September 18, 2019

Emotions and Your Brain

Mental Health & Wellbeing

Our brains are incredibly complex. That’s probably not news to you, but even in sitting down to write this blog, I’m struck again by just how intricate the structures and functions of the brain are. So much is happening up there!

Dr. Daniel J. Siegel (M.D.) and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson (Ph.D.) have collaborated on a variety of research, books on child development and parenting. In their book, No-Drama Discipline, they offer a great overview of two different parts of the brain and the roles they play in experiencing and regulating our emotions. The book is written from a parenting perspective, which offers a really helpful viewpoint for kids and their emotional behavior. However, I also think this information can be really helpful for everyone; kids, parents or adults alike! In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at their approach and how it can help all of us better understand our emotions.

Siegel and Bryson focus their explanation on two big portions of the brain: the limbic region and brainstem, which they call the “downstairs brain”, and the cerebral cortex, which they refer to as the “upstairs brain”.

The Downstairs and Upstairs Brains

The downstairs brain has traditionally been called the “reptilian brain.” This is because the brainstem and the limbic region are both responsible for the most basic and fundamental functions, both bodily and emotional. Basically, these are functions that all brains (like those of reptiles, for example) have – even the most primitive human brains. The brainstem and limbic region control things like heart rate, breathing, and digestion, as well as our arousal/alertness to threats, quick and strong emotions (especially anger and fear), and our instincts (like our fight/flight/freeze reactions, or the instinct to protect our children).

The cerebral cortex (the upstairs brain), on the other hand, is responsible for higher level functions. A well developed cerebral cortex is in charge of things like decision making, your moral compass, the ability to be flexible or adapt to changing situations, the ability to have insight, self-understanding, and empathy.

When the downstairs brain is activated, you’re likely instinctually or emotionally reacting to your circumstances. That downstairs brain isn’t worried about making calm, rational decisions or understanding how the other person in this scenario might feel. It has sensed a threat or a big emotion like anger and quickly moves to respond. When the upstairs brain is activated, however, you’re more likely to be able to think through your actions and behavior, to consider consequences and actually make a thought-through decision rather than an impulsive one.

Discipline and the Brain

Siegel and Payne highlight these differences to offer parents insight into their discipline process, describing how a parent can try to first soothe the downstairs brain (that fight/flight/freeze, emotional part) and then help the child shift into using her upstairs brain functions.

One of the ways they suggest you can make that shift is evident in the classic parenting phrase, “use your words.” By working with a child to name what they are feeling – to name their emotions – they are helping the child use that thoughtful, cognitive part of their brain. As they move from impulsively reacting to thoughtfully responding, they begin to learn and form the habit of regulating their own emotions.

Application For All

As adults, we can apply this to ourselves just as well! When you feel threatened or feel a surge of big emotions (like anger, for example), consider the fact that your reptilian brain might be activated, and you might be primed to respond instinctively or automatically. The better option in many cases might be to acknowledge the feeling and impulse and name it. Maybe do some deep breathing or mindfulness exercises to calm your heart and breathing rate that the downstairs brain has triggered. The hope is that you can simultaneously soothe the downstairs brain and kick the upstairs brain into gear.

While this certainly isn’t a quick fix for emotion regulation, this insight into the brain can be helpful in giving us a better understanding of what is happening in us when our emotions feel too big or out of control. It gives us a bit of direction in how we can work with that information to change the way we respond. If you’re interested in learning more about emotion regulation for yourself or for your child, give us a call. We’d love to work with you through it!

Written by therapist Clair Miller

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