How Emotions Influence the Brain
Three-part model of the brain
Did you know? Our brains are not fully developed until our mid to late 20s, some researchers say even into our 30s! This means, many of us are living with and/or working with children and adolescents whose brains are not fully developed to take in and understand the vast world around them.
Our brain is a highly sophisticated organ, but for the purposes of this article, I will discuss three parts that will help us understand how emotions influence the brain.
- Brain stem (Instinctual Brain)
This is located at the base of the brain. It is in charge of the things we do not have to think about, the automatic functions in our bodies, such as: breathing, blinking, sweating and our heart beating. It is also our instinctual part of the brain that supports us in our basic survival skills with fight (hormones in the body, such as cortisol and adrenaline, will trigger a reaction to "fight" a threat), flight (fleeing danger/perceived danger), freeze (paralyzed by fear, unable to move), collapse (physically or mentally unresponsive, may even faint), and fawn (people pleasing and compliance, often to avoid trauma or abuse).
- Limbic system (Feeling Brain)
This is located in the middle of our brain. This is where our emotions sit. It is also in charge of our memories, behaviors, motivation, stored learning and protection.
- Pre-frontal cortex (Thinking Brain)
This is located at the top of the brain and it covers the limbic system. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for logical thinking, language, attention, reasoning, decision making, speaking, and self-control.
Teaching children about their brain is an empowering tool for them to gain a better understanding of how their brains work, especially when tough emotions arise. There are some wonderful ways to teach about the brain - here are two videos I like to use one for young children and one for adolescents.
How our brain navigates tough emotions
When we become overwhelmed with big emotions, our brain will often become flooded and our thinking brain goes “offline.” This makes it quite challenging to take in information or make thoughtful decisions. In order to be in a place to problem-solve or reason after stressful situations, we need to bring the thinking brain back “online.” We can do this by using coping skills to regulate emotions and find our calm - life-skills that we need to teach and model for our children.
“Do not teach your children never to be angry, teach them how to be angry.” -Lyman Abbott
When children are experiencing tough emotions, it’s best to approach them calmly, respectfully and with empathy. Listen intently with no other distractions. Think about the long-term effects before responding – What will help this child feel safe? What will help them find calm?
What we want to avoid is reacting quickly in the moment, without thinking first, as this often ends up fueling an already highly intense emotional situation. This can be difficult, so it’s important that we take care of ourselves, making sure we make time for self-care, so that we can better support the children in our lives.
It is quite impactful to teach children about their brains and emotions when times are calm. The more they know, the more empowered they can feel when times are tough. The more modeling and practice in using calming strategies, the more likely they’ll begin using those coping strategies when tough emotions hit.
Empower your child with this important learning, today!
“Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” -Dr. Susan David