The organic substrate of emotions

I’ve just flown to Colorado in the mid-West of the US, one mile above sea-level on a massive plateau fringed by the Rockies.

It’s a long while since I’ve done a long-haul flight, not least because I suffered badly from jet-lag.

Biologically, it’s the one thing our body cannot adjust to, since evolution has created no tools for dealing with a living thing being transported round the planet in an afternoon and suddenly facing sun where there should be night.

In the past I have always suffered. Got caught up in the biological shockwaves and felt really bad. But I was gratified to find that all this work I’ve been doing in mindfulness, embodiment and reading around neuroscience had a positive effect.

I’ve long been aware of the “4am Effect”. Back at home (not jet lagged) I became aware of the poisonous chain reaction that occurred if I – for whatever reason – woke in the middle of the night.

4 am is a bad time biochemically in the body. The acetylcholine that puts us to sleep is petering out and the cortisol that wakes us up has not yet started rising. We’re meant to be dead-asleep at the this time in the cycle, so when we’re not we often feel like we’re dying.

In fact, statistically, 4am is the time when most people do die naturally. It is also – sadly – the time when most people commit suicide.

In understanding the biology, I became aware of what happens.

Basically. NEVER BELIEVE YOUR THOUGHTS AT 4AM. When you become conscious at this junction of the night, your body is experiencing a energy-low that reminds the system of death. The emotional chemistry that surrounds that is deeply negative. There’s fear, there’s panic and there’s despair or hopelessness. All of these are chemical cocktails that feel bad in the body.

Out of this alarmed chemical soup thoughts arise. Usually these thoughts are very very negative: things like: “It’s hopeless”, “All my plans are rubbish”, “Everything is bad”, “I have been kidding myself that I was good at anything”.

Do not believe these thoughts because, as the biologically correct George Harrison points out, “the darkest hour is before the dawn”. Those thoughts at 4am will always seem pointlessly melodramatic at 7am.

So when you wake at 4am and lie there convincing yourself that your job is drivel, your relationship toxic and your children doomed, get up and EAT SOMETHING.

One of the simplest ways to correct the body’s belief that it’s going to die is to give it some food. A glass of juice, a spoon of peanut butter, or a bowl of cereal.

Change the substrate and the thoughts will vanish. It’s like magic.

I realised that the exact same thing is occurring with jet-lag. I awoke at 3am (which is actually 10am back back) home thinking I should get on a plane and go home, my trip would be a disaster, the US is hateful and Colorado sucks.

But luckily, I had planned for this and bought a tub of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Caramel Swirl for this exact moment and so padded light-footed to the giant American fridge and scoffed a few spoonfuls.

Getting back into bed I was conscious of my blood-chemistry righting itself, and one-by-one, I was aware of my mood becoming less black (it became ‘redder’ in fact) and my thoughts becoming much less believable. I could see how – minutes before – they had popped up like mushrooms from the black ooze of my confused body-mind and seemed impossibly believable. Slowly, before my inner eye, I could witness the thoughts float up and shed some of their negativity. I could feel the tunnel-vision widening. I could laugh at myself.

This process is one of the most valuable things I have learned from mindfulness. The ability to see how thoughts grow out of emotions and emotions grow out of the body. And how, unchecked, those thoughts can feed back very negatively into the body and set a very negative cycle in motion.

Being able to DISBELIEVE our thoughts is key to liberating ourselves from this cycle. But, likewise, an understanding of the powerful chemistry that underpins them (and can make them 100% believable) is a massive piece of the puzzle of consciousness.

Post Ben and Jerry’s I slipped into much more pleasing dreams and woke up at a respectable Coloradan 6am. Maybe jet lag will go the way of the ‘4am Effect’…

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