a moment may not be the most sensible thing to do because someone might simply be manipulating your feelings; and destruction in a state of anger and rage – although may be a way to express and release such big feelings, may result in destroying your own standing as well.

AND not only that, but if we simply dismiss "I'm tired" (for example) as I need more sleep, but actually you may " tired of people dumping on you; be tired of feeling unseen; be tired of not knowing where you stand in a relationship..." sleep really isn't going to make much difference!

In the first instance, what can help are methods to maintain headspace so in the throws of an emotion we can take a step back, allow our rational brain to explore courses of action depending on what we want to achieve, and then proceed for the most effective outcome. Already that took about 30 seconds to read and at a point of crisis, when do we have the time?

The answer is, we don’t we have to practice. And worse still, we’re not really taught. How often are children told “calm down” without really being given ways to do it.

So try to incorporate some of these techniques into your day, and you may find they give you a moment of pause when you need it most:

1. TIPP and other Dialectical Behaviour Therapy tools: From DBT, tools range from keeping an emotion diary to help you recognise if feelings of anxiety strike at a certain time or in certain situations – and in doing so, you may be able to work to avoid or address those situations. Or, an effective “in the moment” technique called TIPP engages with “Mindful meditation ‘lite’” – when you notice you are anxious:

T - change the Temperature (often we get hot when we are anxious, so opening a window or stepping outside for a moment, or splashing cold water on our face can help)

I – changing the Intensity of the situation (for example taking a break for a moment, or even – if appropriate – channelling the heightened state into sport such as running)

P – Paired Muscle relaxation

P – Paced breathing

These last two can be part of mindful meditative practice – where you tense and relax pairs of muscles working from your toes up or your eyes down; and pacing your breathing such as breathing in for 4, holding for 2 and our for 4 – I find it helps to be able to count the bricks on a wall or seconds on an analogue clock to just get you out of any negative automatic thought spiral.

2. The ABCDE technique: Using a technique from Rational Emotive Therapy can help here, I am going to suggest the Positive Psychology adaptation however – and that is the ABCDE technique for helping us understand our emotions:

a. A – identify the activating event – or trigger to an emotional surge

b. B – identify what beliefs or behaviours naturally follow from that

c. C – reflect on the consequences of those beliefs or behaviours, especially if they are unhelpful (For example, Will Smith is now under scrutiny for reasons other than a well deserved Oscars win)

d. D – dispute that believe, or find a Different behaviour you could apply

e. E (from positive psychology) – engage with Energizers that help you move forward with the different behaviour/belief identified in D. Energizers are ways in which we boost our positive emotions such as doing little things that make us feel good, or substituting an unhealthy reaction (such as comfort eating) for a healthier one (eg calling a friend or having a healthy snack)…they are what help us stay motivated to work through the reflective process.

3. Get comfortable with feeling emotions – knowing they are just that! From Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, try to see emotions as clouds passing the sky – YOU (like the sky) remain constant, they will pass – even if they get a little intense from time to time. Rather than seeking to push them away, sit with emotions for a while. Too often we focus on removing the unpleasant feeling, and sometimes distraction can work, but also being able to hold them momentarily (especially if the fear object is not present!) will often allow their intensity to dissipate as you also recognise that you are not in immediate danger, it’s just that the emotion has been triggered.

4. Learn to label your emotions – this is where you can begin to unpack the “topline” – and begin to recognise what you’re really feeling. Yes you may be “tired” but what of? If we only treat the headline, we may never get to the root. For younger children, it may be appropriate to help them express and understand their big feelings through colour – what does a red feeling feel like, what can we do about it…having that discussion and also talking about some of the things that make you feel better is a wonderful way to role model emotional expression and understanding that emotions are not “bad” they are simply like an indicator light – that there may be something that needs looking at…but you can use that technique just as well yourself!

5. Stop saying “I’m fine” – and start to be honest with yourself (at the very least) and (perhaps select) others as to how you are really feeling. If you’re feeling fabulous say so, if not, you might wish to confide in the person asking you if you have that sort of relationship, or you might offer a closed positive response eg “I’m not great, but I don’t want to discuss it right now/but I’m working on it”…this may lead to an opportunity to talk when it is more convenient for you, or simply close the conversation if it is with someone you don’t want to talk with. While I say we do need to talk – you have a choice over who with!! There is no shame in admitting you need support, and when you reach out, consider who would be the most effective person. AND as always, it is best to seek help before the point of crisis, or before it gets to the point where it is taken out of your hands because you are no longer able to cope and your body breaks physically or emotionally.

Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt

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