First, let me recap. Over the last three posts, I described 3 different layers of our brain and nervous system. We can nickname these layers the Dinosaur, the Cow, and Einstein; names which summarize their nature and function. The three layers do not always play nicely together. Today, I want to talk about improving cooperation and connection between them.
Let me stress the wording: cooperation and connection. Not competition. I say that because there is a tendency to view instinct and emotions (Dinosaur/Cow) as enemies. Wicked, bad, smelly things to be defeated, locked-up, or at least tranquilized. However, as much as I love Star Trek, humans should not try to be Vulcans.
(For non-nerds out there, Vulcans are aliens who perfected their ability to suppress emotion and operate purely on logic. It’s a cool idea for science-fiction; not so much for reality.)
Not that logic and reason are useless! I recommend logical and rational strategies to people all the time. However, lots of people who do that counselling thing with me have tremendous difficulty using these strategies. Rioting emotions and instincts refuse to be calmed.
The Heart of the Problem.
Guess why? Because the Dinosaur and the Cow in their nervous systems are freaked-out. It’s like the Dino and Cow take a look at my recomended strategies, and say, “Nuh-uh. No way we’re doing that.” Recently, someone I’m working with admitted that he had thoughts like: “Chris doesn’t really know if that will help,” and “We’ll see if those little strategies work…”
I felt pleased that he told me that. It gave us a chance to address these very real and very strong concerns.
See, the Dinosaur and Cow have jobs to do. Important jobs. Keeping us safe. Avoiding not only physical harm, but emotional as well.
If the Dino and Cow are not convinced I can be trusted; why would they risk taking my advice? Doing so creates a certain vulnerability.
There’s another risk. The strategies I recommend might actually work. Then the person might feel calmer and better. As I’ve discussed in more detail in another post, feeling calm, nice and good can be mistaken for a state of vulnerability by the suspicious lower levels of the nervous system; which respond with, “Heck no!”
Cooperation and Connection Strategy #1: Harnessing the Power of Relationship.
This is why psychotherapy cannot be replaced by self-help books. I’m not dissing self-help books, which can be great. In fact, books can offer strategies which really work. As I just explained, however, this can backfire. Ironically, starting to feel better can set off alarms for some folks. And a book can’t notice this and help explain what’s going on.
On the other hand, a safe and supportive person can. A person can actually address the whole trust thing, and help to explain that anxious, skeptical responses are normal and intended to protect oneself.
It has long been known that the relationship between a person and therapist is powerfully therapeutic. It is perhaps the most powerful therapeutic element in psychotherapy. Relationship — social engagement — really helps the Cow to calm down and feel secure. A soothing voice. Respect and validation. Understanding and empathy.
Therapists are not the only ones who can do this, of course. However, it’s the job of the therapist. Family and friends can offer these things too; but it’s not their job. Some are better at it than others. When you just don’t have anyone who can listen and provide you with respect and empathy; well… that’s why I do what I do.
Anyway, the point here is that good relationships are helpful. It is a good mental health strategy to intentionally seek out and cultivate safe, trusting and connected relationships. Doing so is actually making use of our own biology. We are hardwired (the Cow) to feel calmer and more content in the context of safe and secure relationships.
Works Best for the Cow; but Helps the Dinosaur, too.
Now the Dinosaur does not benefit directly from social engagement. Dino don’t care about warm and fuzzy. This is the most primitive part of our nervous system, and it cares about one thing: survival. It can’t be bothered with social engagement; it is busy scanning its surroundings for signs of safety or danger.
However, the Cow is actually part of the surroundings, as much as anything in the external environment. If the Cow seems upset, this will put the Dinosaur on guard, just as much as a nearby person doing anything which seems suspicious.
Keep in mind, the Dinosaur operates on instinct, not thought. A danger signal is a danger signal; not something to think about leisurely. There may not actually be any danger, but Dino ain’t gonna take chances. Danger signals result in things like roaring, stomping, running away or biting things until they stop being dangerous (by breathing).
On the flip-side of that, a chilled-out and happy Cow provide a good sign that the coast is clear. Similarly, a nearby person who appears non-threatening helps to calm the Dinosaur; not because of social engagement, but just because there’s no sign of threat.
Cooperation and Connection Strategy #2: Don’t Believe Everything You Think.
The Dinosaur is not 100% accurate in determining which signals actually represent danger. In fact, the Dinosaur can be way over reactive; sensing danger everywhere, when little or no danger exists. This can be inconvenient to say the least, as Dino then upsets the Cow… and both of them stampede over Einstein.
Poor Einstein. But wait. After regaining consciousness, Einstein can do something about the ornery Dino and Cow. Einstein cannot match them in raw power; but Einstein can think. And guess what? In order to figure out if a danger signal is really accurate, thinking is a must.
Remember as a little child, how scary darkness seemed. Imagine lying awake in bed and hearing a tappity-tap-tap on your bedroom window. Images of vampires and other horrible beasties assail you. Now, if Mom popped her head into the room and flicked on the light, your thinking brain could look to the window and see…
A twig from a tree branch, blown by a breeze against your window. Tappity-tap-tap.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely so clear and obvious as this. Most of the time, Einstein really has to work hard to sort-out what danger signals are false, and even harder to convince the Dinosaur and Cow that the signals do not actually mean danger and they can relax.
Hard Work for Einstein.
Einstein might try saying, “Relax, dudes. I know you thought there was danger, and you’re just doing your job. But I checked it out and really, we’re OK.” That might help; but typically, it doesn’t do much. At least the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Einstein has to be really patient, and repeat himself a lot.
Keep in mind that even the Dinosaur is not completely stupid. Einstein must speak the truth. If you’re about to be run over by a truck, you can’t fool your own nervous system into thinking you’re really lying on a beach.
Also, the Dino and Cow can be stubborn. They don’t necessarily want to be convinced. So Einstein can get discouraged, and think, “Those two will never listen!”
One way to go is focusing on “the here and now.” In other words, not thinking about the past or the future, but just this exact instant. Most of the time (for those of us fortunate enough not to live in a war zone) there is no real danger right at this very moment. Ten minutes from now, who knows? But right here and right now, at this specific moment, chances are good that you are not about to be crushed by a falling meteor.
Some Final Thoughts, About Reality
I want to be careful. I am not saying that the Dinosaur and the Cow are always wrong, and just need to be convinced that life is wonderful. Sometimes it isn’t. Some people do live in a war zone. There are many for whom “right at this very moment I’m safe” is just a dream, and hoping for it seems foolish.
There is lots of discussion about privilege these days, and that’s a good thing. Let’s face it, the whole calm and relaxed thing is way easier for those of privilege. Life is safer and there are more options. It’s not a lie to tell oneself, “Relax. I’m safe.”
For others, it is sadly not true. The fact is, there are children living in daily danger of neglect and abuse. Domestic violence is not a myth (and if memory serves, 9 out of 10 times the violence is perpetrated against women). Racism is alive and well. Truth and Reconciliation has a long way to go.
I’m not saying that only wealthy, white people can hope for calm and feeling good. I just want to be careful about over-selling it. That kind of thing happens far too much in my field.
As I said at the beginning of this post, the Dino and the Cow are not enemies. They exist to alert us to real risks and dangers, and urge us to seek safety. They push us to find trustworthy and nurturing relationships, and improve the quality of existing relationships.
For those living in dangerous situations, they are allies. I guess what I can say is that cooperation and connection with them is worthwhile for anyone, and for those who have achieved a certain amount of real safety and security in life, doing so will help to maximize the ability to enjoy that security and safety.