Irena O'Brien, PhD
février 22, 2018

There’s No Such Thing as the Amygdala Hijack! – Part 2

Irena O'Brien, PhD

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In Part 1, we looked at how the old triune brain theory of emotion and the universality of emotions are not supported by science.

In Part 2, we look at how the brain constructs emotions and what the new Theory of Constructed Emotion has to say about stress, anxiety, and depression.


The purpose of the brain is not to make us happy or make rational decisions, but to ensure that we grow, survive, and reproduce. This is called allostasis, but Dr. Barrett  uses the metaphor “body budget.” To ensure that we keep our body budget in balance, the brain anticipates the body’s needs and attempts to satisfy them even before the need arises. This is called prediction and is the normal state of the brain. If the brain waited until it had all the information before it made a decision, we would die.


Your affect is the sum of your body budget. Affect is the general sense of feeling that you experience throughout your day. It’s not an emotion, but a much simpler feeling. You can feel good or bad, and with varying intensities. Affect is always there, even when you’re sleeping. When your affect is low, it just means that your body budget is out of balance!


How do you get your body budget back into balance? The most important thing is to make sure that you eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get adequate sleep. You can also use other techniques that are often recommended for stress reduction, such as meditation, mindfulness, nature, etc. It may be that your internal model of the world is flawed, and that will deplete your body budget because you’re always making the wrong predictions. So, you really have to be a sleuth and look for what you need to bring your body budget back into balance: As coaches, we don’t often consider that low affect can have a physical cause.


The brain takes the sensory input it receives from inside and outside the body and makes a prediction as to what it means using your internal model of the world. Your body budget affects the kind of predictions, including emotional predictions, that your brain makes. If your body budget is out of balance, your brain will make the wrong kind of emotional predictions.

What does this new Theory of Constructed Emotion say about some of the common issues we, as coaches, deal with?


You construct “stress” using the same mechanisms as emotion. What differs is whether your brain categorizes your sensations as stressful or emotional. If your body budget is chronically unbalanced, you may experience chronic stress.

But, there is some evidence that people who effectively categorize their interoceptive sensations as emotions may be better protected against chronic inflammatory processes that lead to poor health. So, deconstruct your “stress” into its physical sensations and recategorize them as an emotion: Is that fast beating heart stress or excitement? Stress is permanent, whereas excitement is not.


Many cases of depression begin with an imbalanced body budget. If depression is a disorder of affect, and affect is a summary of how your body budget is doing, then depression may actually be a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction.

The traditional view of depression is that negative thoughts cause negative feelings. The theory of constructed emotion suggests that it’s the other way around: Your feelings right now drive your next thought, as well as your perceptions, as predictions. A depressed brain relentlessly keeps making withdrawals from the body budget, basing its predictions on similar withdrawals from the past. This means constantly reliving difficult, unpleasant events.

So let in more prediction error, such as by asking people to keep a diary of their positive experiences, which can ease the drain on the body budget. I had a client who was highly accomplished and educated but with very low self esteem and perhaps depression. I asked her to identify, each day, three things that went well that day and then finish this sentence: “This went well today because I am … .” I remember one of her statements: “I successfully calmed down a client today because I am a good listener.” Within just a few days, her self esteem went up. This is an example of introducing more prediction error. In her case, her predictions were always negative. A positive prediction, as we set up, was, for her, prediction error.


Anxiety, like depression and stress, is a constructed. The misery you feel in anxiety and depression tells you that something is seriously wrong with your body budget. Either your brain is trying to secure a deposit, ramping up unpleasant affect, or it’s attempting to reduce your need for the deposit by remaining still, resulting in fatigue. Your brain may categorize these sensations as anxiety, depression, or, even pain, stress or emotion. And unpleasant affect can also have a physical cause.


A common factor in these disorders that are traditionally viewed as separable is an unbalanced body budget. When you have too much prediction and not enough correction, you feel bad, and the flavour of badness depends on the concepts you use. In small amounts, you may feel angry or shameful. In extreme amounts, you get depression. In contrast, too much sensory input and ineffective prediction yields anxiety, and in extreme amounts, you might develop an anxiety disorder.


  1. Emotional granularity, or creating more concepts and refining our existing ones, is one of the keys to emotional intelligence.
  1. Many of the issues facing our clients are due to low affect (e.g., low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, low mood, etc.). Low affect is just the sum of our body budget. This means that low affect could be due to purely physical causes. Encourage your clients to keep their body budget in balance. This means eating well and getting enough exercise and adequate sleep. Because without a healthy body, it’s impossible to have a healthy mind.
  1. Reframe: overcoming stress, anxiety, and other difficult psychological issues, may be as simple as reframing them.
  1. Help your clients change their beliefs: Low affect could be due to a flawed internal model of the world.

We’ve seen that emotions are not built-in or universal, but rather constructed in the moment and specific to individuals and cultures. We’ve also seen that the key to emotional intelligence is the quality of our emotion concept. And finally, we’ve seen how important keeping a balanced body budget is for emotional intelligence.

How will this new theory change how you coach? Please let me know by emailing me at the address above.


Barrett, L. F., (2017). How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.”