We’ve all felt it: flaring anger, bubbling jealousy, dizzying guilt. It can be triggered by almost anything. Finding a lone hair of the “other woman” clinging to your son’s teddy bear. Or sitting next to your ex at parent-teacher conferences. Little or big, it ‘s enough to send you reeling.
These feelings can blind us to reality, compelling us to fling painful words or do things we know — rationally — we shouldn’t. It can feel like an out-of-body experience.
Yet, it is precisely the opposite. It’s not weird at all. It’s human. It’s your brain on divorce, and there’s significant scientific research to show that it is virtually unavoidable. The trick is to learn how to recognize it and manage the experience in a healthy way.
So what’s happening? Basically, emotion is stronger than thought. Our minds process extreme threats, whether physical or emotional, in the same way. It doesn’t matter if we’re face-to-face with an angry grizzly or a former spouse, our fight or flight mechanism kicks in. It’s a very primitive response that comes from one of the deepest parts of our brains, the amygdalae. That’s the place where many of our memories and emotions live. I’ve come to call this the “puppy brain.”
When exposed to scary triggers, especially those with deep emotional ties, the puppy brain doesn’t just react, it freaks out. It runs wildly. It stops listening and runs to the corner to hide or begins chewing on furniture out of frustration. Things get messy.
In times like these, the only way to get the puppy to listen is to engage the prefrontal cortex, the “wise owl” part of the brain. This wise owl is rational, even calm, in times of stress. The wise owl is where our reasoning skills live. It’s the part of the brain that holds (in less stressful times, anyway) our logic and behavior management.
The trouble is, when we’re under extreme stress — such during a divorce — that wise owl part of the brain flies away, leaving the puppy to run free. Upon experiencing a trigger, the puppy brain can start running loose in as little as 20 milliseconds before your wise owl even has a chance to notice. This is a dangerous time. That puppy can really get us into trouble, knocking over established agreements, lashing out at the slightest hint of a threat, and worse.
So how do you keep the puppy in check?
1) Recognize when your puppy is off its leash. This starts, of course, with educating yourself on some of the signs: Are you using language you normally wouldn’t? Do you feel your body temperature rising? Are friends you trust telling you to calm down? All of us are different, but if you can learn to understand when your puppy brain is loose you can learn how to get it back under control.
2) Take the puppy for a walk. It’s amazing how physical movement help calm our emotional minds. Try it. If you feel your puppy coming on, get outside. Go for a walk or a take a quick trip to the gym. Movement will help you disengage that puppy brain or, in the worst case scenario, just plain tucker it out.
3) Teach the puppy to sit. If you can’t get moving, do the opposite. Rest. Relax. Meditate. Even just a couple minutes of gratefulness or reflecting on positive memories can get the puppy to slow down. Think of it as a belly rub for yourself.
In a divorce, there’s a good chance you won’t be the only one experiencing puppy brain. So what do you do if you see the puppy take control of someone else? Not much. Stay calm and listen. Try asking open-ended questions to help guide the puppy back to its wise owl. Be patient, recognize that trying to “fix” puppy brain in the moment, especially when you or the situation you are in is the trigger, probably isn’t going to work. Learning to identify and manage your puppy brain is a learned skill not likely to be taught in the heat of the moment.
Puppy brain, no matter how mischievous, is not necessarily bad. It exists for a reason. It’s on hyper-alert for potential risks and dangers, even some you may not consciously recognize just yet. For this reason alone it’s important to not just ignore your puppy brain. Just watch for it. And as soon as you can, bring that wise owl back to keep it under control.
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