The Brain’s Emotional Circuits

Lots has been written in the past 20 years about the brain and how its wiring directly impacts our emotional states.  One writer pointedly drew the distinction between the “mind” and the “brain” – that collection of billions of neurons, each with numerous axons that connect with others to create networks.  These networks are the pathways for our thougths and mental associations, as well as our most gripping emotions – Rage, Fear, Lust, Sexual Lust, Connection with Others, Seeking (exploring the environment for its rewards….basic aliveness and vitality).  Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has identified the specific neural networks where these feelings track.  Scientists for years have been able to experimentally stimulate areas of the brain and produce angry, fearful, lustful, exploring and anxious behavior.  Substantial evidence exists for the notion that chronic feeings of irritation or anxiety, for example, are actually reflections of a low-grade, constant activation of these neural networks.  This is perhaps, why neurofeedback therapy has been clinically found to ease these distressing states.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

John Gottman, Ph.D. has observed that when couples come in for their first appointment with a marital therapist, their relationship has had serious problems for, on average, six years.  I often tell couples that it is rare that two people will sit across me me and say something like, “We’re basically doing fine.  We just need some help with communication.”  Much more likely, I am sitting with two very wounded people, their feelings rubbed raw from years of conflict, pain and emotional distance.  Dr. Sue Johnson observed years ago that the intensity of the conflict – the very sense of being out of control – is tragically understandable – as each person’s deepest need for connection has been unmet.  This “attachment” need (see earlier posts) is so deep it is felt, literally, on a cellular level.  People are just so emotionally exhausted and strained when they first enter marital therapy that any therapist who blames either person, rather than compassionately trying to understand the particular wounds and needs of each is doing more harm than good.  Emotionally Focused Therapy, among many things, is like a balm to people’s psychic sores.   I am on the EFT community’s list serve and I am frequently moved by the deep care and compassion of these attachment therapists.  It is a pure and fine form of therapy.  The abiding belief of this community is that healing of even the most strained relationships can come to us if we are patient and give care rather than judgment.

The Four Horsemen

Relationship conflict isn’t a bad thing –  to be avoided whenever possible.   Ask any couple who’s been together for years and years and they will tell you that their time together has not been without conflict.  As U.W.’s John Gottman assures us, the problem isn’t conflict, it’s the way we deal with conflict.  According to Gottman 69%  of marital disagreements are durable.  We’ll never get them to agree with our view and we’ll certainly never agree with theirs.  Think of it….69%.  If we really think that the way to end this particular conflict is for one of us to come over to the other’s side, that’s a heck of a lot of frustration we’ll be dealing with.  So what happens when we are grinding on each other without a sense of resolution?  Well, the risk to our relationships, again, isn’t the fact of those perpetual disagreements.  It’s our tendency to slip into one, or more, of the negative relationship habits that Gottman terms The Four Horsemen of relationship apocalypse.  These are Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.   Criticism:  When you don’t just have a complaint about something your partner did or didn’t do, but you criticize their character.  It’s not, “I’m really angry that you promised to take out the garbage but didn’t and it didn’t get picked up.”  It’s, “You always do this.  You are unreliable (or lazy or uncaring or selfish, etc.).  Contempt:  When you begin to nurture an attitude that you are superior to your partner.   Gottman observes that contempt is incredibly toxic for a relationship and if it is allowed free rein inside a person’s psyche, he can almost guarantee divorce.  Stonewalling:  When one partner shuts down and refuses to engage.  It may be the result of emotional flooding that feels overwhelming, but the period for that is fairly limited and the stonewaller shuts down and doesn’t re-engage.  It leaves the other person hanging out there, exposed.  The  stonewaller thinks their behavior is passive and doesn’t understand that it is experienced, usually, as much more painful and aggressive by their partner.  Finally, Defensiveness:  No matter what I say to you about my concerns, you have a reason, defense or counterattack.  I feel unheard and unacknowledged.  It is a terribly frustrating and painful experience and will cause me to withdraw to protect myself from feeling so invisible.  There are definitely ways to manage perpetual conflict, or conflict on topics that forever seem to defy solution, and these will be brought up in a later post.  For now, however, the point is that we need to be ever vigilant for the introduction of any of  The Four Horsemen into our relationship when we experience the emotional fatigue and discouragement of disagreements that seem not to have ready solutions.

The Power of Fear

We never make our best decisions from a place of fear.   The amygdala, that little guy in the middle of our brain kicks in – and we can just forget about it after that!  Our left brain might as well have hopped a jet to Katmandu, for al thel impact it will have.   When our fear is triggered, we automatically shoot into basic survival, fight-or-flight mode.  Relationship stress – the terribly painful conflicts with which we struggle – activates the amygdala as sure as the saber toothed tiger coming across the path of our uber-ancient forebears.  Marital therapist Brent Atkinson in his excellent Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy speaks about as well as any of the intensity with which we are swept up in the reactive and painful fear that infects both people in the throes of intimate conflict.  While it is usually easier for us to say we are angry rather than fearful, it may not matter how you characterize these intense emotions.  Either way, the right brain and amygdala dominate our mental process, our left brain shuts down and our ability to manage conflict is reduced to zero.