It’s partly a ‘Brain Thing’
When we get triggered it’s as if the part of the brain that is activated by the experience goes onto automatic pilot and reacts as if the memory of the past experience is happening in the here and now. This response can be very confusing and upsetting as we can find ourselves behaving in ways that we don’t want but can’t stop doing the same thing, time after time.
When seeking to understand what’s happening in these circumstances, we need to look at the part our brain plays in how we regulate our emotional responses to adverse life experience.
The amygdala is part of our primitive ‘reptilian’ brain we are born with. It’s a threat detector. It can trigger a fight, flee, or freeze response. But it can’t ‘think’. It is all emotion. It doesn’t distinguish real from imagined threat. You could call it the ‘smoke detector’: it gets a hint of a fire in the house and the alarm goes off – but it can’t tell whether the house is actually on fire or whether someone has just lit a match. The prefrontal cortex is a more advanced part of the brain. It’s responsible for executive functioning. You could call it the ’fire investigator’. It can ‘think’. It can distinguish real from imagined threat, and calm irrational fears. It provides perspective. It gives us more choice about how to respond rationally in situations, especially stressful ones. It’s our most healthy, adult self. However, it doesn’t begin to develop until the age of 12/13 years in a process that goes on until around the age of 25 years. This fact gives us important clues for understanding why our distressing childhood experiences are so powerful and get embedded in our psyche as adults. It’s because at the time (early childhood) the distressing event occurred, the prefrontal cortex probably wasn’t developed/available to provide the adaptive information needed to make sense of the experience. So the brain, which relies on recognising patterns to predict the future and keep us safe, only had the emotional child of the amygdala to work with.
The point has already been made that we start out in life with a desire to bond, a healthy self-love and an eagerness to learn and grow. But we don’t have the ability to self-soothe. Ideally, we learn this from attuned caregivers who help us regulate painful emotions over and over again throughout childhood. It’s like they perform that role of a prefrontal cortex on behalf of the child before they have developed it for themselves. As the prefrontal cortex develops in the older child, their prefrontal cortex assimilates the ability to self-soothe and regulate emotions based upon the cues they’ve taken from the parent. So every time a loving, attuned caregiver comforts and soothes a child, it helps form a neural pathway that connects the amygdala with the prefrontal cortex. Later, when the amygdala is activated by a sense of threat, it signals the prefrontal cortex to assess the level of danger. If the prefrontal cortex determines the threat is low, it calms the body. This connection between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex is the neural architecture we need in order to be able to self-regulate.
The more of these emotion-soothing events we have, especially in early childhood, the more we develop the neural architecture and emotional muscle we need to be able soothe ourselves; so by adulthood we enjoy foundational stability—able to live life with secure attachments to others, innate healthy self-love, an eagerness to learn and grow, and a developed ability to self-soothe.
But if no one in our early childhood does a good enough job of being that prefrontal cortex for us helping us regulate painful emotions, the neural architecture and emotional muscle we need for self-regulation cannot develop and that foundation of emotional stability will not be established by the time we reach adulthood. Instead, adulthood is plagued with foundational instability driving emotional dysregulation, difficulties with self-soothing, dissociative defences, and frequent triggers.