Loving your Reactive Brain (and everyone else’s, too)

When was the last time that your body was triggered? Yesterday? 10 minutes ago? Are you triggered right now, with the telltale signs: elevated pulse, adrenalized state, tightened muscles, shallow, quick breathing, thoughts that are racing (or simply absent)?

OK, some of you are thinking, “well SURE! That’s how I usually feel, especially at work/home with the kids/ looking at the bills/ working out a conflict with my partner/reading the internet…” Yes, I know–our culture seems to believe that being in a reactive state is simply what life is about. However, did you know that being triggered means you’re in a stress response? Yep, all of those chemicals that are behind those fight/flight/freeze reactions is what we mean by stress. And–you cannot simultaneously be in a stress response and a health/rebuilding state. It’s one or the other. Stress uses up your resources; shifting to Creative Brain generates new ones. So being triggered is using up your energy and grinding away at your health.

The tricky part of knowing all of this information is that Reactive Brain and its trusty companion, stress, are vital to our survival. Jumping out of the way of the bus, orienting our gaze to where the big explosion came from, seeing the snake–oh, that’s a STICK–in the trail and preparing to run, that all is built-in to be sure we can DO something when there’s a threat. Pretty good design, right? It’s automatic, it’s fast, and it doesn’t require that we think anything through. “Let’s see, if the bus is approaching at 35 miles an hour, and I’m walking at 3 miles per hour, and it’s 10 feet away from me, how long will it take to HIT ME??” Not a good way to keep from being run over.

Dan Siegel came up with a terrific way of helping us understand brain anatomy. Ready? There are no charts or long words necessary. Take one hand and look at it, palm up. Fold your thumb in, and your fingers over the thumb. That’s (very vaguely) how your brain is designed. Your fingers make up the neocortex, the part of your brain that thinks and problem-solves and analyzes. Your arm is your spinal cord; your wrist the brainstem. And the thumb? It’s the limbic brain, the emotional brain. (Go here for a YouTube video with Dr. Siegel demonstrating this.)

People like to see themselves as all fingers, all neocortex. Nope. Take a moment to appreciate your arm, wrist and thumb. That’s your Reactive Brain. That’s what jumps in without any thought–to ensure your survival.

When I’m reflecting on how all of this works, I like send some love to my Reactive Brain. Sure, it’s caused me a whole lot of grief in relationships. That’s the part of me that wants me to yell and  to overpower, or sends signals to me to cower and slink away. Or it seems to just freeze   up without having a clue about what to say or do next. I’ve said horrible things that I completely believed when I was in Reactive Brian. I’ve gone from “I’m totally in love!” to “What was I thinking?! I have to end this relationship NOW!” in a heartbeat. I’ll bet you have, too.

Try it. Try loving your Reactive Brain. (I, myself, have a little ritual of making a Dan Siegel hand and giving my thumb little kisses and coos, “ooooh, thank you, little Reactive Brain. I know you’re doing the best you can!”) Forgive it for its meanness, its greediness and spite. Its inability to feel connection, its longing to flee, its overall poor behavior. It’s doing the best it can. And it got you here. Love and soothe it, and suddenly you can be its master, and no longer its slave.

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