The Limbic Brain

I want to talk briefly about this because it is something that I found very useful as a parent. I love the limbic brain and It helped me understand that most mental health issues are neurological which took away some of the blame that I had as a parent.


All of our children at some time switch between having a Rational Brain and a Limbic Brain, which is the emotional or irrational part of the brain. In the Limbic Brain, the amygdala is responsible for the response and memory of emotions, especially fear and often is reprimanded for “hijacking” the rational brain. The Limbic Brain is the oldest and most primitive part of brain – formed many hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Limbic Brains has One KEY role – TO KEEP US SAFE. It works on automatic pilot – there is no thinking in the limbic brain. Any feelings and emotions that motivate or paralyze us lie within the limbic system. When it is “hijacking” everything is emotional and not rational. Sometimes is it referred to as as the tiger or the snake that hijacks the rational brain. With older children it is often referred to as a vital part of them learning to SELF-REGULATE – if they can regulate their Limbic Brain then they can regulate their emotions.


I've recently learned that my child has a non-neurotypical brain – which is wired differently to neurotypical brains. In a non neurotypical brain, just as the neuropathways are growing sometime around the age of two, a pruning happens, which means some of the executive pathways get snipped and whittled down, just like you would prune the shrubs in your garden.


THE GOOD NEWS IS re-wiring can take place, these pruned neuropathways can grow again but it takes a long time of consistent practice – another reason why early intervention is so important – we have more time to cement those 'pruned' neuropathways before the brain stops developing in the mid 20s or early 30s. We know that for an adult to re=grow some neuro pathways it takes about 8 months of consistent practice and that is 8 months when the brain in not in a limbic state – when it is calm and rational and can grow.

I've heard many therapist say “if you don't use it, you lose it!” and this is illustrated by my next example.


During the April break, drove my daughter, a junior, to visit some colleges. Considering my history of panic attacks - for me this was a huge step and put me outside of my comfort zone but I was able to use all my new-found coping skills to manage it. I still get the physical warnings and I still get the feelings of feeling trapped and not being able to escape – but now I know this is because my automatic limbic brain takes over and with its learned behavior and is just doing its job of trying to keep me safe. So these automatic symptoms start BUT if I can believe that I can override these feelings and convince my limbic brain that I am SAFE (just stuck in a traffic jam) and don't need to flee right now THEN my rational brain can take over and each time I can override my limbic (emotional) brain with my rational brain the neuropathways become stronger and the limbic pathways become weaker and if I practice a lot eventually the pathway will be retrained (like a plant).


I know that if I ride the wave of uneasy feelings, if I sit with them, they will eventually become less uneasy. Every time I do that, I am re-enforcing my neuropathways and eventually it will become a learned behavior.

My son has learned that deep breathing really helps him stop a limbic brain hijack when his emotional brain starts to take over. If this happens, he can't listen to redirection, he can't redirect himself and he gets frustrated and mad. Bear in mind that in children who are non neurotypical, the hijacking by the limbic brain can happen in a split second, before they even know it is happening. So they need to be very aware of the triggers that set off their Limbic Brain so that they can eventually learn to over-ride them. In his case the triggers are his perceived rejections by his peers.

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