From one of my most popular emails!
When we launch into sharing information with our clients about how the brain works and what happens in our body when we get upset, our client’s eyes may glaze over, lost in the unfamiliar words we use: Amygdala, hypothalamus, Pituitary Gland, Frontal Cortex, adrenalin, epinephrine, etc. I have attempted to simplify it with the following story I keep on my desk and, when appropriate, share a variation of this, granted over simplified, story.
Who Upset Amy?
Our body is like a community. In it there are several members who are an important part of what makes us upset, four in the brain, one just outside the brain and one on top of the kidneys. All parts work together and all are very important. Let’s just use their nicknames. Two are key players in beginning the process that sounds the alarm: Frank and Liz. Then several other members immediately launch into action to protect us: Amy, Thal, Pete, and Andy.
Amy is small and has only one very important job – turning the alarm switch on whenever she receives any threatening information. Amy does not question the message; she flips the switch on – sort of like turning all the lights on in the house in the middle of the night. Thal is nearby so quickly notes the blazing lights and immediately sends a warning on to Pete who begins making emergency chemicals, one of which wakes up Andy, a more distant neighbor who also begins to release his storehouse of “ammunition” necessary for the other parts of the body to be ready to fight or flee.
But why did Amy switch on the alarm? It’s not Amy or Thal, or Pete or Andy’s job to evaluate the danger either. Wow! Whose job is it to make an evaluation of the situation? Who does decide if Amy’s message means real danger or if Amy is sending out a false positive message – as happens all too often with folks who have chronic panic attacks or anxiety.
Who did decide to upset Amy? Maybe it was just some minor physical sensation that in some way caught Amy’s attention. Maybe it was Liz. Liz’s job is to watch for anything that seems in any way like something that was dangerous in the past. Liz doesn’t bother to run the messages, often unconscious, to Amy through Frank.
It’s Frank’s job to evaluate and make decisions. Frank is responsible for problem solving and judgment. Frank can be very rational and logical and reality oriented but at other times can be very negative, perhaps he simply had a negative thought. Any sort of, “Oh, no!” or “You can’t do that.” or “Doing that is too risky.” will do. That’s all Amy would need to switch the alarm.
The amygdala (Amy) has only one button; one job – to signal threat; to protect you. Amy is a key part of an instinctive, powerful, primitive and automatic defense system. The amygdala is first in responding to any threat – real or perceived and sends an alarm to the hypothalamus (Thal). The amygdala does not question the identification of the present situation with past or current danger; does not question the frontal cortex’s (Frank) negative cognition about danger. After all, it is Frank’s job to assess the reality of danger.
The amygdala doesn’t assess; it simply sends the alarm to the hypothalamus which takes the alarm seriously and sends the “danger-danger” message to the Pituitary Gland (Pete) who sends a chemical warning to the Adrenal Glands (Andy) to start pumping epinephrine. And, with the increase of chemicals in the body, the body tends to become anxious and fearful – maybe even panicked.
The Frontal Cortex (Frank) now has all these chemicals like epinephrine flowing within the body to convince him that there really is danger; it sure feels like it! The body is on a chemical propelled loop of a roller coaster ride. So, at what point does Frank look at the real facts and tell Amy to back down, “Nope, just kidding, false alarm”? That’s part of the problem. He often doesn’t. Frank continues to send “Oh, no!” signals to Amy. The thinking part of our brain continues with negative cognitions about potential danger and to continue such messages as “You can’t handle this” which generally works well to stop us from pursuing our goal.
Our challenge is to have Frank, the frontal cortex, be quiet, to stop sending false positive messages to Amy. And, what about Liz? (The Brain Stem, sometimes referred to as our Lizard brain, is the most primitive part of the brain.) Liz’s primary job is to send the message to Amy of potential danger. Liz did that job – right or wrong. It’s left to Frank to figure it all out.
The Pituitary and Adrenal Glands have aroused the entire sympathetic nervous system. This fight or flight part activates immediately and once aroused it is slow to back down. The parasympathetic nervous system – the relaxing part – takes its sweet time to engage and needs to receive an “all clear” message. This is, of course, why typical relaxation attempts aren’t always effective. The “switch”, to be maximally effective, needs to be turned off immediately. Frank needs immediate cognitive restructuring to stop reinforcing the danger message. This is where the concepts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy were developed to teach the client new tools to evaluate the reality of danger and to use when upset.
Fortunately, most of the time EFT is a powerful tool to calm the body quickly and be of great assistance in helping our frontal cortex with those necessary cognitive shifts. The false positive warning signals are quiet, Frank reassesses, “Gee, there is no real danger here.” The body calms and all is well.
Because we often grasp things better when it is visual, in a face to face session I accompany variations of this story with a rough drawing such as the one on the left.
Rough being the operative word here; obviously I am not in the group of artists who have significantly “more grey matter in an area of the brain called the precuneus in the parietal lobe.”* <smile>
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