Some thoughts on “This Emotional Life”


Caught part II of a 3 part, 6 hour, series on PBS last night. This Emotional Life, moderated by Dr. Dan Gilbert. I recommend you check out, at minimum their website but if you get a chance, tonight your local pbs station may air the 3rd part. The website includes lots of info about the various topics, individuals interviewed, and the whole first episode (which I have yet to watch). The series focuses on love and family relationships and attachment (#1), negative emotions such as anger, fear, and depression (#2), and happiness (#3).

Now, there are a number of irritations I have about the program but the good outweighs the bad. What don’t I like?  I don’t like the way they say, “Science says…” and then do not discriminate between data and interpretation of said data. I don’t like the repetitive evolutionary comments. For example, “the newer part of your brain can’t communicate with the older part” assumes that because we have a cerebral cortex and animals don’t have as well-developed cortexes, that part of our brain is “newer.” Further, the view of humanity in episode 2 seems to be that of the human physical robot. There is no space for the spiritual. One quote from the episode, “Mental illness is nothing less than a physical illness that has psychological consequences.” It is as if emotions are only chemical.

But these small problems can be easily forgiven. Here’s what I like from episode 2:

  • The honest admissions of struggles of celebrities (e.g., Katie Couric’s admission she has intrusive thoughts of jumping off high balconies, Chevy Chase’s admission of depression, etc.)
  • The gripping stories of struggler’s with anger, anxiety, and depression (especially two vet’s struggle with PTSD) and the significant impact of the struggles on the other family members
  • You really get a window into their interactions with their therapists. Lots of good video that is rare to see!
  • The scientific discoveries relating to the brain and the experiences of these negative emotions. For example:
    • Stress hormones seem to strengthen memory formation. Thus traumatic experiences likely etch bad memories much deeper than other memories.
    • Re-appraisal (neutral re-evaluation) of events where you experience negative emotions supports more control of these emotions whereas rumination causes us to be more reactive
    • Prolonged exposure therapy (telling, retelling and retelling again) for PTSD patients seems to have significant positive benefits (though it defies logic–most people want to get away from their bad memories)
    • Depressed individuals tend to have reduced hippocampus volume. Antidepressants and ECT seem not merely to change brain chemistry but actually increase cell growth. Depression actually seems to change the brain and antidepressant use stops hippocampus shrinkage

A couple of other interesting tidbits:

  • Emotion regulation: not trying to turn off emotion but tools to change the course of emotion
  • “Don’t believe everything you think.” But, we tend to nonetheless
  • Struggling with overwhelming anxiety? Accept that you have these feelings (crying, tension, fear), accept that they are physiological experiences, avoid labeling them as awful. You will have scary thoughts and you can live with them
  • “What is the worst thing that could happen right now?” I might cry. “And what if you do?” That would be bad. By accepting these emotions you can distance from the meaning you are applying to them.
  • There are biological indicators in those who are highly reactive to stress. These folks can’t help their reaction but they can recognize their tendencies and respond differently to them.
  • Untreated mental illness is harder to treat if left untreated for long periods of time.
  • Richard Lewis on the benefits of therapy and getting to talk about things he never talked about with anyone: “Maybe for the time I left her (his therapist) office til I got in my car I was floating on air”. Hmm, is that worth the 150 dollars he probably paid?

Finally, I leave you with this. Perceptions of progress, or lack thereof, have a huge impact on your perceptions of happiness. One young girl thought her ECT would help sooner than it did. When it did not, she crashed even worse. Even more than our physiology of emotions, our perceptions of our well-being and our progress often dictate our beliefs about ourselves and our futures.

If you saw it, what did you think?

3 Comments

Filed under anger, Anxiety, counseling, Psychiatric Medications, Psychology

3 responses to “Some thoughts on “This Emotional Life”

  1. Jon Harris

    I enjoyed it for myself as a counselor and appreciated my wife seeing into the world of emotions and counseling. As I might suspect, there was a strong slant from the “evolutionary psychology” school of thought! Hope I get to see the rest and may recommend to patients who could benefit from this as well.

  2. Jane Reuter

    I caught the first episode by accident and was hooked. Just finished watching Part 3. Fascinating and encouraging. As someone who has suffered from bipolar disorder and whose family members struggle with depression, the news about medication and ECT actually enhancing brain function was truly amazing and uplifting. These types of programs should go a long way toward tearing down the stereotypes surrounding medication and mental disorders. Tonight’s focus on happiness was uplifting as well. On cold winter nights like these, it’s nice to find there’s some quality TV to be had.

  3. Jeff McMullen

    Hi Phil,

    I was very drawn into the discussion about AA. Especially, the research tha has been done on those who remain sober are involved in community and become sobers themselves. Made me think about the nature of what the church should be and the power of being an agent of change in others lives also benefits my growth in the gospel.

    I found the discussion near the end of the show on how therapy often focuses on the negative aspects of a person’s psyche (ie depression, anxiety, dysfunction) and fixing that stuff, instead of relying on the strengths of the individual to be interesting too.

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