Are You Being Controlled by Your Reptilian Brain???
In the 1960’s neuroscientist, Dr. Paul MacLean, gave a simplified explanation of the
workings of the human brain and how it developed over millennia.
OUR REPTILIAN BRAIN - SURVIVAL
The reptilian brain developed over 100 million years ago, and we all have ones, and
animals do too. It controls our body's vital functions such as heart rate, breathing,
body temperature and balance and is responsible for our survival. The reptilian
brain is reliable but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive. It is made up of
glands, which control our instinctive functions: the beating of our hearts, our
organs, and our breathing. It’s in charge of our flight, fight or freeze responses
when we are afraid. Aggression/anger become responses to threats either real
or not so we tend to react compulsively without us thinking about it.
We can scare or harm people without being conscious of what we’re doing.
OUR LIMBIC BRAIN - EMOTIONS
The limbic brain wraps around the reptilian brain. Its main component is the AMYGDALA. It records memories of event that produced good, bad, scary experiences and is responsible for most of our emotions. It is also responsible how we judge and perceive things. It controls a lot of our behavior.
OUR NEO-CORTEX - REASONING
The neo-cortex (frontal brain) developed appx. 40,000 years ago and is only found in monkeys, dolphins and humans. It governs our reasoning language, creativity, and problem-solving skills. It’s where our higher self lives. The trouble is, the neo-cortex brain can often get deactivated and we blank out. When are consistently stress or in permanent state of fear, perceived or real, our brain may automatically shift into and rely solely our Reptilian brain. We shut down all our logic and reasoning functions of the neo-cortex and we end up with a mind and body controlled by reactivity. This can make us dangerous and sounding angry people…
Our reptilian brains is only good to keep us alive away from real danger, like making us swerve out of the way if a truck suddenly crosses into our lane on a busy highway. It activates without us having to think about it. It protects our lives much faster than it would take us to activate our reasoning capabilities to turn the wheel.
“When we are not aware of our stress levels, anxiety keep us in ‘fight or flight’ mode, even when actual danger is not present.” Reactive behavior patterns aren’t pretty. It gets us in trouble because we get angry fast, even aggressive. Our reptilian brain gets scared very easily and stops us from doing what we want to; from trying new hobbies to achieving our dreams or connect with the people we care about.
Stress Triggers Our Reptilian Brain
Psychologists have learned that in order to work with anxious/angry clients, they must first establish safety and a sense of security. The reptilian brain is often still in control long after traumatic events, and when it’s in control. It’s impossible to reason and process emotions when your reptilian brain is still screaming “RUN!” when you’re just having a disagreement with our partner. This is why we teach clients how to take a safe Time-Out or Cool down period before engaging in any dialogue.
Research shows that children, who have been neglected, or lived in abusive home, often present with high levels of internalized stress and anxiety. As grown adults, they now live in a state of high stress; their reptilian brains have taken over and every thing may become a crisis alert. Their focus is on getting through each day. When the focus is on survival, the thinking brain doesn’t matter therefore reading, writing and like schoolwork don’t work.
This applies to all of us. When we are living in a constant state of real or perceived fear we’ll keep working at a job we hate; we’ll do things we’re not proud of, we’ll block out event and people. We disconnect in stress.
How to soothe our Reptilian Brain
The reptilian brain can be helped and soothed. Luckily, as rational beings, we have the capacity to observe our behaviors, thoughts and emotions with the mighty neo-cortex; the true captain of our ship. Mountain climbers, racing car drivers, aid workers in dangerous places – all of these people face their fears; the shouts of their body to climb down off that ledge, put on the brakes, or stay safe at home.
The trick is to monitor closely the early read flags of raising stress and anxiety. Stop what you are doing and take a rest, go for a walk, seek support, less violent video games, less media watching and most importantly ask yourself this:
“I am experiencing a real life threatening situation right now? or is my reptilian brain activating past trauma memories” Am I actually in danger right now? It takes courage, but not that much, if we use one simple tool…Breathing.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The reptilian brain does not know time and does not recognize past from present.
