Updated: Dec 13, 2022
We respond to, and interact with others, based on the emotional response state we’re in at any given time.
Modern brain science and psycho-physiological research is repeatedly showing evidence that our brains are predictive in nature, drawing off past experiences and automatically focusing our attention so we repeat it - all in name of ‘energy-efficiency’.
But sifting through all the overly academic language of scientific research and psych theory in order to narrow down a functional understanding of all of it, can be…well, let’s just say very tedious, not to mention overwhelming.
So when I recently found myself in a conversation with a friend who had little understanding of the human brain and body, I did my best to succinctly describe the process of how the state of our emotional response influences our relational behavior. I wasn’t really expecting further engagement. But to my surprise, it led to interested questions and a desire to learn more. So, hence this post. Perhaps it will do the same for you.
How emotional response is shaped
1. When we’re young, our emotional nervous system is designed to be trained. As in, trained to ‘turn up’ or ‘turn down’ in appropriate amounts, for appropriate lengths of time and in appropriate situations. In other words, our emotional response is designed to learn to differentiate its activation.
2. And in todays modern world, free from wild animals roaming most urban and suburban streets, our emotional response is designed to ideally operate within a moderate range of activation, when and if it does turn on. However, that sustainable, emotional regulation training (differentiation) doesn’t always happen.
3. For many of us, our emotional nervous system didn’t fully learn how to do this differentiation. For some, this was due to an obvious traumatic experience. For others, it was due to one, or several less obvious adverse experiences. And for many, it more likely due to our caregivers not knowing what we know now about the brain and emotional response, or how to intentionally help ‘train’ it in healthy ways.
The creation of regulating (soothing) coping mechanisms
4. So as we grow up, in order to manage those uncomfortable, ‘untrained’ effects, we learned strategies to cope with, soothe or manage them.
5. Some of us learned to shut down or turn away in the face of stimulus. This effectively manages the undifferentiated emotional response by minimizing our exposure to it, or avoiding it altogether. But it also means we probably don’t show up or engage enough in our adult relationships.
6. Others learned to use strategies like constant activity, over-performance, and excessive studying as a way to offload and diffuse undifferentiated emotional response. This also effectively manages the system by ‘burning off’ or reducing uncomfortable levels of activation. But it also means we probably end up doing, or saying too much in our adult relationships.
7. And since the design of our brain is to create energy-efficient, automated patterns, it simply adopted the state we spent the most time in, as its default or ‘home base’ way of operating.
8. Which means that our learned coping skills — or the ways we temporarily regulate (moderate), soothe and ‘manage’ our system — although relieving in the moment, are not sustainably changing our baseline emotional response state.
How this emotional nervous system state directs our behavior and choices
9. This automated internal state, and the preferred strategies we use to manage it, is what directs our behavior, directs our relationship choices and how we respond within those relationships.
And for a lot of people, it can work for a long time.
We find partners with complementary emotional systems and complementary coping strategies. Which makes sense because all living creatures seek homeostasis, equilibrium or balance. So if we can’t get that balance within us, we seek it externally or in others.
A potential outcome of only relying on coping strategies
So are coping skills a ‘bad’ thing? No, not at all. That is, as long as they’re diverse, unifying, reflect your core values and are getting you the results that you want in life. But overtime, continually managing this internal lack of equilibrium or emotional ‘dysregulation’ has potential to take its toll — a toll on our health, or a toll on our relationships. In other words, relying on coping skills alone can sometimes stop working.
Repeated management vs sustainable change
Think of it this way — imagine standing in a dry, grassy field for decades of your life and learning effective and repeatable ways to put out fires that keep popping up. Helpful habits and healthy coping strategies do work to put out our emotional ‘fires’ as they come up. And this in-the-moment, defensive, response strategy can sometimes suffice for a very long time.
But by itself, continually ‘managing’ our emotional response has potential to become exhausting.
Emotional ‘fires’ can come frequently, intensely and unexpectedly.
And solely relying on coping with them or ‘managing’ them can become exhaustive and overwhelming.
So if that’s the case for you..maybe it’s time to add a different approach?
Maybe it’s time to find out how that field got so dry to begin with.
Maybe it’s time to learn to read the signs when fire danger is eminent.
Maybe it’s time to figure out how to make the field more fertile, greener and more resilient on a regular basis…so even when fire season does hit.. the fires are fewer, they burn out quickly and it takes far less effort to ‘manage’ them if you need to.
And what can you do with all the energy we save by not having to ‘cope with’ or manage so much or so often? Well, you can put it towards other areas of your life, and towards your relationships.
What we can do to begin
So… if you’re tired of working only from one side of the equation by responding to ‘fires’ in your life or relationships as they come up, it may be time to diversify your efforts and create a ‘greener’, more resilient, inner ‘field’ by sustainably retraining (finish differentiating) your emotional response. That way it’s working more appropriately, and more often in a moderate and centered activation state.
Said another way, we need to be working our emotional state from both directions. By differentiating your internal emotional response while using healthy, external strategies as needed to manage it, you’ll become calmer, more confident and see improvement in your relationships a heck of a lot faster.
It’s like becoming an athlete who can run “Ironman” plays. Combining your healthy coping strategies, with sustainable differentiation of your emotional response makes you a multi-dimensional, valuable player who can run both offense and defense at the same time.
So let’s get started. You can start learning through one of our free classes or from the foundational class below.
Yes, it will take effort. Yes, it will take time.
But you’re already working pretty hard right now just ‘managing’ it all with coping strategies, right? So if your current strategies alone aren’t getting you the results you want, why not use some of that hard work …in a different direction? 🤔
I’m in your corner.
Learn more about how your brain and body work to influence your relationships and how to get your emotional needs met (free). Not only will it help you take the challenging times less personally, but you’ll gain a comprehensive understanding of how lasting change really works.
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The Human Infusion Project is philanthropic, personal development platform that draws from the combined fields of modern brain science, applied psychology and spiritual philosophy. Our mission aims to augment and supplement the work of professional practitioners in simplified, practical and affordable ways. 100% of all course profit funds the Wellness Assistance Grant.