Category Archives: Self Esteem

The Brain and Emotional Self-Control

Different brain areas are activated when we choose to suppress an emotion, compared to when we are instructed to inhibit an emotion, according a new study from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University.

In this study, published in Brain Structure and Function, the researchers scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when choosing for oneself to suppress an emotion. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.

“This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally,” said lead author Dr Simone Kuhn (Ghent University).

In most previous studies, participants were instructed to feel or inhibit an emotional response. However, in everyday life we are rarely told to suppress our emotions, and usually have to decide ourselves whether to feel or control our emotions.

In this new study the researchers showed fifteen healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The participants were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image, or alternatively to inhibit the emotion, by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of the participants. They compared this brain activity to another experiment where the participants were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than choose for themselves.

Different parts of the brain were activated in the two situations. When participants decided for themselves to inhibit negative emotions, the scientists found activation in the dorso-medial prefrontal area of the brain. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.

In contrast, when participants were instructed by the experimenter to inhibit the emotion, a second, more lateral area was activated.

“We think controlling one’s emotions and controlling one’s behaviour involve overlapping mechanisms,” said Dr Kuhn.

“We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do, versus following instructions.”

Regulating emotions is part of our daily life, and is important for our mental health. For example, many people have to conquer fear of speaking in public, while some professionals such as health-care workers and firemen have to maintain an emotional distance from unpleasant or distressing scenes that occur in their jobs.

Professor Patrick Haggard (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) co-author of the paper said the brain mechanism identified in this study could be a potential target for therapies.

“The ability to manage one’s own emotions is affected in many mental health conditions, so identifying this mechanism opens interesting possibilities for future research.

“Most studies of emotion processing in the brain simply assume that people passively receive emotional stimuli, and automatically feel the corresponding emotion. In contrast, the area we have identified may contribute to some individuals’ ability to rise above particular emotional situations.

“This kind of self-control mechanism may have positive aspects, for example making people less vulnerable to excessive emotion. But altered function of this brain area could also potentially lead to difficulties in responding appropriately to emotional situations.”

Positive Statements about you

I am a group therapist who generally works with adults. I facilitate groups using creative arts, processing oriented, or psycho-education. Sometimes I actually sort of combine these in to a psycho-educational process oriented creative group. I provide info (psycho-educational, we talk about it from a personal perspective, and than create something out of the discussion.


One thing I have notice over the decades is that when people are stressed or overwhelmed about events in their life they tend towards a negative self perception. Below is a handout that I often use. One way of using this is to start out discussing what is positive self esteem, how you get it, maintain it, and why bother with it. I than pass out the hand out and folks write and than we share it in the group or in groups of 2 or 3 folks.

Positive Statements about you

  1. I like myself because:
  1. I’m an expert at:
  1. I feel good about:
  1. My friends would tell you I have a great:
  1. My favorite place is:
  1. I’m loved by:
  1. People say I am a good:
  1. I’ve been told I have:


Five Strengths

I used to think that mentally strong people had superhuman qualities. I thought that they were bestowed with some sort of cybernetic strength that they – and only they – had.

I thought I would never be like that. In fact, I thought most people would never be like that.

But then I tried something. I took on a challenge that to me seemed impossible. And while we all have things that seem impossible – completing a book, starting a business, passing state exams – mine happened to be running a hundred mile race.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done. But when I finished, I also realized something. The ONLY thing that had held me back was my perception. See, I thought the race would be harder than it really was. I thought it would be so hard that I couldn’t do it. And that is EXACTLY what had held me back.

What I realized was that mental toughness isn’t about being superhuman. It’s about cultivating a few strengths consistently.

Here they are:

Gratitude: You may not associate gratitude with mental toughness, but you probably do associate mental toughness with overcoming adversity. That’s where gratitude come in. Gratitude gives us the reserve we need when times get tough. I think of it like an extra energy source that I can reach into when I have nothing left. Because there are ALWAYS things to be grateful for. And sometimes when facing adversity, it is those things we need to find to get through. And mentally strong people know just how to direct this quality to counteract the chain of negative thoughts that we all face when things don’t go our way. It’s then that we need to remember when things did go well, the successes we have had, and the people along the way who have helped us.

Openness: Mentally tough people do not see the world as a set of predictable steps that lead to the promised-land. Life is just not like that, and mentally strong people know that the only thing we know for sure is that things will change. And sometimes, in ways that we don’t like. But the other thing that happens when life puts a roadblock in our path is that we find a new path. And sometimes a better one. What mentally strong people know is every adversity also bring opportunity. But in order to see it, we have to first be willing to change.

A Sense of Personal Strength: The belief that you are strong doesn’t happen because things went your way. Perception of strength is carved out through the setbacks, roadblocks, and difficulties you’ve faced. It happens because you earned it. And while mentally strong people won’t tell you that they enjoy battling adversity, they will say that life without adversity is like life not actualized. Because it’s in adversity that our strengths our realized. And it’s in then that we come to know how strong we really are.

Meaningful Relationships: The truth is no one can go it alone – not even mentally strong people. But mentally strong people also don’t need an entire army cheering for them. What they do need – and what all need – are a few close relationships where we can let ourselves be seen. We can let our guard down, say what we need to say, and be heard. Every person – even the strongest – has a need to be accepted. And not just for their strengths. Because what mentally strong people also know is that strength is nothing without the vulnerability to be seen as we are – faults and all. It is only then that we can make peace with our faults. And it is only then that we can also make peace with our losses and find the strength to move forward.

Faith: You don’t have to be a spiritual person. You don’t even have to believe in God. But what mentally strong people know is that in order to get through adversity you do have to have faith. You have to believe that somehow it is possible. It is possible for you to face adversity and make it through. It is possible for you to grow stronger from it. And it is possible for you to be mentally tough. It all starts with faith – in yourself, and in something larger than you. Because the minute you connect your experience to something larger, it isn’t about you anymore. And the adversity you face isn’t personal. Adversity becomes something that we all face – for the purpose of getting strong.