The reptilian brain and therapy

Finally, you feel ready to go to therapy. A few sessions later and you're feeling worse.

How is this possible?  

Yes, it's not only possible, it's more common than is thought.

And it's not because there's any truth to the old psychotherapy adage "you have to get worse before you get better".

It may be due to the fact your therapy didn't include 'tracking your nervous system'.

The reptilian brain controls the nervous system

The reptilian part of our brain - so called because of it's similarity to the brain of reptiles - is located in the hind part of our brain just above our spinal column. It's located deep inside the brain and is protected like no other area owing to its primal role in survival.

The reptilian brain plays a large role in controlling our nervous system. 

And it's our nervous system that controls how we experience our emotions. 

The reptilian brain has the power to block your therapy

If you're frustrated by your lack of progress in therapy, consider that the reptilian lizard part of your brain is holding you back. This primitive area of the brain controls much more of our behaviour than we realize.

This is one of the key insights from body psychotherapy. When you calm the reptilian brain, you have more control over your emotions including your intentional behaviour.

When you calm the reptilian brain you have more control over your thoughts.​

The reptilian brain takes charge of your survival

The reptilian brain is also known as the brainstem (both terms are used synonymously).1 Phylogenetically-speaking, it was the first part of the modern brain to develop in human evolution. (Actually, we're related to turtles.*)

The reptilian brain operates behind the scenes, regulating our survival needs: food, oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and reproduction, among many others.

When you think of your "instincts" think, reptilian-lizard brain. It's responsible for our survival related functions like:

  • breathing
  • digestion
  • circulation
  • elimination
  • temperature
  • fight or flight
  • movement, posture and balance.

The reptilian brain constantly scans for signs of threat

The reptilian brain is like a bodyguard who's always watching your back, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats.

This practice of scanning the environment usually goes unnoticed. However, trauma interferes with this natural inclination. It can make you hyper-alert or shut you down completely so what you're able to take in is truncated.

In other words, unknowingly you become less aware of everyday details and your brain places greater emphasis on potential threats.

In either instance, clients suffering the effects of trauma are readily identified in my clinical office if I observe their eyes are quickly flitting about the room. It's a sign that they're carrying unprocessed trauma.

Fight, flight or freeze

The reptilian brain - together with the amygdala - also decides whether you will move into fight, flight or freeze. The thinking brain is too slow for such an important task.

So for example, when a 90 mile an hour curve ball's coming at you, it's the reptilian brain that reflexively jerks your head out of the way before you even realize what’s happening.

We can't leave our reactions up to the thinking side of the brain. We'd still be back there lying on the playing field wondering what happened and how we got that lump on the head!

A new way of looking at the reptilian brain & therapy

The reptilian-lizard brain is an ancient beast. It was developed over 100 million years ago. The higher brain or the neocortex came along a mere 40,000 years ago. So, when the reptilian brain is on alert, it's pretty hard for a youngster like our neocortex to tell a 100 million year old brain to behave!2

One of the insights we've learned from body psychotherapy is that needless hardship in counseling is provoked if the reptilian brain isn't reined in first. That is, it's very difficult to dig into our psyche (e.g. and explore childhood issues) when the reptilian brain is calling the shots.

Emotionally triggering material will be that much more difficult if the reptilian brain is activated.

Just so it's clear . . .  when you're suffering from high anxiety--by definition--your activation level is high and the reptilian brain is controlling too much of how you respond to events in your life.

For instance, the reptilian brain will block your emotions until or unless it feels safe prolonging therapy - indefinitely in some cases. Note that this is regardless of whether you feel safe with your therapist.

In contrast, when the nervous system is regulated and balanced, it's far easier to move through our emotions.

Trauma resets the reptilian brain

Traumatic events affect the functioning of the reptilian brain by shifting your priorities from one of 'social engagement' to one of survival. It resets the reptilian brain making it much more wary of it's environment.

In effect, it "learns" from traumatic experiences that "you better watch out".

Unless the event is resolved (in a whole brain way) the reptilian brain will continue to have excessive control over your thoughts and emotions.

Problem is most people won't even notice this shift. They acclimatize to the change in mood believing this is how they are normally.

The reptilian brain controls your activation

As human beings we like to believe that we're "rational", that our actions are based on thought, not "blind emotion". There is no such thing actually as blind emotion. Our emotions have rational explanations even of we cannot locate the source.

What's often difficult for us to accept is the fact that the brainstem (in partnership with the limbic system), determines and conditions a great deal of our behaviour. The higher your level of activation, the more this is likely to be the case.

You can directly access the reptilian brain through the activation present in your body (eg. body sensations). 

The more the reptilian brain has learned from early infancy experiences and subsequent traumas (both physical and emotional) the higher our activation will be. For many people, high activation will show up in anxiety symptoms (alternatively, high activation can also reveal itself as a heightened edgy excitement).

