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I am constantly approached
by people who are willing to go
to any extreme for personal safety...
except practicing emotional self-control
                  Marc MacYoung

Emotional Tsunamis

On This Page:
Emotions, Faster Than The Speed Of Thinking | MRIs and Monkey Brain | Assumptions Precede Emotions | The Monkey Brain Swings Into Action| Imagination | Emotions Are Motivational Messages | Emotions are Contagious | Escalation of Commitment | Fear Management vs. Danger Management*

Before we talk about emotions, we strongly suggest you take a trip to the Monkey Brain brain page. The information there will assist you in understanding HOW your brain works.

More importantly, it shows how emotions are NOT 'logical thinking.' Or, in many cases, accurate representations of what is actually occurring in a situation. Putting that in simple terms.
  1) When you're being emotional, you aren't being logical
  2) You have fallen into primitive, 'scripted' behaviors
  3) You don't control these behaviors, they control you
  4) Just because you feel something doesn't mean it's true

And yet, with most people, the emotional tidal wave is what is going to be guiding their thoughts and actions. They're going to react to their feelings, NOT to the circumstances.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it can get your head blown off. Usually though what it does is makes matters worse.

Emotions, Faster Than The Speed Of Thinking
Have you ever reacted negatively to something someone said only to discover later that WASN'T what the person meant? How often was that discovery made after it had escalated into a disagreement?

What set you off wasn't reality. It was your interpretation of reality, (what you though the person meant). It was not what was really going on. But which one did you react to?

We're going to take that one step deeper. Emotions happen faster than you can consciously think. As do judgments based on pre-existing paradigms, assumptions and beliefs. Judgments that create emotions; emotions that steer your actions. By the time you become aware of your thoughts and emotions, you've already said or done something that has put you deep into the conflict cycle.

Basically, your conscious thoughts and emotions are like the tip of an iceberg. You are only aware of a small segment of what is actually there. AND, by the time you become aware of them, you're already well down that road.

For a more indepth look at how this wiring of our brains drives conflict, visit Of particular import for people who have been abused, victimized and have PTSD, visit the Groomed To Lose page.

The Conflict Communication site addresses all kinds of conflict. The No Nonsense is more focused on situations that escalate into physical violence. This is why we have an emotions page in a self-defense Website. Emotions are not rational nor are they always appropriate. And yet, this knowledge isn't going to stop many people from reacting to their 'internal movies' and emotional tsunamis.

The problem with this is when it comes to violence, self-defense and crime avoidance your fears can become a reality. More over, wild and unchecked emotions can -- and will -- get you killed in certain circumstances.

This is not hyperbole or scare tactics. The hundreds of thousands homicides world-wide every year prove that someone losing emotional control in the wrong circumstances is a fatal strategy -- especially because most murders are committed by a person in the same emotionally out-of-control state! There are times to be emotional and there are times -- if you want to survive -- not to be.

Don't make the mistake in believing we're talking about everyone needs to become a Stoic -- robots sans emotions. (That BTW is an emotional response disguised as a 'thought.').That's not what we're saying at all. Emotions are an evolutionary trait that allow us as humans to survive and thrive. So saying 'don't have them' goes against biology, evolution, physiology and psychology. It's not going to happen.

What we are talking about is circumstances. The best analogy is imagine you are standing on a concrete floor and you toss a lit match onto the ground. What happens?

Nothing. Well except the match burns itself out.

Now imagine that you are standing on the same concrete and throw a lit match down; except this time there's a quarter inch of gasoline covering the floor. Odds are you aren't going to get out of that one alive. And even if you do, you're going to be physically mauled.

Emotions are like that lit match. There are times when you can safely toss them around and there are times that it's a REALLY bad idea.

The trick is to recognize those times.

There are times where you can be emotional, and there are times when you really need not to let your emotions control your words and actions. Extending the gas and match analogy: Violent people tend to be like the gasoline you're standing in and your wild and unchecked emotions will serve as the burning match.

