What is emotional regulation and why is it important?

March 21, 2019

I find the human brain simply fascinating.  In fact, much of the work we do at The Marriage Place is rooted in an understanding of how our brains are wired to work. You may already know our brains are made up of different regions, all interconnected and each responsible for different functions. But did you know the same part of the brain that registers physical pain also registers emotional pain – for instance when you feel criticized or embarrassed?  Why is this important to know? I’ll tell you why…

Meet your Amygdala

This part of the brain, known as the amygdala, heavily influences how well you function in relationships, including your marriage.  The amygdala is part of the limbic system, responsible for everything from our emotions, to our survival instincts, to our memory. In fact, we each have our own unique past saved in it, which is quite a job for something the size of an almond.

Our amygdala is our built-in security system. It’s the part of the brain that helps keep us safe – and remembers that touching a hot stove will burn us or kicking a brick will break our toe.  It also remembers the times we had our feelings crushed or felt vulnerable. Yes, it also remembers the painful emotional experiences from our past, which in turn influences how we behave in relationships in the present.  

Lizard Brain

Below the amygdala is the “thalamus”.  It’s our sensory relay station and it’s responsible for our survival instincts and our desire to avoid pain. When it gets overloaded with too many inputs and can’t differentiate them, it will direct our amygdala to sound the warning bell and create an emotional response. These emotional responses can be sudden, unconscious, and intense.

Some refer to this phenomenon as  “reptilian brain.”  I affectionately refer to it as “lizard brain”. When our lizard brain is activated, we are reactive. It’s “fight, flight or freeze” and all logic flies out the window.

Think of the temper tantrum a 3-year-old might throw or the melt down your 12-year-old has when she is up well past bedtime. They say things they don’t really mean and do things they later regret. No matter what you say, you can’t negotiate or talk reason with them.  That’s lizard brain.

It’s a conditioned response.  We don’t think clearly and aren’t rational. It also causes our stress hormones to release which makes it even harder for us to concentrate and problem solve.  We as adults are also very capable of the same kind of behavior.

Two Lizard Brains Dancing

Now imagine what it’s like to have two lizard brains activated.

In my own marriage, when my lizard brain is triggered and I’m self-protecting, I tend to go big and demand. I may even say things I don’t really mean. This in turn triggers John who doesn’t like raised voices or conflict, and he responds by disengaging and withdrawing, which triggers me, which triggers John, which puts us in a vicious, unproductive dance.

Lizard brain is all about pain avoidance and self-protection. Under stress, when it’s activated and looking for relief, it’s normal for it to resort to ineffective tools in an attempt to eliminate the pain.  Raised voices. Illogical thoughts and responses. Disengaging. Withdrawing.

I’m sure we can all agree that none of these is helpful or effective in a relationship.  But when your lizard brain is engaged, logic gets pushed aside. It’s why, I believe, so many of the cognitive (logic based) behavioral therapies fail for reactive couples, as they just further overload our lizard brains.

Learning to Self-Regulate

At The Marriage Place, we take a different approach to couples work, particularly for those high conflict or high conflict avoidant couples. We focus first on reducing the pain, or the fear of the pain, for each partner before we try to solve the problems in the relationship.  Otherwise, each partner’s desire to avoid pain can literally override any goals or objectives they have for their relationship.

By helping clients learn to self-regulate and avoid looping back to lizard brain reflexes, I find that escalations are reduced and the resulting conversations are more productive.

After all, our brains are not only wired for self-protection, they are also wired for emotional connection – connection we crave.

If you and your spouse are looking to rekindle the connection you once had, I encourage you to reach out and schedule time with one of our counselors or coaches who can help you learn to work together as a team to each effectively manage your own lizard brain and help your partner do the same.

Have questions about working with us?

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