Tame Your Emotional Brain and Improve Your Relationship

Gears Inside of a Woman's HeadWe like to think we are in charge of our own life, master of our ship. We do in fact have the ability to choose how to act, what we say, who we are—up to a point. Neuroscience gives us a perspective that is rather humbling. It turns out that we share a great deal with lower creatures in terms of our basic survival instincts, and in terms of how the brain works. Like other animals, a lot of what we do is on automatic pilot. We share 98% of our DNA with chimpanzees. The 2% difference is mostly in the prefrontal cortex, the most advanced part of the brain that is unique to us humans. We are animals, but animals with a difference.

The Amygdala: Threat Detector

Most of the time, our brain is humming along, working on automatic pilot without our awareness. The amygdala, a key part of the emotional brain, is always scanning for danger. When it senses threat, the amygdala kicks into high gear, prompting a cascade of neurological and chemical messages throughout brain and body to deal with the crisis. The fight-or-flight response is triggered. This is very helpful if you’re hiking in the woods and see a snake. Your amygdala gets you to run away before you’re fully aware of what you’ve seen. But perhaps it was just a stick and you overreacted. The amygdala doesn’t dabble in niceties; it is biased toward the negative, and can save your life in a pinch. Its job is to protect you from danger, and a few false alarms are part of the deal.

The amygdala is a great ally in a dark alley; one whiff of danger and it’s efficiently doing its job. The heart races, the feet make us run, and we (hopefully) escape the bad guy. But the amygdala isn’t very smart; it often sees danger where none exists. Let’s say you’re in your living room with your partner and he or she gives you a look of disapproval. Your amygdala registers danger, and you have two choices: fight or flight. You start defending yourself or you counter-criticize your partner for being so critical (two forms of fight); maybe you storm out of the room, slamming the door for good measure (flight).

Success! Your amygdala has saved you from a threatening moment with your partner. The problem is, he or she is now in the living room stewing over how you abandoned him/her, and more trouble lies ahead. Perhaps it would have been smarter for you to ask about his/her concern and address it calmly. If only you hadn’t reacted so rashly! Now he or she is going to be angry for days, and you’re going to feel guilty. It’s a mess.

Prefrontal Cortex to the Rescue

Your animal instincts are protective, but they also can lead to a lot of heartbreak. Fortunately, we do have a higher brain; the prefrontal cortex (PFC) allows us to pause, think, and choose to act according to our higher values. It also allows us to repair with a partner when we have acted badly.

The prefrontal cortex calms the amygdala, helping us regulate our emotions. You don’t have to be a victim of your own reactivity, anger, or defensiveness. If you have the intention to be your best self, you can stop and make a better choice. I know this from personal experience. When I was a little girl, I had red hair—and a temper to match. My father shared with me some wisdom from an ancient Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, who said: “Most powerful is the person who has himself in his own power.” This had a big impact on me, even though I was only 8 years old. I understood that I could be powerful by taming my temper.

I’ve been working on my temper ever since, and these days I am often able to catch myself before I blow up at my husband. I pause (activating my PFC) and think before I yell or get reactive. Then I raise my concerns with him in a more loving and respectful manner—getting much better results than if I blast him with anger. In these moments, I am acting according to my higher values. When I can pull this off (not always!), I am choosing who I want to be in my marriage.

Emotion Regulation

The goal is not to stamp out our emotions. Emotions give color and vibrancy to our lives. They inform our decisions, allow us to love, and orient our moral compasses. But we do need to learn how to deal with our feelings, identifying and regulating them so we are not victims of our own reactivity.

Some people never learn to read their emotions. Men especially are socialized early in life to tune out or become numb to their vulnerable feelings: “Big boys don’t cry.” But if you can’t name your emotions, how are you going to regulate them? It’s not that the emotions go away—they’re just not available to consciousness. Let’s say Ted feels vulnerable when his wife, Amy, turns her attention away from him and he feels unimportant. But he’s never learned to recognize or understand his vulnerability. He may blow up at her if he’s felt ignored too often; neither he nor she has any idea where his tantrum comes from.

Neuroscientists point out that emotions start in our body; the information travels from the gut or heart up the spinal cord to the brain, where we become aware of our feelings. Ted needs to learn to identify his body cues when he is feeling left out or ignored by his wife, name the feeling, and take more constructive steps to address this issue with her.

Step one is identifying the emotion; step two is regulating it. When Ted feels upset with Amy, it’s not OK to just lash out. He needs to work with his feelings so he can raise his concerns respectfully. There are many ways to regulate emotions when we are upset. Deep belly breathing is particularly helpful; the out breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms down the sympathetic nervous system (part of the fight-or-flight response). Mindfulness meditation likewise calms the emotional brain. Counting to 10 or taking a break for a few minutes are other ways to settle down when upset. Cognitive reappraisal or reframing is also helpful (“my husband didn’t leave his shoes by the back door to trip me up on purpose; he just forgot to put them in the closet”).