The Power of Deep Breathing
In a moment of crisis – stop and breathe. Breathe in and out, deeply and slowly, right down and into your belly. This calms your flight or fight response immediately and is the first skill taught to those who suffer anxiety. If this does not work, go for a brisk walk.
When the breath is calmer, the mind follows (neo cortex is connected again) and you will be able to detach and reason to the situation. You can consciously shift your focus to the neo-cortex. Making this shift, you take you remain internal safe and regulated.
Practicing conscious breathing will help you to disconnect from the reptilian brain. Mindfulness is key.
Just bring your attention to your breath, slow it down, notice any sensations in your body, any emotions tied to the thoughts, and consciously let them go. Redirect your thoughts to something that makes you feel good and lifts your heart – thoughts that empower you such as “I feel anxious and I am doing what I can to improve myself.” I am ok even if anxious”. The reptilian brain responds to thoughts as if they are really happening so if you consciously think a thought of peace and joy, your reptilian brain will let go and relax.
With repetition this process becomes easier; the reptilian brain won’t put up such a fight. It will still be triggered, and it’ll still be there to slam on the brakes when we need it, but we’ll be able to navigate stress triggers, breathe, use work to support ourselves and safely communicate with others.
We’ll be able to achieve our goals and live our dreams.”
Self Regulation (self control)
The term self-regulation means, “control [of oneself] by oneself.” It refers to a system needed to keep itself in balance.
Self-regulation of humans occurs on many different levels. For example, someone who has good emotional self-regulation has the ability to keep his or her emotions in check. They can resist impulsive behaviors that might worsen their situation, and they can cheer themselves up when they’re feeling down. They have a flexible range of emotional and behavioral responses that are well matched to the demands of their environment. Thanks to brain neuroplasticity, the adaptability of our nervous systems, humans are fortunately able to improve their emotional self-regulation over time.
Our bodies also have the capacity for self-regulation. There are many examples we experience such as when we exercise, our heart rates increases to get more oxygen. Similarly, our nervous system regulates and balances many functions of our bodies, including emotions. One of the most important (and frequently overlooked!) functions it regulates is our automatic, instinctive response to perceived threats in the environment. Our threat response system determines whether we are angry and want to fight, or scared and want to flee, or hunker down until the threat passes (freeze). This is known as the fight, flight, or freeze response.
When these responses are out of balance with our environment, we are not self-regulating well and we experience symptoms. This is why self-regulation is so important.
The fundamental goal of Anger Management Counseling is to restore healthy self-regulation, resilience, and the capacity to be fully present in the moment. By integrating tools that you learn in group, it is possible to work directly with symptoms “where they live”—in the person’s body and nervous system.
When our fear response is out of proportion to the current situation, we call that anxiety. It would be appropriate to experience a pounding heart, rapid breath, jitteriness, and intense fear if a grizzly bear were trying to attack us. On the other hand, these same physical symptoms are excessive if we are grocery shopping, conversing with a friend, or at home reading a book.
Whether or not it’s overtly stated, the goal of most counseling is to restore balance—self-regulation—in an individual, couple, or family. Since the threat response and related emotions are biological in nature, it is often useful to include awareness of the person’s bodily responses during the counseling session. For example, a person who has learned to notice when their heart rate is increasing and their jaw is clenching can take specific actions to stop a rage or panic attack before it really gets rolling.
In counseling, the therapist and client address to the client’s history, thoughts, emotions, and relationships, and the relationship between person in therapy and therapist (therapeutic relationship), just like in “regular” therapy. However, they also include a moment-to-moment awareness of what the person’s autonomic nervous system and body are “saying.” The person learns to have two-way communication between mind and body, which is often effective in restoring self-regulation and relief from symptoms.
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REPTILIAN - SURVIVAL SYSTEM