Managing Emotions: The Anatomy of a Moment

The Anatomy Of A Moment

Why understanding our emotions is important, and how it can help us to manage stress.

Dr. Rosemary Keane, Dr. Michael Keane

There was an attention grabbing Road Safety Authority advertisement on TV in the last year that opens with the onscreen title ‘The Anatomy of a Split Second’. It’s an impactful 50 second ad that sets up a tranquil scene of a family gathered for a barbeque. Images of sunshine, ice cream, playing children and smoke rising from the barbeque are evocative. You can almost smell it. A ‘split second’ moment for each character in the scene sets up a peaceful contrast for the shock and implied devastation of the split seconds before an accident and the final shot of a cracked mobile phone lying on the road. The message is clear, a split second of distraction is all it takes. It makes for an effective driver distraction safety campaign.

Why are our emotions important?

Along with the emotional potency of the ad, it also underlines the power of a single moment. Moment by moment we are being guided, whether we are aware of it or not, by shifting emotional states. Emotions are brief and largely automatic. They affect (and are affected by!) our bodies and brains. In every moment, a flood of sensory information is coming in and we generate a response.  This response includes physical sensations in the body, thoughts and judgements, and an urge to do something. Emotions plays a key role here - they help us organise what we pay attention to, bring up associations, images and memories and guide action. Emotions let us know what’s important and what’s not - and quickly!


"Emotions let us know what’s important and what’s not - and quickly!"

In a split second the driver of one of the cars in the ad spots a car coming towards him on the wrong side of the road. Instantly a host of changes are likely to happen in his body. These changes are triggered by signals from the brain to release hormones that have an effect on the entire body. Heart rate shoots up to prepare for action and get oxygen where it is needed, pupils dilate to take in more information, muscles tense in readiness for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, digestion pauses as blood is diverted to muscles and extremities and away from internal organs. In that moment, the behaviour of “get out of the way!” would have been very quick and automatic. Urgent action would have been made easier by these changes in the body and would hopefully have been lifesaving.

This is a good example of fear - a core basic emotion, and it is by its nature attention grabbing and visceral. But each emotion has its own ‘signature’ (body, brain, behaviour) and function. And thinking about emotions in this way can help to empower us in the moment.  Sadness lets us know we have lost something important and might drive us to withdraw from others to deal with this or seek comfort and support. Happiness signals that we are experiencing something we need or want and motivates us to keep doing what we’re doing.  Disgust lets us know there is something to avoid for our own safety and keeps us far away.


"Sadness lets us know we have lost something important and might drive us to withdraw from others to deal with this or seek comfort and support"


We have very little control over immediate emotional experience. In the face of events in the environment or in our own heads, , emotional responding occurs (actions stemming from emotional experience), and  this is helpful and healthy. The problem comes when emotional reactions are too strong, or misinform us about what’s happening, making our actions reactive. Disgust might suggest that broccoli is poisonous when (fortunately or unfortunately) it’s not. Or fear might imply a life or death situation when we are simply going into a meeting, which can make it difficult to engage fully with the meeting or may even lead to outright avoidance.


What’s Happening in the Brain?

The Limbic Brain: Much of the processing of emotion (both positive and negative) in the brain happens in the limbic system deep in the middle of the brain. This is a collection of structures including the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampal complex and cingulate cortex. This part of the brain is a reactive, fast, preconscious response system. It is designed to keep us safe and responsible for initiating that “fight or flight response”. Essentially it operates an early warning system with the motto – “no time to ask - better safe than sorry”.

The Neocortex: Limbic structures in the brain are connected to other brain areas which control behaviours we associate with “being human” - mostly located in the cortex. This is the outer layer of the brain visible when you look at the outside of the brain.  These parts of the brain are responsible for advanced capacities including language, abstract thought, imagination, logic, creativity and so on. The prefrontal cortex (behind your forehead) is especially relevant for sophisticated processing and regulation of emotional information from the limbic system. One key difference is that the Neocortex is much slower than the Limbic System.

The prefrontal cortex (in the neocortex) and limbic structures operate in a two-way feedback loop - both affecting each other. The prefrontal cortex can help to regulate what is happening in the limbic centre of the brain and calm emotional responses. On the other hand, information from the limbic brain can influence what is happening in the cortex and thus our higher cognitive functions (like attention, imagination etc.).  The tricky part is that the prefrontal cortex tends to be less effective at determining behaviour when emotions are high (remember, it’s slower). In these instances the limbic brain often takes over before we have a chance to consider what is happening. This means our instant reactions can be impulsive and may lack the nuance and complexity that they would have in other circumstances.


"The prefrontal cortex tends to be less effective at determining behaviour when emotions are high, so you need to buy yourself soME time"


How does this help? Five tips to offset reaction and empower responding

Next time you find yourself feeling “stressed” follow these steps and pay attention to the anatomy of that moment.

1. Take some slow breaths - in through the nose and slowly out through the mouth - bring calm to body and brain. This allows your executive function (Neocortex) the time to kick in again and help you manage the situation.

2. Develop curiosity, and ask yourself about all facets of all of your emotional experience (e.g. what does this emotion make me want to do?):

Components of an emotion:

  • Physiological (body) response
  • Facial and Body Expression
  • Behaviour/Action urge
  • Cognition - Thoughts/Attention/Memory/Images

3. Accept your emotional experience without judgement. Emotions are information, neither good nor bad, but responses to the world. Notice what’s happening with compassion and try not to judge it or yourself for this.

4. Name it to tame it – Simply naming the emotion you are feeling (as accurately you can) can recruit parts of the brain which help take the edge off (recruit the neocortex to quiet the limbic brain)

5. Practice positive pathways – we are primed to notice and focus on threat and get plenty of ‘practice’ of this. It takes work to build attention to positives. One way is write down three things you are grateful for each day.

Check out:


Emmons, R.a., McCullough, M.E. (2003) Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2):377-389.

Dahlitz, M. (2017). The Psychotherapist’s Essential Guide to the Brain. Dahlitz Media: USA

Herrerro, J.L., Khuvis, S., Yeagle, E., Cerf, M., & Mehta, A.D. (2018). Breathing above the brain stem: Volitional control and attentional modulation in humans. Journal of Neurophysiology.

Katharina Kircanski, Matthew D. Lieberman, and Michelle G. Craske. (2012) Feelings into words: Contributions of language to exposure therapy. Psychological Science, 23(10):1086-1091.

Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Molly J. Crockett, Sabrina M. Tom, Jennifer H. Pfeifer, and Baldwin M. Way. (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labelling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli. Psychological Science, 18(5):421-428.