It doesn't matter what you 'thought' (and we use that term loosely) you were doing. Often fear manifests itself as bluster, anger or threat display. If you don't recognize the circumstances, you can end up like the NY actress Nicole duFresne. Her last words -- while looking down the barrel of mugger's pistol -- were "What are you going to do? Shoot us?" (1)"

So in starting this page out we're going to look at some of the physiological and evolutionary elements of our brains that create emotions. Below the imagination section there are three topics unique to this page. These are VERY important for you to take into consideration about your emotions and how they affect your behaviors.

If you look to your right, you will see many of the books that we draw our information from and will allow you to research deeper into the subject. We especially recommend Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence and Peyton Quinn's Freedom From Fear.

From the Monkey Brain Page

Levels of Your Brain Every night you go to bed with a human, a monkey and a lizard. No we're not saying that you are kinky, nor are we insulting your significant other. What we are talking about are analogies of the different levels of your brain.

Although not exactly accurate, a useful rule of thumb goes: Neo-cortex = human brain Limbic system = monkey brain Cerebellum = lizard brain

The Neo-cortex controls rational thought, speaking and other higher brain functions. The limbic system controls emotions and a whole lot more. The Cerebellum controls movement and action. Technically speaking the monkey and the lizard don't think -- at least not in the sense of rational and logical thought.

But that doesn't stop us from believing that we are being reasonable when they are 'driving the car.' The neo-cortex seldom totally abandons us, which is why even someone who is exceedingly drunk can still talk. But that doesn't mean we are functioning in that part of our brain.

MRIs and Monkey Brain Dr Drew Westen of Emory University (author of "The Political Brain") ran an interesting experiment where he took individuals who identified themselves as either liberal or conservative and put them into an MRI machine focused on their brains. Westen then proceeded to ask them political questions.

Interestingly enough, in both groups the part of the brain showed activity was NOT the rational, but rather the emotional parts (limbic system). What is of equal interest is while these groups were diametrically opposed in political views, they both exhibited the same behavior patterns. For example they were extremely condemning of the opposition candidate for wrong doing and equally overly-forgiving when their candidate did the exact same thing. (In neither case did the punishment fit the crime).

Despite the researchers looking at the physical proof that these people were being emotional, not logical, the participants ALL swore that they were being logical and reasonable in their 'thinking.' (News release).

This study has incredible implications because it show how often someone's 'thinking' is emotional, not logical. And if we think we're being rational when we are operating in our limbic system, then how do we know we AREN'T following primate conflict behavior when we're emotional as well.

Assumptions Precede Emotions
Here is where we run into a "Which came first, the chicken or the egg" problem. While the monkey brain doesn't exactly 'think,' it does process emotionally. Where it starts getting complicated is in a generalized way 'thoughts precede emotions.' But not necessarily in 'the more I think about it the madder I get' sense (although that is part of it too).

A huge factor is 'how you think in the long term' directs your emotional responses.

We're not talking about a single thought here (e.g. the cat knocked the glass over). What we're talking about is a person's long established thought patterns (his or her core beliefs if you will) determine the direction of your emotions.

Imagine your emotions like water. These long term 'thinking patterns' channel your emotions (and thoughts) down certain pathways -- without you consciously knowing it. Like rain running off a roof and down a drain spout, you only become aware of it when it comes gushing out.

Have you ever had an emotion faster than conscious thought? Sure you have. Someone says something and you're immediately angry. Then you have a moment to think about it and you calm down when you realize that the person didn't mean what you thought he said. That is an example of emotional processing being guided down certain pathways and you consciously stopping the process.

Often however, people DON'T stop the process, they just react as if their feelings reflect actuality, but as though their emotions are conscious and rational. (Have you ever told someone to be reasonable and they hysterically scream "I AM BEING REASONABLE!"?)

Now to further muck things up, there is another complication. That is: How does what you think physically rewire your brain? The 'channels' in your thought (your established way of thinking) actually physically alters your brain. In the same way that arroyos in the desert can be carved by running water, and in doing so force water to run down these pathways, there is evidence that you can wire yourself so you HAVE to think a certain way. Like a flash flood in the desert, whether you want them to or not, your thoughts and emotions will be dragged down these pathways.

Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence talks about 'emotional hijackings where this process drags people away from rational thought. But the simple fact is, most people don't mind going down these path because they think they are right.

The Monkey Brain Swings Into Action
Let's use something we've already said to show you how this works. We said "the cat knocked over the glass." That painted an 'image' in the mind. Did you have an emotional response?


