We 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.
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.
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