Calming the Fear Centers

This week, we’re going to be talking about the last of the four negative attitudes that show up in troubled relationships: stonewalling. Stonewalling happens when one (or both) partners give up on trying to discuss, resolve or think about the problem at hand. It’s a shutdown mode. A way of saying, “I’m done with this conversation, I can’t talk about it anymore.” We’ll talk more about this topic later in the week. For today, I want to focus on the underlying neurobiology that frequently accompanies the act of stonewalling.

Here’s your two minute (drastically oversimplified) neurobiology lesson. Below is a picture of the human brain.

brain diagram

At the broadest level, you can divide the brain into three parts. The most basic portion of the brain, the brain stem and associated structures, is located at the connection with the spinal cord and deep inside the brain. It’s responsible for most of the automatic functions of the body, including respiration, heartbeat, and certain involuntary bodily movements.

The middle level of the brain is called the limbic region. Stuff that happens here occurs outside of conscious awareness, and everything in this region is designed to help you survive. It’s a threat-scanning system that stores memories of things that we should be afraid of and causes our body to go into fight-flight mode before our conscious brain has even had time to process what is happening. When it’s activated, our heart rate increases, lung capacity expands, muscles tense, and our digestive system shuts down. If the fear is severe enough, it can cause us to “freeze out” and lose connection with our own consciousness even though we remain physically awake.

The top level of the brain is the neocortex or cerebral cortex. This is where the conscious, reasoning, and meaning-making activities of the brain occur. It kicks in more slowly and can be derailed pretty easily by the limbic region, if we’re not careful. It’s also the region responsible for calming our bodies back down after we’ve gone into fight-flight mode.

The limbic region is amazing because it can react far more quickly than our reasoning mind can. This is a good thing when you are trying to avoid a car accident or running from a lion out on the African plains. It’s not necessarily as helpful in an intimate relationship, though. And this is why we’re talking about it.

When someone begins stonewalling, it’s often because their thinking mind has become overwhelmed by the fear circuits in the limbic region. When this happens, it can be hard for the neocortex to regain control, and while the person is in this state they are pretty much unable to take in information and process it with their thinking mind. This is the same reason that lecturing a toddler when they are throwing a fit is rarely successful. Their thinking mind is shutdown, and they are in a full limbic explosion.

One way that partners can reduce the potential for limbic activation and stonewalling in their relationship is to reduce the kind of communication that signals “threat” to the other partner. This prevents the limbic region from taking over. The other way to help reduce this is for the more susceptible partner to begin engaging in exercises that strengthen the power of the left prefrontal cortex, a portion of the neocortex that is connected to the limbic region and helps to regulate it. Research has shown that not only can the limbic region take over and disable the thinking mind, but the thinking mind can create stronger connections to the limbic region and thereby exert greater levels of control over limbic activation. This doesn’t prevent limbic activation from occurring in threat scenarios, but it does allow your conscious mind to jump in more quickly to regulate the limbic activation and calm your body down again.

On Tuesday, I’ll post a brief mindfulness exercise you can do every day. It’s a way to direct your attention and focus so that your left prefrontal cortex is activate and begins strengthening its connections to your limbic region. Doing this sort of brain exercise every day will increase the neural connections and allow you to gain greater regulatory control over your fear centers.

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