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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

Using Your Brain to Work with Difficult Emotions

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 4th 2010

brainAll of us can relate to acting impulsively or "flipping our lids" when we're dealing with difficult emotions. Maybe someone cuts us off on the side of the road so we pull up alongside of them to give them an evil stare, our kids spill their shake on the floor, or our co-worker makes another mistake. In that moment, something seems to take over and we just react in a way that hindsight tells us was not most skillful or effective. Dr. Dan Siegel has a great hand representation of how this happens in the brain that I thought I'd share with you to help it make more sense.

Here are the steps to create your hand model of the brain

  1. Hold out your hand as if you were waving hello to someone - this is your brain laid out flat with your brainstem and spinal cord being represented by your arm and wrist. The brainstem is considered the "reptilian brain" and regulates basic functions such as the lungs and heart operating and also our states of arousal (e.g., hunger, sex, wake, sleep). This also involves our fight or flight response.

  2. Put your thumb in the middle of your palm - your thumb represents the limbic regions of your brain which involves our emotions and judges a situation as either good or bad. This part of the brain also makes it possible for us to feel connected and attached to other people and animals. Close by, the Amygdala allows us to react with survival instincts.

  3. Fold your four fingers over your thumb - now it should look like a fist with your thumb tucked under. The fingers represent the cortex. The part that is in front of your thumb is the frontal cortex and this allows for executive function, logical reasoning and being creative.

Now that we have this hand model, imagine a moment where you reacted out of anger or frustration. In respect to the hand model, you flipped the fingers up exposing the thumb. In other words, as Dan Siegel puts it, "you flipped your lid." So in essence, you didn't have access to all of the functions of logical reasoning that comes with that frontal cortex. Instead, your emotions run wild and you just react with them.

Once we become aware this is happening, we can wrap our fingers back around the thumb and regain a sense of composure making decisions that are in our best interest.

So, next time you react impulsively, think of this hand model and it may help you get a sense of what is happening sooner. Dan Siegel might call this Mindsight (which happens to be the title of his latest book) which can help us transform our habitual patterns into healthier ways for our lives.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    origin of brain model using the hand - kate - Mar 12th 2015

    Do you know the origin of using your hand to demonstrate how the cortex wraps around the limbic system? 

    Was it Dan seigle or has it been around for a long time? 

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