How to control your reptilian brain

How to control your reptilian brain

In the simplest of terms, the human brain is made up of three parts that evolved at different times over millions of years. This is the theory of the Triune Brain, developed by Paul MacLean in the 1960s, and it may be the most useful brain theory for those of us without a degree in neuroscience who nevertheless want to understand something about how the brain works and why we act like we do. It also holds the key for learning how to regain calm from a state of high anxiety or even panic.

In MacLean’s model, the oldest part of the brain is known as the reptilian brain. This developed in animals over 100 million years ago, and not only does that ancient brain still operate in our nervous system, it’s often running the show. Which is not always useful, given that this part of the brain is instinctive, automatic, lightning fast, and hell-bent on survival (it’s the part that will make you swerve away from a falling object before you’ve even consciously noticed it). The reptilian brain controls the involuntary systems of the body (breathing, heartbeat, organ functioning, body temperature) and it’s also responsible for triggering our fight/flight/freeze responses. It gets scared or angry fast. It’s territorial, aggressive and horny – it wants to stay alive and to reproduce. It’s obsessive, compulsive, and easily scared (its job is to keep us alive), so it not only holds us back from applying for new jobs or pursuing our dreams – it can keep us held in a state of anxiety.

Which means that if you’re struggling with anxiety, the reptilian brain needs soothing. But to know how best to do this, it’s necessary to know something about the other two evolutionary parts of the brain: the limbic system and the neocortex.

Anxiety and the reptilian brain

We share the reptilian brain with reptiles and birds, but the limbic system (sometimes called the ‘limbic brain’) is the part we have in common with mammals like dogs and horses. This evolutionary addition emerged in the first mammals, bringing a huge increase in brainpower and the ability to feel emotions, experience motivation, store long-term memory and be able to learn. It contains the amygdala, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘fear centre’. The limbic system is tightly connected to the newest part of the brain – the neocortex.

The neocortex evolved in primates around 40,000 years ago, which is a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. This is the ‘clever’ part of the brain – it allows us to do complex things that mammals and reptiles can’t manage, such as advance planning and intricate social interactions. The neocortex is often referred to as the ‘executive functioning’ part of the brain, because it figures things out, makes reasoned judgements, calculates and handles complex concepts. It also provides us with imagination and creativity. Our neocortex is three times larger than would be found in a similar-sized primate, which perhaps explains why we’re top of the food chain and have populated the entire globe, while monkeys and chimps are still swinging from trees.

And here’s the thing: the neocortex can temper the reactive response of the reptilian and limbic brains.

When your reptilian brain leaps off the path after seeing a coiled something, your neocortex checks it out, realises it’s a rope not a snake, and sends out ‘it’s ok!’ signals to the whole nervous system. The neocortex can help us to reason our way out of an anxious or fearful feeling. The reptilian brain might get jumpy in the dark, but the neocortex checks for time, place and contex, and says ‘It’s just 3 a.m. and you’re in bed at home – everything is fine’. It’s this cognitive ability that is used in CBT (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy) to reduce constant worrying and high levels of anxiety through examining thoughts and changing unhelpful thought patterns and associations.

The CBT isn’t working! I’m still anxious!

The reason that CBT is often unable to help in a state of high anxiety is this: once our reptilian brain is triggered into ‘thinking’ there’s a survival threat, the neocortex effectively goes off-line. This is because it is not helpful to be wondering whether that’s really a rope or a snake on the forest path – you need to act. Fast. In a survival threat situation, the reptilian brain leaps into action and saves us, effectively shoving the neocortex and its slower thinking out of the way. Which means that we lose the capacity for careful, reasoned judgement, and now we’re acting instinctively. Like an animal.

If you find yourself living in a permanent state of fear, anger or very high stress, your mind and body will be reading this as a struggle for survival. And when that’s the interpretation of your current situation, control will veer between the reptilian and mammalian (limbic) parts of the brain. You won’t have access to your human, reasoning part, the neocortex. You may not be able to process emotions either, while the reptilian brain is screaming ‘RUN!’ (which may not be helpful in the middle of a work appraisal). In this situation, the world may be experienced as overwhelming, out of control and full of danger. What you need, in this situation, is to use one of the reptilian brain’s own tools.

Consciously taking hold of an involuntary process

The reptilian brain controls all our involuntary body processes, such as our heartbeat. And most of these are beyond our control, so they’re operating in a one-way system – they automatically (unconsciously) control parts of our bodies and we cannot consciously gain control over them. Except for one thing – the breath. Breathing is a function of the reptilian brain that we can take conscious control over, and as we do so, we can affect the other involuntary systems that the reptilian brain is controlling. The fight/flight/freeze response will show up in many ways, including fast, shallow breathing from the high chest area. But if you consciously take hold of the breath and change it – making it slower and deeper – you will be taking hold of the entire fight/flight/freeze response.

