brain chemistry

All our emotions are indicators of our body’s chemical balance. Finding ways of being in control of that balance puts us more in charge of our emotions.

All Behaviour is Organic

In a recent conversation, a Head Teacher told me that the pupil we were discussing was due to be seen by a paediatrician, to assess whether the child’s behaviour had an organic explanation. I asked her what she meant by this and she said that she wanted to see if the child had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ASC (Autistic Spectrum Condition).

It was not the time to argue that ALL BEHAVIOUR IS ORGANIC.

Total Behaviour

What do I mean by this? Choice Theory (Glasser, 1998) states that all we do is behave, and all behaviour is “Total Behaviour”, that is, at any one time, our behaviour consists of our actions (movements, verbal and non-verbal language, facial expressions, gestures); feelings (emotions, mood); thoughts (self-talk, expectations, imagery, memories); and physiology (respiratory and limbic system, muscle and organic responses).

Physiological Psychology

As a Psychology undergraduate I attended weekly lectures entitled The Biological Basis of Behaviour. The aim of this course was to advance our understanding of the behaviour of living things, to answer the question, “What makes this organism – the human being – behave the way it does?” Despite the fact that research in the intervening 30 years has expanded our understanding, most notably through DMRI (Dynamic Magnetic Resonance Imaging), the information contained in my course text, Peter Milner’s Physiological Psychology,  still bears witness to my claim that ALL BEHAVIOUR and ALL EMOTIONS HAVE AN ORGANIC CORRELATE.

I am amazed that people find this something to ponder over. Do they really believe that there is an “Anger Fairy” or Cupid figure flying around in our psyche causing our emotions? No, there is a hormone triggering off our emotional response.

Joseph Le Doux in his book, The Emotional Brain, puts this link between physiology and emotion very succinctly: he views emotions as “biological functions of the nervous system”. Le Doux is one of the world’s leading researchers into the brain processes involved in emotions and his book is a good start for anyone interested in this field.

Practical Physiology

For the purposes of improving wellbeing , this is what we need to know:

  • Chemical changes are initiated when we perceive that our basic needs (both physical and psychological) are “out of balance”, be this the need for sleep, water, love or self-worth.
  • Those chemical changes trigger an emotion which communicates to us that we need to do something to return us to our preferred state.
  • The more we understand the effect our thoughts and actions have on our body chemistry, the more we can be in control of it.

You don’t have to be a research junkie to know that it is by taking control of the acting and thinking parts of our Total Behaviour that we are able to change our feelings and physiology.


It is now known that focusing on “being grateful” behaviour leads people to feel happy, full and complete. Research shows that “gratitude behaviour” leads to one of those positive emotions that helps to enhance the body’s immune system. “Gratitude behaviours” can release endorphins in to the blood stream. Endorphins work as natural pain killers, that stimulate the blood vessels and relax the heart (by stimulating dilation of the blood vessels) and make you feel content.


On the other hand, negative behaviours such as complaining, criticising and being angry, dump high levels of the toxic adrenaline into the bloodstream. Adrenaline constricts blood vessels, raises blood pressure and can lead to damage of arteries. It also reduces the number and slows down the movement of white blood cells which fight disease.

Generate your own chemistry

You can generate an emotion simply by going through the appropriate muscle movements. For example, if you clench your fist and scowl, you will begin to feel anger. Force yourself to laugh and you will begin to feel good. The specific muscle action is an integral part of the corresponding emotion. You cannot hold your features in the expression of one emotion and call up the feeling of a different emotion at the same time. It is impossible to do.

Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus at the University of California at San Francisco, is a pioneer in the study of emotions and facial expressions. His research on more than 200 kinds of smiles demonstrated that you could actually alter your emotional state and immune system by smiling or frowning. When Ekman’s research subjects were trained to control their facial muscles and voluntarily form smiles, their physiological processes altered immediately and their hormones changed drastically.

So when you smile, you alter your blood chemistry – your neuropeptides and the natural opiates in your system change. Modern psychologists suggest that emotions are a state where the brain attributes a positive or negative value to external and internal stimuli. The emotions, in most cases, determine a plan of action. So, the next time that you feel you are a victim of your emotions, take control of that part of your Total Behaviour that is easiest to access: change your actions and the chemistry will change too!

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