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What Happens in Your Brain When You Experience a Big Emotion?

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When we experience a big emotion, our body and brain react. It is important to understand this reaction in order to handle our emotions in a healthy way.

Emotions are part of what helps us regulate our bodies’ internal environments and make sense of the information coming into our brains as well as communicate with others around us. When you are experiencing an emotion like anger or sadness that makes you want to express something externally (like shouting at someone), it is because your brain has been receiving sensory input from an event happening outside yourself which triggers certain hormones. These hormones cause certain physical reactions within your body, for example, sweating or crying. These reactions then become associated with the initial stimulus so that when similar situations occur again later on down the line they will trigger those same hormonal responses even though there may not actually be any real threat present anymore.


Our brain is hardwired to respond to threats from the environment in order to survive. For example, when you are walking down a dark street at night and hear a sudden noise behind you, your brain’s amygdala will trigger an instinctive response by sending fear-inducing adrenaline throughout your body. This reaction allows us to get ready for action or flee from danger but it also means that our bodies are flooded with stress hormones that can have long-term negative effects on our health if they are not managed properly.

You will know that dysregulation is happening when you feel overwhelmed by emotion. You might feel an increase in heart rate; start to shake; start to sweat; erratic breathing or you might go completely numb. These are all signs that your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps you make decisions and plan for the future, is not functioning properly.


Dysregulation can be remedied and you can self-regulate through techniques which allow the prefrontal cortex to take over again. The key is to focus on something else so that your mind is distracted from the overwhelming emotions; instead, all of your attention goes towards something that will help bring you calm. Some techniques are outlined below:

Breathing techniques

These are simple exercises that involve regulating your breath. They include such things as deep breathing, diaphragmatic breathing (belly-breathing), square breaths, box breaths and so on. After practising these for a few minutes each day for just a few weeks you will notice how much faster your body relaxes when faced with stress or anxiety.


This involves sitting quietly with eyes closed focusing on one thing such as a mantra or an image of something calming like waterfalls or mountains until the mind reaches its natural state of being still and peaceful without any thoughts arising at all (this may take several minutes). Some people find this boring and difficult to do at first but it does get easier with practice. There are also guided meditations available online which guide people through these processes step by step.

Grounding activities

Grounding activities help you by bringing your attention to the present moment and focusing on your senses. There are many different grounding techniques that can be used depending on where you are or what activity is available. Some include:

  • Smell. Focus on a familiar smell, breathe deeply and take in as much of the aroma as possible. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. It can make us feel connected to the past and help us relax. Smell taps into these powerful feelings and emotions to remind you of pleasant moments in your life. Take a deep breath and inhale the scent of something that reminds you of childhood or an important person in your life. This will help ground yourself in the present moment and bring back happy memories from the past.
  • Sight. Look around the room and describe five things you can see; look outside the window and describe five things you can see; look at the sky and describe five things you can see.
  • Sound. Listen closely to 4 things you can hear. The sounds around you; the sounds inside your body; the sounds of your breath.
  • Touch. Touch something inanimate; touch something alive (people, animals); touch something that is soft and/or smooth, touch something that is hard and/or rough; Touch something that is warm or cold to the touch (e.g., your hand versus ice cream).
  • Taste. You don’t need to go out of your way for this one it can be as simple as going eating a square of dark chocolate or making an iced glass of water and lemon.

Movement and exercise

Exercise is a powerful tool for calm and focus. You don’t have to go to the gym or run miles, but just a few minutes of physical activity can help calm your body and mind. Do ten star jumps on the spot; run up and down the stairs a couple of times; put on your favourite song and dance around. Anything that can get you moving.

Positive self-talk

Positive self-talk is a key aspect of self-regulation. It involves learning to notice and identify negative thinking patterns, and then reframing these thoughts into more positive ones so that they are more accurate and optimistic. For example ‘I can’t do this’ becomes ‘I can do this.’

Get outdoors

For the most part, it is impossible to get out of your own head when you are stuck inside your house. Nature is filled with beautiful things. Getting outdoors to appreciate these things can help to change your mood.


Emotions are powerful and can be overwhelming but by understanding how the brain works, we can better understand ourselves. When we are able to self-regulate during times of stress we are also in a better position to help others when they are experiencing big emotions.

Joanne Docherty has been working with and for families since 2006 and is the founder of Starra Education. She also teaches at the University of Glasgow.


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