Slow the breath and you’ll slow the heartbeat. Slow that, and you’ll begin to bring the fight/flight system under control. This calms the limbic brain and allows the neocortex (which disengaged during the survival response) to come back online. Now you’re in a position to see where you are and what’s actually happening – you can assess the real level of danger. You can think clearly again.

The breath is a tool that’s always with you and it’s inconspicuous to use. You could be standing on a train packed with passengers and bring the breath into use to calm the reptilian brain without anyone noticing. You may even use this system unconsciously at times already to relieve stress, such as when you let out a huge sigh or a long deep breath when things begin to feel stressful.

How to calm the reptilian brain

In a moment of crisis, when you feel triggered into jumpy over-reactivity, stop what you’re doing and take your mind off your current stream of thought. Direct all your thinking to the breath and take control of it. Breathe in and out very slowly, drawing the breath right down to the belly, so that it expands (as though you’re blowing up a balloon in your belly). Breathe in through your nose (over a count of about four seconds), hold the breath for one or two seconds, then very slowly breathe out again, over a count of six to eight seconds. Breathe out through your mouth as though you’re cooling hot soup on a spoon by your mouth. Slowly and smoothly.

Notice the difference in any shakiness you were feeling, as you bring the fight/flight/freeze response under control. Keep breathing like this until you notice that you are able to think more clearly again (a sign that the neocortex has reconnected). In a case of real danger, like an oncoming train or tiger, we need to disengage the slow-responding, “hmm, wonder what that is?” type of thought that the neocortex engages in, but for daily life, we benefit from its consideration. This is our higher, human brain, that allows us to function happily and healthily in a complex world. So if the reptilian brain gets triggered into driving the system, simply move it gently into the back seat again by using one of its own tools – the extraordinarily effective breath.

Why happiness can trigger anxiety

This insightful post from Let’s queer things up explains why and how happiness can trigger anxiety in people with a history of developmental trauma. If happiness was often the precursor to a storm of verbal or physical abuse in your childhood, happiness and joy will have become associated in your mind, and you may find that it’s just when you’re most happy that you begin to feel really anxious. (Thank you, LQTU!)

Being happy makes me a little crazy. And if you’ve ever thought you were the only one, I assure you – it’s actually a really common thing.

via Let’s Talk About Self-Sabotage. — Let’s Queer Things Up!

If I’m so smart, why would I need therapy?

This blog post comes from US counsellor and consultant Paula Prober, who specialises in counselling gifted young people and adults. I’m sharing it here because she makes a great point – counselling isn’t a sign of weakness or of ‘something being wrong’ with a person – but when the world feels crazy or ‘too much’, it’s time to focus your attention on one place. And the best place to start is yourself.

Things are looking kinda crazy these days. It’s hard to know what to think, what to do, or how to be. There are so many issues worldwide that need attention. So many. What should super-sensitive, empathetic, insightful, emotional humans do? Well. Being the obsessed-with-psychotherapy psychotherapist that I am, you can guess what I’m about to say. Hang […]

via If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Need Psychotherapy? Part Two — Your Rainforest Mind

Living With a Borderline Parent

Three days ago I read this moving account of what it’s like to live with a parent who has borderline personality disorder. Hayley Iannantuoni’s writing perfectly captures the child’s mystification – why can’t I ever make her happy? Why can’t I ever love her in the way she wants me to? Why am I such a disappointment to her? Her account of the fierce, tempestuous, confusing and frightening relationship, and the way in which a diagnosis helped her to understand what was going on has an extraordinary clarity. Many thanks, Hayley, for giving us permission to share the article here.

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Dear Mom, It’s Not You, It’s Me

When I was a little girl I did not have a favorite teddy bear, pacifier, or blanket that I brought with me everywhere, instead I treasured a photo album. This album was filled with pictures of me and mom with ear to ear smiles, dirty faces, and countless matching mother daughter outfits. I would look through the pictures every night before I went to bed.These pictures gave me something that I didn’t have growing up, and that was the love from my mom.

I could never understand why I failed to make her happy and carefree like she was in the pictures I have engraved in my memory. I could never clean the house good enough to keep her from yelling when she came through the door after work. Nor was I able to be responsible enough at 12 years old to be left home alone so she could go out, even though I desperately wanted her to stay with me. Most importantly, despite the hundreds of pictures I drew for her, bubble gum machine rings I got her, or how many times I told her “I Love You,” I could never love her the way she desired.

As a teenager I came to accept the fact that I would never have the traditional mother daughter relationship that I had desired for so long, and that I would always be a disappointment in her eyes. I knew that my mother’s love was conditional based on what I could do for her. Many times I had to be the shoulder for her to cry on, forcing me to grow up much faster than any child should. I began to blame myself for her behavior, I was her problem. I was the reason I didn’t have the ‘John and Kate Plus Eight’ family I dreamed of.

