By Sue Saker, Jul 17 2015 11:26AM
I went to a fascinating Coach Training session the other day on the basics of Neuroscience and how our brain reactions have a huge influence on our relationships. As I’m not a Neuroscience expert it may be a bit iffy round the edges but hopefully is broadly correct, enough for you to go off and delve deeper if you feel the urge.
Right, diving in, we’re going to look at 2 parts of our brain.
The first is the Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC). This is the newer (in evolutionary terms) part of our brain and is responsible for many executive functions such as being able to Focus, Pay Attention, Concentrate, Rationalise and importantly manage our Emotions. When the PFC is in charge you’ll be able to think things through, weigh up different approaches to get the best perceived outcome etc. All good. Oh and it doesn’t fully develop until our early to mid twenties which explains a lot about why my 9 year old thought it was a good idea to cut holes in his sheet with scissors!
Then we have the Limbic System (LS), a much older part of the brains that we’ve inherited from mammals and hence is all about survival. It is constantly scanning for threats such as finding food, shelter, having sex to procreate, running away from animals that will eat us. There is also a focus on ‘we must belong’ whether that’s to a tribe, family, team etc as there was safety in numbers as we evolved.
When the LS notices a perceived threat it releases the stress chemicals; adrenaline & cortisol. Brilliant for running away from lions, not so handy in the modern world. On the plus side if the LS senses something good it releases Dopamine which fires up our reward centres and we want more of it. Much like that first sip of Gin & Tonic!
The bad news is that when the LS is in action releasing chemicals galore it takes over the PFC and all rational decision making goes out the window. Instead we react from the chemicals that are racing round our bodies and our emotions. This is where we say things out of anger or hurt that we wouldn’t normally, we shout, we might punch a wall, kids hit out, we break something, cry, or send the text that we regret the next day. It’s all just the chemicals going bananas and the PFC not getting a look in. Even worse our brains are sociable and hence the chemicals start up in the people around us and we’re all doing the Limbic dance together. Help!
So what are the threats that the LS is scanning for? There is a handy acronym: Be SAFE & CERTAIN from the clever people at www.shooksvensen.com/be-safe-certain/.
Be - Belonging to a team / family / group. Eg the threat of a reorganisation at work or redundancy. Or finding out your partner is having an affair.
S - Status. How important am I? What’s my position in this group? Where is my authority? Eg a child answering back can trigger a reaction here as it’s a threat to status. Or the Compliance team feeling marginalised because everyone is raving about the Sales team.
A - Autonomy is all about having choice. Eg my partner is home late from work so I have to miss my appointment ie my choice has been taken away.
F - Fairness. Whether we feel we’re being unfairly treated or see it happening around us. Eg someone pushing in the queue.
E - Expectations not being met can again trigger a response. Eg thinking motherhood would be blissful but your baby just keeps crying.
C - Certainty. Humans are generally very bad at change and a level of uncertainty in our lives can trigger a lot of anxiety.
A threat to any of these areas can trigger a Limbic System response and make us feel anxious, out of control, stressed, heart racing, emotions rising etc. When we react from this place we are generally unlikely to get the result that we would ideally want, whether that’s from our work colleagues, our boss, our kids or our partner.
What we need is the to get the Pre Frontal Cortex back in charge and how do we do that?
Well breathing helps. Your mum was right when she told you to count to 10!
And grounding by which I mean just taking a few moments to feel the ground beneath our feet, it’s solidity and certainty. Consciously allowing our emotions to subside.
Having a Time Out can help to calm ourselves down and gather our thoughts.
While doing that it’s helpful to look at what the other person is trying to do, to put ourselves in their shoes, what’s their positive aim etc.
And ask ourselves ‘how do I want to react to this?’ ‘what do I want to achieve and how can I make that happen?’
Once the PFC (shall we rename it Pretty Flipping Cool?!) is back in charge we are far more likely to deal with the situation constructively and positively.
So there you have it, some basics of Neuroscience. Notice when your heart is racing, emotions are rising etc and remember that it means your Limbic System has taken over and find a way to get your Pretty Flipping Cool back in charge.
Good luck - practice makes it easier.