Caregiver Skills - Emotion Basics (2 of 6)

By Elizabeth Easton
This video explains the basics of emotions as mental states and defines a caregiver’s emotional support goals.

Dr. Easton’s six-part presentation is designed for families to learn about their role in recovery and the skills to become recovery coaches. If you have every wondered “what can I do to help my loved one recover?” this is the video training series for you. The skills taught here apply to “caregivers” meaning anyone who is providing care to a patient in treatment, no matter the age of the patient or the age of the caregiver. Learn how to harness your caregiver power.


Elizabeth Easton:
Welcome everyone to Emotion-Focused Family Therapy: Emotion Basics. I'm Elizabeth Easton. I am the national director of psychotherapy. I am here today to talk to you a little bit about the importance of emotions so that you understand what your loved one within our care is going through, as well as what you may be going through during this time. So first let's start with: What are emotions? What's the purpose of them? So first, emotions have body cues; they have a body felt sense. When you feel anxiety or anger or sadness, there's usually a place within your body that you feel it. And there's even very common places in bodies where everyone may feel certain emotions. And that's this graphic here on the right. It also connects you to a need. So for instance, with sadness, the need may be comfort, connection, a hug.

With anger, the need may be to set boundaries, to reinforce the boundaries, to make what's important to you known. Our motions serve a vital purpose. They first and foremost signal us that something is going on, that there's something important to pay attention to. They aid in our survival. They let us know that not only do we need to pay attention to what's occurring for us, but we need to also respond in a certain way in order to be safe and comfortable. They can also serve in an alarm system. So for instance, if you're about to cross the street, you look both ways. The reason you do that is because of emotions, you experience fear of getting hit by a car, of something occurring as you walk across the street that may be unpredictable. So what do you do? As you approach the street, you look right and you look left. Actually, I think the rule is left, right, left. And the reason you do that is to ensure that you're safe as you cross the street.

Well, sometimes what occurs for people is that emotions can create false alarm systems. So we have the typical worry that may occur when you're going to do something challenging. And then in addition to that, you have this additional worry, these irrational worries that make you think, feel, and even do things that aren't as typical or aren't as needed for the situation. And that's where things like mental illnesses come into play. The emotions that are natural are there and then they're amplified in this false alarm system way. So let's understand a little bit more about what happens when the alarm system goes off for all of us. So first let's talk about the downstairs brain. So this is the work of Daniel Siegel. He's written some wonderful books about the neuroanatomy and neuropsychiatry, basically how the brain works when emotions are felt and as the brain is developing. The downstairs brain, as he refers to it, is an area of the brain that is first developed.

It is our alarm system. It's very primitive, it's very reactive. And it's very simple in certain ways. So this area includes areas that you may have heard about before, the limbic region or the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for fight, flight and freeze, for instance. When we think something could be going wrong, our brain responds, it sends out a signal and lets us know that something's happening. So the downstairs brain is responsible for very basic functions like blinking, breathing. It's responsible for really innate reactions or impulses and is responsible for strong emotions like anger and fear. So whenever you're in those emotions, whenever those things are occurring, that's the downstairs brain. And then there's the upstairs brain. The upstairs brain is also thought of as the prefrontal cortex. This is the last area of the brain to develop. It's actually not fully developed until around the age of 25 or 26.

It's more evolved. It's more sophisticated. It is responsible for higher order thinking, analytical thinking. It's responsible for decision-making, thinking, imagining, planning, and it's responsible for empathy and self-reflection. We could all wish that we were in the upstairs part of the brain all day, but the facts are we're not. Certain emotions, certain situations can knock us downstairs. And this is really what happens with people with mental illnesses. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, these illnesses can knock them downstairs quicker and actually keep them downstairs longer. So what's our goal? Our goal is to connect these two parts of the brain to ensure that there's a staircase and even help build the staircase between the downstairs brain and the upstairs brain. In more neurological terms, we need to connect the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex so that they're working together. We can experience a big emotion and then the front of our brain, the prefrontal cortex or upstairs part of our brain can analyze it, can help you figure out what to do with it.

So this is our goal. So what we're going to teach you in these series of videos, it's the ways to connect these two parts of the brain; what skills you can use to ultimately act as a temporary co-regulator for your loved one with a mental illness. When they're stuck in downstairs brain, when they're laying on the floor in the basement, they don't even know that there are stairs there to climb, you're able to walk downstairs, connect with them and help build the staircase back up. So I hope these videos are helpful for you and I hope you're able to learn some skills to support your loved one in this way. Thank you for joining us.

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