The human brain is truly amazing. It is the control centre which helps us stay alive, physically and emotionally and enables us to make sense of, and respond to, the complex world around us. It developed from the bottom up, starting with the basic survival functions in the brainstem, through to the mammalian midbrain which is the centre of emotions and the top of our brain, the cortical brain which helps us make sense of it all.
When these parts of our brain work together, we can remain calm and connected during times of heightened emotion, but when the lower parts of the brain feel overwhelmed, the thinking part of our brain disconnects and we may respond with seemingly irrational levels of anger or distress. The nature of this process of emotion regulation may vary quite a lot from individual to individual and may be influenced both by constitutional features and by our experiences.
Children or those who have experienced trauma may find it more difficult to manage their emotions. A basic understanding of how our amazing brains have evolved to make sense of and respond to emotional triggers can help adults and children alike to communicate and manage strong or intense emotions more effectively.
But how do we start to understand the vastly complex processes of the brain, and if we succeed in this, how do we communicate it with our children or the adults in our life?
Dr Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry and author of the fantastic books The Whole-Brain Child and Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, came up with a beautifully simple way of doing just this.
The hand model of the brain is a helpful way of showing the functions of the brain and what happens when we ‘flip our lids’. This is what happens when the lower parts of our brain take over (fight, flight or freeze) and our cortical, or thinking, brain becomes disconnected. Although the picture below is useful in illustrating the hand model, I highly recommend taking a look at one of the videos on Youtube where this model is explained. This video by Jeanette Yotte, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_dxnYhdyuY, is a lovely example of how the model can be explained to children.
When we have ‘flipped our lids’, the different part of our brain are not integrated and, as such, we cannot learn, communicate our needs, stay connected with others or problem-solve. Maintaining a healthy balance in our brain can be very difficult, particularly for children and for those who have experienced trauma.
In these cases, professional help may be required, but here are some useful tips for what we can all do to help ourselves to become better at ‘keeping the lid on’:
- Exercise. Exercise does not have to be planned or extensive. Jump up and down on the spot. Do some quick yoga poses. Go for a walk or ride a bike if you are able.
- Deep breathing: Breathe in slowly and deeply from your tummy, and breathe out slowly, imagining all your worry and anxiety leaving your body as you exhale. Sometimes counting while breathing in and out can further calm your mind.
- Imagine a comfortable, calm and safe place. Imagine yourself in a safe and comfortable place. Feel the safety of it. Put yourself there and try to experience the sounds and sensations of the place.
- Counting Awareness. Look outside and count the things you see. You can count the trees, the stop signs, the bushes, even the cars on the road.
- Laugh and talk with a friend.
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The Total Health Team