Emotional Flooding: Old Brain Vs. New Brain

Virtually all the damage that takes place in relationships happens in unhealthy conflict – fighting and arguing.  If an argument gets hot enough we are likely to say things and do things that are destructive – damage that absolutely unnecessary and is sometimes irreparable.  These are things we would ordinarily never do or say.

This is our old brain talking – the limbic system which includes the amygdala hippocampus and hypothalamus that regulate our emotional responses.  The old brain also includes the brain stem – responsible for our startle and fight-or-flight response.  These parts of our brain stopped evolving long before we were homo-sapiens.  Long before we had complex social relationships.  These parts of our brain, when allowed to take over, don’t care about your sweetheart, your relationship, your values, or the consequences of your actions three weeks from now.  All they care about is survival, winning (not losing), saying or doing whatever it takes to survive a perceived threat.  Unfortunately, the old brain is incapable of discerning between an emotional threat and a physical one.

Once our limbic system gets going (blood pressure and heart rate go up, adrenaline and cortisol enter our bloodstream, creative thought, logic, reason, and empathy diminish rapidly) it is unrealistic to expect any of us to maintain control, respect or compassion in a conflict.

The most recently evolved part of our brain (our new brain) is the cerebral cortex and more specifically the frontal lobe.  This is where voluntary behavior, planning, problem solving, logic, reason, language processing, comprehension, come from.  The new brain is where our values, much of our personality, and our social skills come from.  This is the part of the brain that needs to stay in control when we are in conflict.

It doesn’t matter who the person is, Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi (insert your favorite person of all time here), if the old brain takes over, we will all do and say things we normally wouldn’t.  Aggressive, defensive and disrespectful things that damage relationships.  Our ability to listen to the other person drops to nearly zero.

The major goal of constructive conflict is NOT to maintain dignified and respectful behavior when you are so upset that your old brain takes over. Instead, the trick is to manage the conflict so that you don’t get overly upset in the first place, becoming emotionally flooded or hooked into fight-or-flight mode. Knowing how to calm down if you get hooked, plus sensing how and when to take a time out if things begin to get out of hand, are skills to learn and practice.

In another post, I will detail how to manage conflict constructively – how to stay in our loving, compassionate, expansively thinking, and creative mind no matter what the subject.

For now, here are a couple of resources that help explain our limbic response in conflict and some ideas about what we might do to stay loving and constructive when we are at odds with our partner.

As I was writing this post, a friend shared with me a parable they heard a long time ago.  It fit so well with these ideas of old and new brain – but comes from a time long before we knew so much about how divided and conflicted our brain actually is:

Tale of Two Wolves

One evening, an old man told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said,  “the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all.

One is evil.  It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance,

self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is good.  It is joy, peace love, hope serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson though for a minute and then asked his grandfather,  “which wolf wins?…”

The old man replied,

“The one that you feed.”