And as I have described elsewhere, chronically high activation (sympathetic arousal) can lead to depression (parasympathetic dorsal vagal).

My Personal Musings

If a therapist starts to probe emotionally triggering material before the nervous system has settled sufficiently, one's level of activation will increase.

Indeed, one may even experience an increase in anxiety symptoms.

I suspect that there's quite a number of people have not taken up counseling for the very reason that they fear it will make them feel worse. 

My guess is that their reluctance is related to the idea of being thrust into material before they're ready.

Unfortunately, they haven't heard of body psychotherapy. Body psychotherapy manages your arousal throughout the session making working with emotions far easier.​ It avoids cathartic release and instead helps you to gently move through emotions.

How do you know when you're ready?

 When your relationship is developed sufficiently between you and your therapist, you will naturally step into the material and feel sufficiently safe in doing so. When this is happening for you then the conditions are optimal for change to occur.

However, if you're agitated or racked with anxiety then the conditions are not optimal for deep emotional work.​

One of my inspirations for developing this website was the discovery of friends and colleagues who had undergone a course of treatment and--from my perspective--seemed worse off.

I acknowledge that it isn't easy to assess when you're getting good therapy from not-so-good therapy. The reality is that one therapist cannot simply know all there is to know about working with everyone.

Hopefully, armed with enough information on this and other counseling websites, consumers of mental health services will be able to make good decisions on their choices in psychotherapy.

1"...the portion of the brain that is continuous with the spinal cord and comprises the medulla oblongata, pons, mid-brain and parts of the hypothalamus; controls reflexes and such essential internal mechanisms as respiration and heartbeat." Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006).

If you're agitated or wracked with anxiety then the conditions are not optimal for deep emotional work. When your relationship is developed sufficiently between you and your therapist, you will naturally step into the material and feel sufficently safe in doing so. When this is happening for you then the conditions are optimal for change to occur.

One of my inspirations for developing this website was the discovery of friends and colleagues who had undergone a course of treatment and--from my perspective--seemed worse off.

I acknowledge that it isn't easy to assess when you're getting good therapy from not-so-good therapy. The reality is that one therapist cannot simply know all there is to know about working with everyone.

Hopefully, armed with enough information on this and other counseling websites, consumers of mental health services will be able to make good decisions on their choices in psychotherapy.

References

Levine, Peter, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

McLean, Paul, D. [1990]. The Triune Brain in Evolution. New York: Plenum Press.

notes

1"...the portion of the brain that is continuous with the spinal cord and comprises the medulla oblongata, pons, mid-brain and parts of the hypothalamus; controls reflexes and such essential internal mechanisms as respiration and heartbeat." Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionay (2006).

2Dr. Daniel Siegel made this same point at his lecture, "Psychotherapy from the inside out: The brain of the mindful therapist", at the Justice Institute in New Westminster, BC., in November 8-9 2007.

*Being related to turtles explains why for instance our shoulders might hike up to our ears. I just love little science tidbits like that!

Readers Comments

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Taya

Why can't I act like other people?

Hello, I liked the article and I am thinking that this could be the answer to my problems. I am under psychologist' supervision from when I got 13. I always have been very neurotic and psychotic - both, and was always labelled as a loner or "complicated" and hard to understand person.

Now I am 24 and my emotions are still very undeveloped. I can see and understand the way others behave, but it's very hard and stressfull for me to copy that sort of normal behaviour... I react very differently from other young adults whom I met, to the sense of fear, happiness, joy, sadness, comfort, and discomfort etc. As if I have never learnt how to express any possible feelings.

Thus, nothing really helps, nor the CBT, nor any medication. Therefore I was wondering if you could advice me where to search for answers and how possibly I could try to help my self to become a healthy person that would behave alike any other healthy and stable people around?...

Maybe you could provide any could references to some literature?..

Taya (West Yorkshire, UK)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

Hi Taya, thank-you so much for your question and sharing so openly about the struggles you have. It sounds as if you feel quite alone with what you're facing - looking outside at the world going by. I'm glad you left a comment as I'm certain there are others out there who resonate with your experience.

I hope you know Taya that your emotional development was not in your hands. This capacity emerges early in life and depends to a great extent on the parenting you receive and the subsequent experiences you have.

However I do know that training the reptilian brain has made a measurable difference to any one who chooses to take that route no matter what emotional state they find themselves in.

The main reason why is that ​calming the reptilian brain tends to make it possible for us to more easily tolerate our emotions.

Taya, you have said that you feel as if you haven't yet "learned" to express your emotions. That's very possible. If you didn't have sufficient experiences to learn in childhood and infancy then it follows that you'd have a hard time identifying and then expressing your feelings in adulthood.