First off it is a fictitious event. However, it is based on an experience many people have.

Second, the statement itself was neutral. But, did YOU personalize it? Was it your drink you imagined being knocked over? Was it your property being damaged? Was it your cat -- that you care about? In which case your anger is tempered with your fondness of the cat. Was it a cat you don't like, in which your anger was increased. Or was it your neighbor's cat, in her house, her property being damaged and her drink -- so you really have no emotional investment at all?

Or, and this is common for people who don't have a cat, did you remain uninvolved emotionally knowing it was a hypothetical example?

We used this example to make an important point. That is we want you to realize is how closely linked your emotions are to your imagination.

Imagination As An Evolutionary Survival Trait
It is not uncommon in Western societies to try to suppress and down play the the imagination. Children are told to come out of their imaginations and focus on the 'real world.'

We find that rather ironic, in light of what we are about to say.

There is a theory in evolutionary psychology that 'imagination' is a more functional and versatile mechanism than 'instincts.' In short, it is imagination, not instincts that has allowed human beings to migrate to, adapt and survive to every continent and environment on this planet.

There is a crab that lives on the west coast of Italy. These crabs lay eggs on the beach and when they hatch the young crabs unerringly find their way to the ocean. For years scientists tried to figure this mechanism out. How do young crabs know to find the ocean? How do they know which direction to go? In an experiment a batch of eggs were taken to the east coast of Italy and allowed to hatch.

The hatchlings proceeded to try to march over the Italian peninsula.

The crabs weren't heading towards the water, their instincts forced to march west. Which, as long as the species stayed on the west coast, this was a functional instinct. You could take the crabs to west coasts in the same temperate climate anywhere in the world and the odds are good the colony would survive. But they'd die on the east coast. That is an example of instincts. It is the the ingrained compelling of an organism to perform certain actions to function in specific environments.

Imagination however, is another survival mechanism. Let's say your ancestors come from a seasonal cold weather environment. Someone way back when figured out that this white cold stuff comes every year and when it does food is scarce. On the other hand, right now everything is green and there's lots of food. It was imagination, not instincts, that started the ball rolling to gathering and storing food for winter. The rational brain may have come up with the strategy, but the imagination was what told us there was a need -- at a time when there wasn't(2).

We used the cold weather survival analogy to show you how powerful a survival mechanism imagination is over instincts. If your ancestors were not from a cold weather environment, then the coping strategies they came up with in a different climate are entirely different. A strategy that was equally successful for meeting the challenges there. But again, based on imagining needs at a time when they weren't pressing.

Although the exact location of daydreaming is unknown (different parts all light up), some experts say where it happens is part of the limbic system. For the ease of explanation let's say that imagination is closely linked with your monkey brain.

We say this especially in light of how many times our emotions are linked to what we imagine. If you see your child playing with matches inside the house and near drapes, your emotional reaction is over what MIGHT happen instead of what is actually happening.

Contrast this with your actions if the drapes are already on fire. When imagination has become reality, your lizard brain kicks in.

Emotions Are Motivational Messages
Like imagination, emotions serve a very important evolutionary and survival function. We use this example to show how emotions serve as motivators.

Pretend you are a caveman or woman out on the savannah of Africa All of a sudden, a leopard pops out of the brush and says "I'm here for lunch!" Are you going to respond "Oh I say, a leopard. Let's finish our tea, stroll over to the tree and climb it"?

Or are you going to go: AAAAAAHHHHHHHH! and run up the tree as fast as you can?

Three guesses as to which strategy would result in you living long enough to breed?

Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence talks about the neurological 'back alley' in your brain discovered by Joseph LeDoux. It is a direct link to your amygdala (in your limbic system) that bypasses your rational brain.

This neurological pathway allows us to react emotionally faster than rational thought. Once stimuli is received that the amygdala has assigned 'known danger' status to an automatic response is triggered. In the grossest simplification, you react with what 'worked' last time.

Notice we didn't say 'worked best.' Nor did we say 'the most comfortable' or 'least painful' strategy. We especially didn't say 'the most rational and logical response.' And we certainly didn't say 'the most effective response.' What we said is: What worked the last time.

