Do you get triggered in your relationship?
Then you need to understand the lizard brain! The lizard brain you say. What can this possibly have to do with relationships and triggers you might ask?
Many of the couples I see in counseling are very triggered, very reactive in their relationship with each other. Intellectually, they are often aware of this, yet they are still so challenged in making changes and in becoming more loving with each other.
In order to give them a context for what’s happening, part of what I do (believe it or not) is explain to them the physiology of the human brain, particularly the lizard brain, which is part of our tripartite brain! Let me share some of what I say to my couples and perhaps you’ll understand my motivation in this.
Note: While I originally wrote this piece to address reactivity in romantic relationships, it is also quite relevant to your business relationships as well!
In actuality, our brain is three brains! That’s what the “tri” means, as in “tri-angle” or “tri-cycle”. And each brain has it’s own system of logic, which is why we are often at odds with ourselves and feel torn and conflicted.
At the base of our brain is the part called the “reptilian complex” or the lizard brain. We share this part with all animals, including reptiles, such as alligators and lizards. The reptilian brain takes care of those things we usually don’t’ think about like heartbeat, digestion and breathing.
And more important to this article, it also is concerned with our survival. When we’re in danger, it will respond in one of five basic ways: fight, flight, freeze or play dead, submit or hide.
This protective design helps us to deal with physical danger, yet it also is activated whenever we are in psychological danger. And that is the issue in our relationships, our brain can’t really distinguish between physical danger and when we are being psychologically or emotionally challenged by a situation.
We use the same basic and primitive survival skills in “protecting” ourselves in our relationships: fight, flight, freeze (have you ever stared through your partner?), submit (okay, whatever you want, just don’t nag) or hide (go to another room, leave the house). All of this is done on an unconscious level, below the level of thought.
The second part of our brain is the limbic system, also known as the mammalian brain. We have it in common with all mammals and it is the part of the brain that allows us to experience our feelings. Again, the feeling of fear is connected to survival.
The third part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, is the logical part of our brain. It is five times bigger than the other two parts combined. It is where our speech, writing, math and thought come from. And it generally seems to shut down when we are triggered by highly emotional issues. It is bigger, yet slower than the lizard brain, and it surrenders control to the lizard brain when danger is imminent.
All three parts of the brain are processing information simultaneously. So, if I’m experiencing fear of divorce, I experience it as a deep survival fear through the lizard brain, I experience the emotion through the mammalian brain and I experience all of my thoughts and logic around it through the cerebral cortex.
The work then, is to help the three brains to coordinate and support each other in creating more than survival. This is the deep work of relationship and couples counseling, to help identify these triggers and defense mechanisms and to transcend them. This allows us to create a loving, open relationship with a greater intention to learn and grow then an intention to protect.
One tool I can share is to breath. When we take a deep breath and slowly let it out, we reset our fight or flight system. It gives us a moment to then respond and not react from our wounds. It allows us to take responsibility for the outcome we desire in our interactions. As I learned in a workshop in the 1980s, responsibility is the ability to respond.
I hope that this brief explanation of the tripartite brain might help you to be a little more compassionate with yourself over your fears and your triggers. And hopefully you can be a little more compassionate with your partner and their lizard brain as well. The lizard brain doesn’t have to be your enemy.
There are a number of programs that I’ve created for couples to help work with their triggers. Please contact me if I can be of any help in this area.
Thank you so much,
Dr. Adam Sheck
If you’re interested in more of my thoughts about relationships and creating passion and purpose, please download my Free Special Reports, “20 Rituals For Romance!” and “The Secret To Owning Your Mission!” by subscribing to the Passion Doctor Newsletter at the top of this page.
Adam, I love this. Thank you for sharing.
I often teach the same concept, but from the marketing perspective and how each part operates differently in the decision making process. As marketers, though, most efforts are aimed at triggering fear responses or pleasure centers. Your work is far more transformative as it actually brings this important information to light, to help people break free.
Thanks again for a great article, keep it up!
Thanks so much for your thoughtful response. The information is the information whether we use it in business, relationship or health. Glad you see the value.
Thanks Adam!! Great explanation.. Interesting,, my partner would tell me to stop ‘hiding’ all the time. hmm.. and I would then argue back that I wasn’t. I could just not see it the same way. however, hiding did not mean necessarily leaving a room, or walking out the door, hiding is also emotionally distancing yourself. Hard to get out of that crazy cycle once you are in it.. because there seems to be more triggers as talking through it ! I would love to hear more on this topic.. It seems it would save a lot of relationships to know how to deal with this!
Glad it makes sense to you. Yes, it’s fundamental to reduce reactivity in relationships and a big part of what I do with couples. Once we’re “flooded” it becomes more challenging to be present and loving. Sometimes “hiding” or taking a time out is the best thing to do.
Adam, Just an odd thought while I was reading, but this seems like it would be at the core of many D/s type relationships, yes?
I’ll have to think about that one for a bit. We are ALL at the affect of the lizard brain, so can’t say that those types are more or less. There is the biological as well as the patterns and preferences we have imprinted from our childhoods which definitely have a big part in that.
Thanks for the thought,
Adam, I’ve learned through years of my own development that when my husband is driving crazy the place I need to look is with my own life. Usually, I’m not happy with some aspect of my life and I’m projecting onto him. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it gives me a chance at a different perspective.
I completely agree with you that what irritates us in our partners is often something we need to work on within ourselves. Much of my couples counseling is around understand the gift of your partner as a mirror for your growth. AND, to complement that psychological piece, the biological information about the reptilian brain is essential in my opinion.
Hello Dr. In my past relationship I either hide or play dead.How I can overcome that and have long term ever lasting relationship .Can you please guide me ? Thanks
That is a pretty general question. Feel free to contact me to schedule a complimentary consultation if you are serious about creating change in your life.