Balancing and Bettering Your Body Budget: A Conversation with Lisa Feldman Barrett
Psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D. is one of the world’s top experts in emotion. She’s also the author of the books, How Emotions are Made (2017) and Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain (2020). She sat down with Madefor Co-Founder, Pat Dossett, to talk about the formation and regulation of emotional states, the role we play in bringing out the best in each other, and the importance of managing our body budget.
Emotions 101: How are Emotions Formed and Regulated?
We aren’t born with a default setting like a microwave or computer. When an infant is born, it doesn’t have a mini-adult brain. An infant has a brain that has to finish wiring itself. The wiring instructions come from the world and its body. Lisa is quick to point out this isn’t a nature or nurture issue; we have the kind of genes that require nurture. To use well-known phraseology: we are custom-made, not custom fit. Everything in our body is wired to us specifically, take our eyes for example. It takes a baby about three to four months to be able to see the world. Their wiring depends on the size of their eyes and the distance between them. This process occurs in countless other places in the body and the wiring process isn't complete until the baby human is blowing out 25 candles on their birthday cake.
Emotions, too, are built over time and form an internal model. Different interactions, experiences, and cultural influences create the model we are repeatedly running incoming data through to gauge what we should do in response. Lisa explains the receptive process as, “Your brain is trapped in a dark, silent box called your skull. It's receiving sensory data from the surface of your body. Light waves to your eyes, air pressure changes to your ear, etc….Your brain receives the sensory data which is the outcome of some set of causes.”
Now here's where things get tricky, we can't know the cause of something immediately when it happens. Our brain fires up and predicts the cause of what is happening based on past experience, and tells us what to do next. And we're also not always right. When that happens, our brain has to process the new information and adjust our internal model.
The same occurs when we are engaging with others. You’re interacting with someone and you believe you are sure about how they are feeling and act accordingly with that belief. No matter how certain we think we are, we are still always guessing. We don’t read body language because movements aren’t a language. There are no physical signals with universally inherent meaning.
Metabolic Expense: The Science of Body Budget
Our emotions both give to and take from our lives, and we measure that in metabolic expense. Feldman Barrett describes this process as body budget or how your brain budgets the energy in your body to keep you alive and well. For example, every time your brain prepares your body for a threat, it’s metabolically expensive. You also pay a little extra tax for a perceived threat that doesn’t manifest. When that happens enough times, it's harder for your brain to regulate your internal body systems.
Cortisol, which Lisa is quick to point out is not a stress hormone despite its billing as such, is released into the bloodstream when the brain believes you have a large metabolic outlay. Right before you get out of bed in the morning, you have a big cortisol release. Major efforts to learn something new or move the body are all signaled by cortisol release. When you have that release repeatedly, the cells become less sensitive to it, and it doesn't work as a signal anymore, making it ultimately metabolically expensive. Over the long term, you become more vulnerable to metabolic illnesses, which can take years from your life.
We experience the state of our body budget as a mood. If we're feeling calm and happy, it's likely our body budget is doing well. If we wake up stressed, grumpy, or sad, it's possible our body budget is experiencing a deficit. When we take care of the basics like rest, hydration, practicing gratitude, and other healthy habits like those in the Madefor Program, we are depositing into our body budget.
We don't just affect our body budget; we also regulate each other's nervous systems for good and bad. Humans are a social species. With every interaction, we have the opportunity to make deposits and withdrawals in each other's body budgets. The words you speak can cause biological changes in another person. We influence each other. We can make it easier or harder for our fellow humans to manage a body budget.
Ask yourself: Do you want to be the sort of person who makes surprise deposits in someone's body budget or the person causing the over-limit withdrawal fees?
Balancing your Body Budget
Let's get to the heart of the cause – how can we each balance our body budget? What if it's chronically in the red; is there no hope? There's always hope! There are many things that can nudge your body budget, you just have to figure out what works for you.
Here are three areas you can focus on to put your body budget back on track:
1. Physical. This one sounds easy, but if it were so easy, we'd all be doing it. Take a moment and check-in with yourself:
- Am I getting enough water every day?
- Am I getting adequate rest each day?
- Am I fueling my body or just mindlessly eating and hoping for the best?
- Am I getting movement every day?
- Am I stretching every day?
If you aren't doing as well as you'd like in any of the above, choose one and focus on getting back on track. If you’ve done or are in the Madefor Program, revisit a 21-Day Challenge to get back on track and start depositing into your body budget. If you’re not, that’s ok! Pick one area you’d like to work on and commit to taking small actions every day for 21 days. Once you repair one area, pick another and do the same until you're taking care of your basic needs like a rockstar.
2. Psychological. Do another intake with yourself, this time focusing on your inner being. Feel overwhelmed, lacking confidence, or just emotionally exhausted? Choose one of the following to add more deposits under the Psychological column in your body budget by:
- Do a social media cleanse.
- Practice an experience of awe for five minutes each day.
- Try to reduce uncertainty in some area of your life that seems to have a fair amount of it.
- Start (or pick back up) a gratitude process by journaling or creating a ritual that encourages you to focus on the positive.
3. People. Humans are pack animals. Make a deposit in someone else's body budget, and it's likely you too will make a little "interest" off it as well. Try one or more of these suggestions:
- Give someone a genuine compliment.
- Do something simple like make dinner or volunteer a night of babysitting for a friend who's overwhelmed or stressed.
- Take your mom to your favorite relaxing yoga class or invigorating dance class.
- Send a “thank you for being you” note.
- Invite someone to do one of Madefor’s 7-Day text challenges with you. Hint: we have one starting on November 8th all about managing your emotions during the holidays!
Start small and slow and build over time. Lisa wants everyone to know, “You have more control than you think. You may not have as much as you’d like, but you have more than you think.” It’s time to balance your budget!