The summer before my senior year, my parents decided to get a divorce. This news was not a surprise to me due to the common background noise of yelling, screaming, and crying that filled my house everyday. I decided that I wanted to move in with my dad instead of staying with my mom. My mother did not take this news lightly, she took this news as if she had lost a limb. In a panic she locked all of my sister’s and I’s clothes and belongings in her house. She then bolted the windows shut and made it impossible for us to grab our things, and leave her. Instead of throwing us out, she decided to lock us in. I could not understand why my mom wanted us to stay with her when she was always in a bad mood and wanted nothing to do with us for days at a time locking herself in her room or leaving us to go visit her boyfriend. As soon as we told my dad what happened, he waited for her to get home and called an ambulance for her, like he had done this before.

My first day of  senior year did not include wearing my brand new shoes that I had picked up specifically for that day, nor did it include a new backpack, or fresh school supplies, those were still bolted behind locked doors. My first day of senior year included going to the guidance counselor’s office to put on a spare uniform, a plaid skirt two sizes too big, a stained white collared shirt, and a uniform pass because I did not have the right color shoes for the first day. Shortly into the day, I got called to the guidance office this time, to my surprise, my dad was waiting for me. My dad told me that we would be taking a bus to his house today after school, and with police company we would be able to go grab all of our belongings out of my mother’s house. Due to the circumstances, he also told me that I would be missing swim practice and all of my club meetings after school to go to court mandated therapy sessions with my mother once she was released from the hospital. After many therapy sessions, I understand why my mom could not hold a job for more than a few months, why she was always fighting with my dad, me and my sister, and why she pulled us away from her family and so many other things throughout our lives.

To meet a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder under the DSM-V you must show: ‘a persuasive pattern of instability of interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity, beginning in early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts as indicated by five (or more) of the following’ –

  1. Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment
  2. A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by altering between extremes of idealization and devaluation
  3. Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self image or sense of self
  4. Impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self damaging (e.g., substance abuse, binge eating, and reckless driving_
  5. Recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self- mutilating behavior
  6. Affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g. Intense episodic dysphoria, irritability or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days)
  7. Chronic feeling of emptiness
  8. Inappropriate intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, consistent anger, recurrent physical fights)
  9. Transparent, stress- related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms)

When my mother received this diagnosis, I remember the unfamiliar feeling of her crawling into my bed grabbing my hand with tears in her eyes and telling me that she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder. After some research, I felt like everything finally made sense and I was not the only person who felt unloved and unwanted by a person with BPD. I finally understood that throughout all these years my mom drove me away in fits of rage, that was the only way she knew how to pull me closer. Additionally, I found opinions from other people with BPD, offering advice on how to “get off the emotional rollercoaster” and start focusing on yourself and distancing with love, opening a healthy line of communication. BPD researcher Marsha M. Linehan has developed a communicating style known as D.E.A.R.

D – Describe the situation as you see it without exaggerating, making judgements, or explaining how you feel about it

E – Express your feelings or opinions about the situation clearly (do some thinking beforehand to determine your exact emotions)

A – Assert your limits making them simple (remember you have decided there are limits and those are your personal preferences)

R – Reinforce the benefits of your limits, if appropriate, making it clear you are not acting against the other person, you are acting for YOURSELF.
There is nothing that can compare to the relationship of a mother and her daughter, or to a mom’s home cooked meals and phone calls just to say “I love you.” My mother and I work hard to keep in touch, and try to talk everyday but for her the intense emotions she cannot escape makes this relationship a challenge, facing more bad days than good days. Growing up with a mother suffering from a mental illness has impacted my life in so many ways, particularly, in my choice to become a social worker. Finding my passion has been something I struggled with for many years, when really the answer was right in front of me the whole time. I have my mom to thank for helping me make that decision.

By Hayley Iannantuoni, The (I’m)Possible Project
(Shared with permission from the author)

 

Opening your world to new possibilities in 2015

Opening your world to new possibilities in 2015

The psychotherapist Carl Rogers had huge faith in the human ability to grow ‘towards the light’ in even the most difficult of circumstances. He recognized that while some people are lucky enough to have the love and support that allows them to grow up easily, others grow in an environment that tests them at every turn. They learn to do whatever it takes to survive. Later on, it may be that the very things that helped them survive (from telling ‘white lies’ to creating entire ‘public’ selves or dissociating from themselves) are the things that come to cause them pain and suffering as an adult. The brilliantly creative tools they initially invented to survive, that served them so well, may still be operating when they are no longer needed and now be causing disruption, confusion and pain. This is not wrong – it is simply the human condition. We keep using things that work, often long after they have stopped working.

