Understand Your “Caveman Brain”

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you feel like you’re not in control of your emotions? You might feel hijacked by your feelings, and your rational thinking seems to have gone out the window. You’re not alone—this common experience can be traced back to our ancestors and the “caveman brain.”

Understanding the Caveman Brain

The caveman brain refers to one of the most primitive parts of the human brain, which hasn’t changed since the time of our prehistoric ancestors. This part of the brain, the limbic system, is responsible for our emotional functioning and directly influences our most basic survival instincts and biological functions., While these primitive emotional and survival instincts were crucial for our ancestors’ survival, they can often cause more harm than good in our modern world. The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure that is part of the limbic system, plays a significant role in our emotional responses. When we perceive a threat, the amygdala signals the hypothalamus, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system. This, in turn, triggers the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to prepare our body for action. This process happens within milliseconds, even before our rational brain can process the situation. The problem is that our caveman brain can’t differentiate between an actual physical threat and a perceived  threat. So, when we feel threatened, our emotional responses can be disproportionate to the actual situation, and can lead to difficulty regulating our emotions and impulsive, reactive behavior.

Recognizing the Reactions

The first step in learning to manage our caveman’s brain is recognizing when it’s taking over. Here are some signs that your caveman brain might be at play:

  • Intense Emotions: Feeling overwhelmed by anger, fear, or anxiety can indicate that your caveman brain is at work.
  • Physical Sensations: When we’re in fight, flight, or freeze mode, our body experiences various physical sensations such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, or muscle tension.
  • Tunnel Vision: When our caveman brain is activated, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. We might become fixated on a specific threat or problem, unable to see other perspectives or potential solutions.
  • Impulsive Reactions: Acting on our emotions without thinking things through can result from our caveman brain taking over.

Regaining Center

Once you’ve recognized that your caveman brain has taken over, it’s essential to regain your center and bring yourself back to a state of balance. Here are some strategies to help you do that:

1. Pause and Breathe

When you notice your caveman brain taking over, take a moment to pause and take a few deep breaths. This can help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which counteracts the stress response and helps to calm your body and mind.

2. Ground Yourself

Grounding techniques can bring you back to the present moment and reconnect with your body. Some examples of grounding techniques include feeling your feet on the floor, noticing the sensation of your breath, or focusing on the details of an object in your environment.

3. Flexible Perspective Taking

When our caveman brain is activated, our thoughts can become distorted and irrational. Take a moment to question the validity of your thoughts and consider alternative perspectives. Ask yourself if there’s any evidence to support your thoughts or if there’s another way to look at the situation.

4. Practice Self-Compassion

It’s essential to recognize that our caveman brain is a natural part of our biology and that it’s there to protect us. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can at the moment.

5. Seek Support

Connecting with friends, family, or a mental health professional can provide perspective and support during challenging times. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.

Our caveman brain, while essential for our survival in the past, can sometimes hinder our ability to navigate the complexities of modern life.We can improve our emotional regulation and resilience by learning to recognize when our caveman brain is taking over and practicing strategies to regain our center.Remember that managing our caveman brain is a lifelong learning process, and being patient and compassionate with ourselves along the way is essential.

Jay S. Weinberg is a licensed school psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice in Denver, Colorado. Working with individuals, couples, and young adults age 18 and older, his approach is eclectic, utilizing an array of supportive psychotherapeutic approaches with a strong emphasis on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

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