We’ve all been there. Someone cuts you off in traffic, or your spouse pushes a particular button, or your child whines for just a few minutes too long and…wham! You have devolved into a stress-ball and can no longer stay calm and act rationally. You yell, or snipe, or attack, or shut down. In short, you have “flipped your lid”. The “smart parts” of your brain have been hijacked by the emotional center and you now cannot access the higher areas of your brain that normally allow us to be rational and reasonable people.
As the “hand model” of the brain to the left illustrates, our brain is made up of lots of different parts. If your hand is clenched in a fist the fingers that are visible will represent your higher cortical areas such as the frontal lobe. This is, as I like to refer to it, the “Spock center”. It’s the part of the brain that can help us not intentionally ram the car in front of us when they cut us off in traffic. It helps us to inhibit responses and respond rationally and calmly.
Sadly that part of the brain gets disconnected under high levels of stress. Yes, folks, just when we need it most our higher cortical areas literally go “off-line”. So who is running the show at that point? You guessed it, our emotional center. The limbic system, represented in our hand model by the thumb, is now in charge. Which is why when we are highly triggered we tend to say and do things we regret later, when our higher cortical areas come back online and assess the damage.
Under normal circumstance when we are not too stressed out our limbic system is still active and reacting but the cerebral cortex is “wrapped” around it (as in the illustration of the fist) so that it “hugs” the emotional center and keeps it relatively quiet. There are literally bundles of nerves that carry information from our frontal lobe to our limbic systems when things are running smoothly. This keeps us from killing people whenever we get slightly stressed out. Normally this system works well enough to keep most of us out of trouble most of the time. However, when the stress gets too high, those fibers stop carrying information from the cortex (as in the illustration with the hand extended upwards) and the limbic system has free reign. It’s like letting your 3 year old drive the car on the freeway. Not such a good idea and we should not be surprised when there is a multi-car pile-up!
So, what can one do in this situation? Well, here is what most of us try, which incidentally doesn’t work: we try to talk rationally to the other person. We try to explain or rationalize or educate them out of their feelings. The problem here is that we are talking from our cerebral cortex and their cerebral cortex is not operational. So it can’t hear us. And the limbic system doesn’t speak that language. In fact it doesn’t really understand language. It’s much more influenced by things like tone and volume of voice, gestures and facial expressions. So if you can see that someone has flipped their lid, the best thing you can do is to show that person that you understand how they feel. This is creating a connection between your limbic system/emotional center and theirs. So if my friend is frustrated with me and I show her that I understand that feeling through my facial expressions, voice and gestures our brains are now connected. At that point I have the opportunity to influence her brain because we have an “open channel” between the two systems. So I can now start to offer calming words, sounds and gestures (such as smiling, gentle touching, quiet and low tones of voice) that will start to calm down her nervous system. As her limbic system begins to get more calm her cerebral cortex will come back on-line and now I can communicate with her logical brain from my logical brain.
Notice that this strategy is about how to manage another person when they come unglued. That’s because the fastest and most efficient way for a human brain to get calm is to use another human brain. If we have to calm ourselves it takes more oxygen and glucose (the power sources for our brains) so it’s more resource-intense. We can, of course, calm ourselves if we have to. Other people are not always available. But the optimal way to handle a flipped lid is to have another person who can connect to our brains and calm us down. Humans are, after all, pack animals and we derive numerous benefits from living in groups.
So next time you flip your lid, or observe one of your pack flip theirs, remember to get the emotional connection established FIRST and then, only after the emotional intensity has dissipated, try to connect to the logical parts.
For more information on interpersonal neurobiology and the science of our connection to others see the work of Dan Siegel, MD, and Stan Tatkin, PsyD. Or stay tuned for more blog posts on this website.