Therapy is one way of exploring the tools we have used to survive and see if there are others that could now be used to find greater happiness. To find a way of seeing the difference between then and now, so that ‘now’ can be approached differently. To access new information that we missed then and are still missing now, which we need to make sense of life and live it to the full. To stop living with the ‘spectacles’ of the past and become more open to the present – to everyone and everything around us today, with greater clarity and hope. It’s a way of changing expectations about what things ‘mean’ and ‘what’s going to happen next’. Of finding out that sometimes we’re wrong – and that that’s a good thing (because it’s what we’re not seeing, and don’t know, that contains all the possibility and light). It’s a way of renegotiating the world, and finding it’s not quite what we thought (but quite a bit better). It’s one way of finding a new direction and a different path.

Even if our pasts make us blind to some of the people and things around us – especially real opportunities and genuine love – we can find a way to take off the blindfold and see differently. And we can dare to be the people that we truly are. Rogers called this ‘the actualizing tendency’ and this is how he expressed his faith in every human being:

The actualizing tendency can, of course, be thwarted or warped, but it cannot be destroyed without destroying the organism. I remember that in my boyhood, the bin in which we stored our winter’s supply of potatoes was in the basement, several feet below a small window. The conditions were unfavorable, but the potatoes would begin to sprout — pale, white sprouts, so unlike the healthy green shoots they sent up when planted in the soil in the spring. But these sad, spindly sprouts would grow 2 or 3 feet in length as they reached toward the distant light of the window. The sprouts were, in their bizarre, futile growth, a sort of desperate expression of the directional tendency I have been describing. They would never become plants, never mature, never fulfill their real potential. But under the most adverse circumstances, they were striving to become. Life would not give up, even if it could not flourish. In dealing with clients whose lives have been terribly warped, in working with men and women on the back wards of state hospitals, I often think of those potato sprouts. So unfavorable have been the conditions in which these people have developed that their lives often seem abnormal, twisted… yet, the directional tendency in them can be trusted. The clue to understanding their behavior is that they are striving, in the only ways that they perceive as available to them, to move toward growth, toward becoming. To healthy persons, the results may seem bizarre and futile, but they are life’s desperate attempt to become itself.”
Carl Rogers, “A Way of Being” (1980)

All of life is growth. Each of us is a work in progress. And may 2015 be a year of joyful growth for everyone.

Should I have therapy?

In Spring 2014, The Huffington Post published an article on the ‘Eight signs you should see a therapist’. This sounds a little dictatorial, because no one (and certainly no newspaper!) has the right to say that someone ‘should’ see a therapist. There are no rules about seeing a therapist, and in fact one of the things people find most useful about therapy is the complete lack of ‘shoulds’ – there is no right or wrong way to do it, and no perfect person to ‘be’. The therapy hour is a unique space in that respect: this is a place where people are valued, respected, and free to talk about whatever they wish, at a pace that feels right to them, in a space that is calm and confidential.

There are many reasons that people seek help through some form of therapy. Problematic situations or difficult emotions may loom large or seem acutely pinpointed. People visiting a therapist may be feeling overwhelmed, anxious or depressed, or worried about feeling nothing at all. They may be wrestling with relationship problems, looking for ways to cope with chronic pain or simply feeling irretrievably ‘stuck’ in a painful place,for reasons known or unknown.

As author Scott Peck said, way back in 1978, ‘Life is difficult’, and sometimes our coping methods and support systems aren’t able to carry us through. When daily life becomes a struggle, sometimes therapy can help.

And those ‘eight signs’? They’re here, along with my suggestions of what someone might wish for in their place:

  • You have unexplained and recurrent headaches, stomach-aches or a rundown immune system (you want to feel physically better)
  • You’re using a substance to cope (you want to be able to feel good without self-medicating)
  • You’re getting bad feedback at work (you want to achieve more and feel good about yourself at work)
  • You feel disconnected from previously beloved activities (you want to feel joy as you go about your life)
  • Your relationships are strained (you want your relationships to be rich and fulfilling)
  • You’ve suffered a trauma and you can’t seem to stop thinking about it (you want to find a way to deal with a past event so that you feel peaceful and easy once more)
  • Everything you feel is intense (you want more balance in your life)
  • Your friends have told you they’re concerned (you want time and a place to work things out for yourself)

These are all good reasons for considering therapy. As are these:

  • The wish to find a way to forgive others, or yourself
  • The desire to stop feeling like you’re on ‘autopilot’
  • The wish to turn an ok marriage into a great one
  • The desire to find a different way of parenting
  • The desire to find out what you really want from life

Therapy isn’t a cure-all, but it is a safe place to work out what’s happening now, where you’ve been, where you’re going, and where you want to go. In your own time.

Here’s that Huff Post article in full:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/8-signs-you-should-see-a_n_4718245.html

Sarah Tomley is a counsellor working in Suffolk, UK, at Insight Counselling Ipswich.