Living and Loving Intentionally

Rather than living with knee-jerk reactivity, driven by our animal instincts for self-preservation, we can choose to live intentionally, thanks to the prefrontal cortex that differentiates us from other animals. I encourage couples to who come to me for therapy to identify their own higher goals and values; I then help them operationalize these values into concrete skills to improve their relationships.

Identifying your values and intentions helps you maximize the power of your prefrontal cortex. It allows you to develop relational virtues and reach for your best self—even when you start to get reactive. Instead of lashing out at my husband in a fit of temper, I can take a deep breath and say to myself, “This is the man I love. I want to act in a caring manner, not fly off the handle. I want a relationship of mutual respect.” In these best-self moments, I am relationally empowered, as my father and Seneca taught me so many years ago. It takes work to be able to calm yourself down and act in accordance with your higher values. The payoff is well worth it.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mona D. Fishbane, PhD, Interpersonal Neurobiology Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Jalen

    January 21st, 2015 at 2:19 PM

    I have encountered a whole lot of people who run too hot, you know, and their every waking moment is controlled by their impulsiveness. They say what immediately comes to mind and do whatever they think will be fun right in the moment, no filter at all. I think that there are a lot of times when you get in trouble without slowing down a little, thinking about what you are about to say or do. There comes a time when you have to be a little more rational than maybe what you are feeling in the moment.

  • tonya

    January 21st, 2015 at 10:02 PM

    Growing up my parents always had poor communication with one another. There was always a letter on the table stating how they felt but never communicated with each other about their anger. Eventually turning into violence towards each other. It was a unhealthy relationship and to this day still is. You never realize as a kid the impact they have on you until you get older and get into your own relationship and see the same traits. You realize wow I am my parents. As kids we learn what we see. When we weren’t taught to communicate you grow up not being able to express yourself when your angry about something you learn to just write it down. Trust was also a big problem.. my father cheated on my mother and literally drove her crazy making her think it was in her head til she caught him. From there the trust was gone. I find myself now not trusting men because I feel like every man is my father. The man who is suppose to teach me how to be treated by a man was the same man who betrayed me growing up. He didn’t teach me things I needed to know. I struggle in my relationship now . I’ve been hurt in my past relationship been cheated on an betrayed. I need to overcome my past an learn to trust and learn to communicate. .

  • Kenya

    January 22nd, 2015 at 6:58 PM

    I think you have to realize that those men are not your father and you have to feel that you are worthy of being loved and you deserve to have a faithful partner. There are no promises in relationships… what i mean is your partner might cheat, but you have to know that you will survive it. That relationship might end but when you feel worthy you will be able to move on. You have to love youself that’s when you begin to feel worthy.

  • tonya

    January 22nd, 2015 at 7:33 PM

    You are absolutely right.. I’m slowly teaching myself that. It also doesn’t help the fact of being betrayed in my last two relationships. So its a working process. Every women wants a faithful man. Putting your trust into somebody again after being hurt is very hard. Hopefully my man is patient with me :)

  • Alyona

    January 26th, 2015 at 6:27 PM

    Wonderful comment! The relationship might end, but you will still be an can be happy, if you value your own personality!

  • Gordon

    January 22nd, 2015 at 3:37 AM

    I would say that a good bit of the time our brain is giving us these warning signals but for some reason, we just choose too ignore them.
    What’s up with that? Our body is equipped to sniff out these emotional dangers and yet, we still think that we know best.

  • sonja

    January 22nd, 2015 at 4:42 PM

    I think what isn’t fully addressed is that although our neurology is biological, our triggers are often learned, and not instinctual. A disapproving look is not itself a threat, unless one is taught (either by experience or by example) that it is. This is where we get into the whole nature/nurture argument. How much of our perceived threats are we taught to be threats.

  • Melissa

    January 22nd, 2015 at 6:44 PM

    That is where cognitive restructuring comes into play to address those belief systems…or Schema work for our more deeply rooted and rigid beliefs.

  • Blake Griffin Edwards

    January 22nd, 2015 at 10:47 AM

    Relational empowerment through a calming of the emotional brain. Excellent insights! And well-said.

    Blake Griffin Edwards

  • Kenya

    January 22nd, 2015 at 7:05 PM

    Oh and i forgot to say great article.

  • Gina

    January 23rd, 2015 at 6:10 AM

    What a wonderful reader friendly summation of the brain, behavior and emotional regulation! Very helpful!

  • Zack

    January 23rd, 2015 at 10:13 AM

    Do we have to look at it as taming it?
    Why not understanding or something like that?

  • Pamela l.

    January 23rd, 2015 at 6:12 PM

    The trick is to be able to translate the body sensations into feelings. Sometimes hard to articulate. Images are precursors to language and drawing or painting the sensation sometimes leads to makeing the sensation understandable as a feeling where language may not.

  • Gina

    January 23rd, 2015 at 8:14 PM

    Great simple explanation about sensations and feelings!

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