Unfortunately, 'worked' is somewhat of a subjective term.

Let's go back to that leopard showing up for some tender vitals. Your emotional reaction is to get up that tree -- FAST! And you will find yourself running towards a tree again without even thinking about it. The monkey/lizard brain kicks in and you are off and running.

But here's the fly in the ointment. While that strategy may have worked the last three times Spotz showed up, if you aren't close enough to get to that tree in time, you're going to end up on the menu. That's because in these circumstances it was the wrong strategy. You're immediate and emotional reaction is to run to the tree, but it's too far away. This time dropping to the ground and letting the leopard go after other 'happy meals on legs' would have worked better.

An interesting point here is that the brain CAN be physically rewired to include these options. The understanding of the 'elasticity' of the brain has replaced the older neurological model that our brains, once programmed are fixed. This knowledge has had massive effects on the treatment and understanding of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The reason we tell you this is the fact that you're sitting here reading this means that for millions of years your ancestors managed to 'make it up the tree.' They passed on to you a successful evolutionary trait that allowed them to survive lions, tigers, bears and invading Huns. Those are some mighty big guns evolutionarily speaking.

Oh BTW, realize that although we speak in terms of aggressive danger, for millions of years life could be lost in thousands of ways. Fires, floods, plagues, famine, weather, accidents and even simple illness, without the modern technology and medicine we have today, were killers. Simple survival in those conditions was a constant struggle(2).

In these modern days you're not likely to encounter a hungry leopard. However, those big gun survival mechanisms that got your ancestors through millions of years of danger STILL exist within you.

But we want to ask you to consider this: What are they aimed at today? What are the threats that these amazing survival traits that kept your ancestors alive for millions of years perceiving as danger now?

The answer -- for most people living in civilized parts of the worlds -- is protecting your emotions.

For very few people -- even those in what the West calls 'poverty' -- are in a daily struggle for survival. Society, while it might not do it in the manner that you'd like it to, takes care of you. When was the last time you single- handedly fought a fire or flood? Built a shelter to survive a blizzard? Staved off starvation? Fought off a leopard?

Now contrast this with: When was the last time you had hurt feelings? Or even more accurately, got in an argument over those same hurt feelings?

But tell the truth, were you fighting for your life, or did your emotions just tell you that you were?

This is why it is important to realize that your emotions are both evolutionary big guns AND motivational messages. When you feel emotions, you also feel the imperative to act upon the message you are receiving. Your monkey brain is not only telling you there is a danger, but odds are it is also telling you what is the appropriate response.

But is it really?

Emotions Are Contagious
We'd like to take you back to the savannah of Africa. There you are and one of your caveman troop comes bursting out of the bushes in a flat-out run and in wide-eyed terror.

Since you are back living in a time of lions, tigers, bears and hungry leopards what are you going to do? Are you going to (again in a fake English accent) say "Oh I say, old George appears to be in a bit of a tizzy, eh what?"


You have two options. Most people are going to try to pass ol' George in the race to the tree. They're not going to ask "What are we running from" until you both are sitting in the tree. Assuming whatever George was running from doesn't grab him or anyone else.

The other reaction still involves running. This group is going to grab spears and run towards the bushes(3). But, like the people running the other way, they're going to do it, without stopping to consult with George as to what he's running from.

This is only one example of the many ways that emotions are 'contagious.' If you have a hard time believing this all you have to do is watch birds or herd animal react when a danger call is heard or danger signals are displayed. An entire flock of birds will take off in near unison. And ALL of them will be in an excited state.

We react to the emotions of others This another primate evolutionary strategy. (There's a reason we recommend the book The Ape in the Corner Office). For good or bad, the emotions of other people around you are going to affect you. That's just the way we're wired.

However, this is a two way street, YOUR emotions are going to affect others too.

We started this page out by telling you in certain circumstances letting your emotions run unchecked is like flipping a lit match onto a gasoline covered floor. Realize that: Physically violent people also tend to be the most emotionally driven.

Where do you think the term 'criminals have poor impulse control' comes from? The problem is that people who use violence to achieve their ends tend to be be extremely emotional. (For the record, we REALLY recommend you follow the violence link. The word doesn't mean what you think it means). We're not just talking criminals here, we're talking any kind of violent people too. They often let their monkey brains drive the bus.

