Our Latest Blogs

Fight or Flight and the Human Limbic System: How to Manage Powerful Emotions

roaring lion

Emotions are incredibly powerful and can overwhelm you. This is especially true when you are younger. Neuroscience shows that the limbic system is at the core of this issue.

When you’ve lost someone important in your life, you can’t stop the sadness from taking over. Or when someone hurts your feelings, you may have an uncontrollable urge to lash out. Your emotions are very powerful. They can quickly take over your mind and body. It’s even harder to manage your emotions when you are a young adult.

Your emotions are processed in a different part of your brain from logic and reasoning. The brain’s limbic system is primarily responsible for your emotions, memories, and arousal, while reason and logic are processed in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Your brain’s emotional processing is so quick that it feels like you have no control over it.

Your emotions are built for survival

Scientific evidence shows why your emotions are so powerful, especially when you are younger. A study from Psychiatry Research found that neuroimaging from adolescents ages 12-17 indicate intense activation of the emotional regulation center of the brain.  This part of the brain is highly active in adolescents, which makes sense for understanding the stereotypical “hormone-driven teenager.”

Your emotional responses are built into the limbic system to ensure survival. It is a rapid processing system for determining if something new in the environment is a threat. When something is perceived as a threat, the limbic system instantly determines what actions need to be taken. This processing system is called the fight-or-flight (FOF) response.

The flight-or-fight response evokes our emotions. According to Dr. Paul Ekman, “emotions prepare us to deal with important events without having to think about them.” He says that these emotions are universal in all humans. The fundamental emotions are anger, contempt, disgust, enjoyment, fear, sadness, and surprise. These emotions are the primary feelings elicited when your body is quickly responding to new stimuli in the environment.

If you’ve ever been startled by a unwanted visitor in your house, such as an insect or furry pest, you’re entire body may have been hijacked by the FOF response. Fear and disgust took over your brain and body instantly, and you reacted just as quickly.

Your survival instinct can cause problems in modern society

This fight-or-flight response functions to help us quickly respond to threats to improve our chances of survival. For prehistoric humans living in the wild, dangerous predators and poisonous creatures would trigger a rapid response.  But the dangers of modern life are much different from what they were thousands of years ago.  We no longer face threats of wild animals but threats of losing social status and power. These threats trigger our emotions and cause our FOF response.

Another problem with FOF is that the two responses are independent. We can’t fight and run away at the same time. Because of this conflict, we sometimes are overwhelmed and can’t take any action. This inability to act is called a freeze response, and it’s this very conflict that causes us to have a debilitating fear of taking action in life.

Some primary response emotions are difficult to control once they start their spiral. That’s why it’s essential to manage your emotions quickly. The longer your emotions linger, the more they create momentum and become even more challenging to control.

Errors in emotional judgment

Difficulties in handling emotions often lead to errors in judgment. These errors often occur when we mask our emotions. When we are angry, we don’t want to express it in harmful ways, so we repress the natural urge to lash out violently or verbally. Over time it becomes a habit and develops into a social mask we put on whenever we feel angry. This social mask doesn’t help us learn about our emotions or how to deal with them.

Another error in judgment we make with our emotions is that we don’t address them in hopes that they will fade eventually. The common belief is that time heals all wounds. Although there is some merit to the view that pain fades with time, that doesn’t automatically mean we learn and grow. The emotional problems we encounter will always remain with us unless we get control over our emotional reactions.

Overcome your problems

So how does one overcome emotional shock? The easiest way to overcome the pain and paralyzing effects of negative emotions is to take control of the FOF response. One way to override the conflict is to realize that you will most likely survive the life decisions you make.

Most civilian life choices you make can be repaired or backtracked. Understanding that you will be okay even when life is difficult will strengthen you and make you more resilient. It also limits the negative effects your emotions can have on you because it provides comfort and peace of mind.


About the Author: Dr. Tank PharmD is a board-licensed professional medicine specialist, personal coach, YouTuber, and published author. He specializes in coaching high performers by providing tools to take back control from their emotions. You can find him at @drtankpharmd on social media.

Photo by Lemuel Butler on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

Recommended for You

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *