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Our Brains, Our Bodies, and Our Relationships

Couple holding hands walking in a forest, California, USA

Relationships are everywhere. We have relationships in our individual lives, in our corporate lives, and in our virtual lives. We are wired for connection. We yearn for that feeling of intimacy and bonding in romantic relationships and in friendships. Interestingly enough, our brains are wired for that, too! Our brains are wired for us to feel, to sense, to understand, and to remember, especially as we experience relationships. As our brains are wired for connection, they interact with our surroundings in such a way that we respond, both positively and negatively, in our relationships accordingly.

Our Brain and Our Body

Our brain is designed to protect us and to allow us to engage relationally and socially, and our brain has different systems that are activated that do just that. When both systems, the autonomic nervous system and the polyvagal system, are working together, social engagement is achieved. However, we live stressful lives and find stress at every turn in our daily routines. We know that stress impacts us; it can make us irritable, anxious, and can create health problems. Stress can also activate systems in the brain that impact the way we relate to friends, spouses, and family members. When stress occurs, it activates the parts in our brain associated with the fight or flight system, activating our brain and our bodies to respond. Often when this occurs, we feel our heart rates increase, our skin becomes clammy or sweaty, and we often become anxious.

This process is a good thing, but when we are unable to deactivate the system to bring us back to a calm state, there are long term effects. Activating the parasympathetic system quickly reaches the prefrontal cortex, the front part of our brains associated with problem solving and critical thinking. The prefrontal cortex does not have a quick access back to the emotion center of the brain to help calm you down, so the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex shut down. This has important implications for relationships we desire.

Our Relationships

As your brain and your body respond to a stressful stimulus, different systems activate in your body that decrease the ability to engage relationally and socially the way that we would like to engage. We become unable to attend to our partners or our friends, and our ability to problem solve also decreases. In addition, we lack active interest in others and have a reduced ability to process information. As different experiences take place, neurons fire together in the brain and wire together. This means that the more similar experiences you have, the more likely the similar response will take place for that memory/experience. This wiring together regulates how the systems within us interact and how we interact with others. Heightened and chronic states of stress create more constant states of less engagement, less problem solving, and less capability to process information. We like to think that we have control over the emotions that are triggered; however, the emotions occur, but the reactions we have to the emotions is what we have a chance to correct.

In order to reduce the (almost immediate) impact of the reaction to the fight or flight response being activated, enhanced emotion regulation capabilities provide more room for someone to experience the immediate firing to the prefrontal cortex so that a better, more positive interaction can take place.  Engaging in tools and skills that increase the ability to emotionally regulate can increase the positivity in relationships.

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Written by Kayla Mennenga, PhD, LMFT-A

Kayla is a therapist at the Provo Center for Couples and Families and earned her PhD at BYU. She is a licensed associate marriage and family therapist and specializes in working with couples dealing with anxiety, affairs, trust, and depression issues. Her interest is in emotional regulation and how the brain, body, and relationships are all intertwined.

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