In May I had the chance to sit in on a class on the psychology of emotion. A big component of the class was on neuroscience and psychology. I was part of a group that did a presentation on the neural correlates of obsessive-compulsive disorder. (I wasn’t taking it for credit, so don’t expect me remember anything from that presentation!)
What I took away most from the class was that there are things going on on in your brain when you experience emotion or a mental disorder. Brainwave! This shouldn’t really be a surprise when you stop to think about it… But the science of it is fascinating (and this from a girl who’s never loved science).
So, the layman’s version — because I am still very much a layman in this area — is that when you are anxious about something or you get down or you just can’t stop thinking about that one thing, your brain is doing something different. It could be that one part is going into hyper-drive or another part is shutting down or mixed up messages are being sent between parts. But your brain chemistry is affecting the way you think and feel and experience the world.
The simple awareness of what’s going on in one’s brain chemistry in these moments can be quite freeing. And it’s not just because it explains what’s hapenning. It’s because when you know the physiology of what’s happening, it allows you to step away from the moment and think of it in a new way.
Let’s use ME as an example!
Shortly after coming home from that seminary class, forms came home from the kids’ school for “spring pictures” to be taken. We’ve never been at a school that does “spring pictures.” (Why would someone want to pay two times in a year for overpriced pictures of their children?!) We signed “no” and sent the forms back.
Then one morning I recall noticing Madeline’s outfit and saying, “Why are you wearing that play shirt to school?” And Madeline responded, as she always does to questions about clothing or her appearance, “Why does it matter?” And because I know that in the big picture what she wears (for almost all occasions) does not matter, I sent her off to school with her neon green sweatpants and the monkey shirt she wears for outside play (that I never, ever should’ve bought for her for $0.25 at the MCC thrift store).
After school that day the kids came home and said, “You know it was class picture day today, right?!”
No. I did not.
Silly me! I thought that since class pictures weren’t taken during the fall pictures that they didn’t take them and I’d been thinking about how I’d have to figure out a way to get a picture of the kids with their classmates sometime before the end of the year.
“Where were you sitting for the class picture?” I asked Madeline.
“In the front row,” she replied.
And that’s when I lost it.
Not on Madeline. But on… I don’t even know what! On the photographer who must’ve realized that the messy-haired girl in the NEON GREEN SWEATPANTS must have not known about picture day! “Put her in the back for Pete’s sake! What would the other parents think? Why didn’t I make her change her shirt? Or her pants? Changing one of them would’ve made a huge difference! Why did I ever by that shirt in the first place? Really?! ‘I got an A+ in talking’ was a shirt I thought worthy of one quarter?!”
Throughout all of this initial panic, I remember intermittently telling Madeline calmly and rationally that we will laugh about this someday. And, “Isn’t it funny that that picture perfectly captures who you were in grade five? A girl who loved green and didn’t care about doing her hair?” I knew it was special and that it didn’t matter in the long run. It didn’t even matter what the other parents thought.
I could not stop the panic and the regret in my brain.
And then I remembered my class.
And I told myself: Some part of my brain (if I’d read the textbook I might even be able to name that part!) is crazy overactive right now. I know all of my rational arguments are true, but they don’t feel true right now. I can’t calm down about this. But I can recognize that it’s my brain and not the truth. And so I left it at that.
There were a few more times where I expressed my panic and then my uber-rational 10 year old daughter reminded me of how the picture did not matter. And in time I settled down and was okay with it all — can even smile about it all. And I was glad I had that little tool of neuroscience in my belt to help me not completely blow my top.