The good news is that owing to the way the brain functions it's possible to learn to feel your emotions at any age.

The way we learn to feel emotions takes many trial and error experiences in our infancy. The best way to duplicate these experiences is with a good connection with a therapist.

However, I'd choose your therapist well - you'd want a therapist who works relationally (they focus on attachment processes). If you choose a body-based therapist you'd also get help in calming the reptilian brain.

With an attachment oriented therapist you'd learn to access, label and express your feelings.

Warm regards,

Shrinklady


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Anthony

Short fuse syndrome?

I have some serious issues with a short fuse syndrome a walking ak 47 in mental terms...My councelor words. He has thought me technics so i can control it. But to anyone out there...it works just keep up the therepy.

Reptile syndrome is everything's a problem before we think of it.

Anthony

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

Yes, Anthony, it's true. As the reptile part of the brain is reined in - we have more control over our emotions as well as our thoughts.​

Glad to hear you're an advocate for therapy too!

Shrinklady


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Henry

"If you should meet a crocodile"

I was at an Arts Therapies Conference in Italy and went to a wonderful workshop entitle "If you should meet a crocodile" which explored these ideas in a more experiential way. It was facilitated by my former colleague, pioneering Dance Movement Therapist, Jeanette MacDonald. I'm in the process of writing about this conference on my blog - see below. The next post will have an account of this workshop. I'm a Music Psychotherapist by the way.

Henry (Exeter, UK)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

Look for forward to hearing more Henry!

Shrinklady


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Mary

Release the reptilian brain?

This is a belief taught in Peruvian medicine that the "reptilian brain" needs to be released.Thru the medicine wheel they work to release this reptilian brain on a metaphysical level.

There are a few good books on this by an author by the name of Alberto Villoldo PhD. I have studied under a women who was trained by him. Very interesting work!

Mary (New York, USA)


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David

Compare 'Triune Brain' on Wikipedia

Although a nice and simple model, not that many neuroscientists support this 'reptilian' model of the brain - just take a look at the entry under 'Triune Brain' on Wikipedia! Its main virtue is that it is a simple concept for people to understand; but it doesn't really describe the reality of what's going on in the brain.

David (UK)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

Hi Davd, yes it' might be useful only to a point in terms of how the structure functions - if you're a scientist or researcher. If you check the references above they'll have covered good amount of neuroscience.

The best researcher in this area is Dr. Stephen Porges who's work on the polyvagal theory has completely revised our understanding of the freeze response.

Clinically speaking, there's no denying that working repeatedly with the arousal pattern in the body (ie. your activation - which arises from that area of the brain), you're far less fear based. It's as evident and visible to the naked eye as someone having a yawn.

As human beings we are motivated first and foremost by fear. And at this point, it's believed that the connections from the reptilian brain to the limbic system (i.e. amygdala) where most of the action occurs. Whether the connections in fact come or go elsewhere is of little consequence to the person suffering.

It's sufficient to know that you cannot easily talk yourself out of anxiety (The neuropathways are dominant in the opposite direction hence our thoughts have less power). However working via the body achieves far greater and faster results (Over 80% of neuropathways travel first from the body, through the brain stem and up into other areas of the brain).

The reality is that, unless our fear is harnessed to a stable resting point (however that's achieved in the brain) there's little use in doing any targeted change.

Shrinklady


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Wije

Reference teachings of Buddha

Your suggestion as well as Glenn's comment above appears to me valid when one considers the teachings of the Buddha. He has said that there is no meaning in preaching a sermon to a person in hunger, possibly because the reptile in him is not at ease.

What matters it appears from your write - up there that neocortex which is to receive good suggestions cannot play its role if the reptile has been agitated. This may be the source of all mental problems.

Wije (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink

Shrinklady

You're definitely onto something here Wije...and it's one of the reasons why I chose a reptile as a mascot for the site.

What's even more exciting is that taming the reptilian brain - once you know how to apply the basic rules - is more a effective means for managing emotions than medications or talk therapy put together.

Shrinklady


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Glenn

Reminds me of Scientology audit

Your suggestion that the reptilian brain must be at ease in order for counselling to be effective, reminded me of scientology auditing sessions I used to have. Before each session there is a checklist that must be satisfied including being well rested, not hungry or thirsty, not too hot or cold, and not troubled by a PTP (present time problem), which could distract the person from participating fully in the session.Only once these criteria were satisfied was the session begun.

I have since had sessions with proper psychologists, and none of these basics were checked by the therapist. In hindsight the value of each session depended on these 'reptilian brain' factors, especially when the therapist was new to me and therefore not easily trusted.

Glenn (Coffs Harbour, Australia)


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Frances

Frances (Ontario, Canada)

I am enthralled.

Frances