As such -- and we really want you to think about the implications of this -- they are the very prone to be infected by the emotions of others.

That means your emotions (especially anger and fear) can trigger them to higher levels of misbehaving. This is especially true if you engage threat display actions that provoke an attack. When you are feeling threatened your emotions usually take over. When that happens, it is VERY easy to cross the line from assertive to aggressive.

Putting that in simple terms, your freak out often causes him to freak out.

Upon hearing this, many people (especially ones who like to give themselves permission to react emotionally) will respond along the lines of "Well I have the right to be emotional." In fact, given the circumstances it really does make sense.

We would like to point out several points.
1) We're not saying you can't be emotional in ANY circumstances
2) The violent person actually has LESS emotional self-control than you
3) And a gun (or at least the means to commit violence)
4) Such people usually use extreme emotions to overcome their inhibitions about using violence.

Given these points, do you REALLY want to infect a violent person with YOUR escalating emotions?

Stop and realize we have just given you the basic formula for most conflicts. Whether they be disagreements, arguments or outright fights. An overwhelming majority of altercations are two people infecting each other and reacting emotionally. It doesn't matter who first infects the other person, once the spiral is started it's hard to break.

A good analogy is this spiral is like being in the same house with someone who has a cold. They infect you, then you re-infect them, they re-infect you. Until your immune systems kick in this pattern can go on for weeks. Now take that idea and treat it like an accordion. This pattern can be compressed to a matter of minutes. Or it can span out over years (as in a ongoing family feud).

In time the original issue can be lost and protecting/avenging your emotions can take over as the goal.

Fear Management vs. Danger Management
The reason the quote at the top of the page is so important is many people who are stressing over their personal safety ... well, they're not in that much actual danger. What is driving them is out of control emotions and imagination. (And it's usually it's about everything BUT self-defense.) If you're afraid of being attacked, you might want to take a look at Fear vs. Danger Management, before you start paying someone big bucks to teach you how to defend yourself.

Return to top

1) Another brilliant example of emotionally driven 'last words' is when someone in an argument looks at the threat display of someone waving a pistol around and says 'You don't have the guts.' While sitting there calmly this might seem like the height of stupidity, in an emotional and angry argument where your monkey brain is driving the bus and you are fixated on 'winning' it is VERY easy to consider the presence of a deadly weapon as just another chip in an escalating bidding/bluffing spiral. Escalation of commitment is a common term for this kind of myopic -- and destructive -- emotional spiral. Return to Text

2) A hobby of Marc's is to look at the reasons for religious prohibitions. Originally it started out as finding the biological reasons behind Halal, Kosher and Lent. And there are GOOD reasons. Let's take Lent for example. In a world without refrigeration, modern food preservation techniques or long distance trucking most of the foods on the prohibited list would have begun to turn rotten by that time of year. This brings new meaning to the term expiration date. As in if you eat those foods past then, YOU will expire. So will everyone else. Mardi Gras is the big blow out to consume the remaining stores of all of those things before they turn toxic. The original scope of research was widened when it was discovered that there are many different layers to the subject. A fascinating read on the subject is Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches by Marvin Harris (right). Why don't Hindus eat beef? Why don't Jews and Muslims eat pork? These are some VERY real long-term survival oriented strategies from a world where everyone's life is on the line. But they were phrased in the context of religion -- which in a largely illiterate and unscientific world was the most reliable way to convey this information. Take for example Deuteronomy 23:12-14. It tells you to have your latrine outside of your camp and bury your excrement. (These passages are often edited out of Bibles published after 1990). With modern biology and toxicology we recognize having your outhouse inside the camp creates septic conditions. Back then they didn't, but they knew people died if you broke this survival discipline. So they basically phased it as "Do this or God will get you." Return to Text

3) While blindly charging at an unknown danger sounds like suicide, realize it too is a long-term, species survival strategy. Men are bigger, stronger and faster they can outrun women. Women can outrun children... leaving these people behind to be eaten is not a good way for the species to survive. So a young charging male (which incidentally is the most genetically expendable element) begins to make sense -- especially if enough of them survive to pass on those traits to the next generation. Return to Text


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