Dr. Dan Siegel helps us identify the neurophysiology of self-preservation and self-defense. He asks some very insightful questions that can help prevent loosing our cool or, when we do loose it, return to our resiliency zone faster and more efficiently. Our “low-road” activation is the extremely fast part of our brain—faster than our thinking and rational mind—which is activated when under threat.
Some of the most important functions of our limbic system and brain stem, the “low-road”, are to assure our survival and safety. This applies whether the threat is physical, emotional or mental. It is these brain structures that get activated when in the dark of night, a tree branch on the ground makes us react as if it were a snake. Our “low-road” doesn’t care for subtleties; it perceives and experiences reality with a wide brush. If a branch in the middle of the night looks like a snake, it is a snake. Reacting immediately equals survival. Thinking could equal death. If your partner looks at you, or talks to you in any way that reminds your limbic system and brain stem how your parent did when emotionally charged and ready to strike, it evaluates that your partner is about to do the same. Your wide brush, fast acting brain pastes your past onto your present, whether it is really what is going on or not.
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Unprocessed grief and trauma literally reset our brain and nervous system to be more vigilant to further possible assaults. This leaves us hyper vigilant, when in fact we don’t always need to be. When our inner alarm system—our limbic system and brain stem—is hypersensitive to threat, it has a propensity to see threat where none exist. When this happens, our pre-frontal cortex—our ability to evaluate and make proper decisions for what is really going on—is flooded with stress hormones. Stress hormones weaken the pre-frontal cortex ability to think clearly and evaluate accurately. Stress hormones also weaken the pre-frontal cortex function to regulate and dampen the limbic system, which is exactly where the signal of potential danger is stored and stems from. Bottom line, when unhealed and unprocessed traumas overshadow what is going on in real time, sometimes, against our best efforts we can’t control our biology; the “luxury” of psychological insights is trumped by our instinctual need to survive.
This whole sequence perpetuates a negative feedback loop, which often translates as having a short fuse. Dr. Siegel describes two basic ways our nervous system can react: the “hot type” and the “cold type”. In the “hot type” our ability to think through and evaluate what is really going on goes off line. We “flip our lid”. We can’t remember that “my partner is not my dad, she’s never been mean to me and hit me like dad used to. My partner is just annoyed or angry.” In the “hot type”, we talk loud, we yell, we say nasty and hurtful things, we explode, our reactions are big and threatening to others. On the other hand, in the “cold type” we might still look like we are engaged with the other person, but in fact we are not. We are taking mental and emotional notes of the wrongs done to us, storing the information for retaliation, which will be served, cold style. Passive aggressive behaviors are prime examples of the “cold style”. We never really say what is on our mind, but behave in unsettling, covert and hostile manners.
We can all go down the “low-road” at times, especially in times of physical, emotional and mental vulnerabilities. This being said, some people are more prone to be easily triggered than others. When such is the case, we have to rule out: 1) potential poor brain health or damage to our brain tissues such as: neurological disorders; detrimental use of legal or illegal drugs and alcohol, even certain foods; poor oxygenation to the brain, brain traumatic injuries such as contact sports or motorized vehicles accidents where the brain may be bruised. All can greatly affect the health of our brain and create inflammation. 2) Unprocessed traumatic experiences that could stem from insecure and disorganized attachment in childhood. These two different styles of attachment with primary care givers constantly leave the child feeling unsafe. At worse, the child has nowhere to go and can’t experience feeling secure and protected. In fact, in disorganized attachment, the source of safety is also the source of threat. This is an awful situation for anyone, especially a dependent and vulnerable child.
In such cases, a person’s mind remains hyper vigilant and susceptible to any form of attack or wrongdoing which mirrors past experiences with primary caregivers. Sadly enough, this is a prime example of “the sins of the parents being handed down to the next generation”; also known in psychological terms as trans-generational transmission. Children often adopt their parents’ attachment style. We learn by example. While adopting an insecure or disorganized attachment style is a challenge for the ease and flow of our relationships, it is not a curse. Mindful and embodied therapeutic work can help brake away the chains that hold us back and have us re-enact a past which no longer exist. Thankfully, we live in a time in history when we have a greater understanding of how our brains and minds work, and a wider array of therapeutic modalities to help us heal from a painful past. Our brains are, after all, neuroplastic!
Here are the few questions Dr. Siegel invites us to contemplate to help evaluate our “low-road” activation and how we return to our resiliency zone:
- What are the things that trigger you?
- How quickly do you go down the “low-road”?
- Do you notice bodily sensations (neuroception) such as increase heart rate, tightening of the chest or guts, muscular tension, shallow breathing, etc. when your “low-road” kicks in? (Being aware of our neuroception is required if we are to be pre-emptive instead of reactive when our “low-road” kicks in.)
- Do you notice an emotional response that warns you that you are about to be highjack?
- Can you communicate what is happening to you so that you can get the support you need to remain in your social engagement system?
- Are you willing to remove yourself from a situation when you know you are about to “flip your lid”, or go at it “cold style”?
- How quickly can you stabilize yourself and shake your “low-road” activation off after it happened?
- When the event is over, is it really over or does it leave permanent stain on your heart, emotions and psyche, and on your relationship(s)?
- Do you take the required time to heal the misunderstandings and repair the mis-attunements in a compassionate and empathic way?
To learn a few skills on how to remain resilient in moments of high stress, I invite you to read the Blog: 7 Ways To Remain Resilient When Stress Hijacks, published on 04.06.2016, especially the last part of it.
C. Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©