Building Emotional Intelligence

As you can see from the diagram above the reptilian brain regulates metabolic systems, our breathing, our heartbeat and our nervous system, temperature, balance etc.

The amygdala is the survival brain and acts like a security guard to the reptilian brain. It is hyper-vigilant as it is searching for danger. It is our old evolutionary patterning and gears us into fight, flight, freeze. Emotions, such as fear, pleasure, anxiety and anger are responses to an amygdala on high alert. Often undesirable responses to childhood and lifetime traumas give the amygdala reason to become very active causing hype-vigilence, reactions associated to fight, flight, freeze, and emotions like anxiety and anger.

The Limbic system is the emotional brain, and contains emotional responses that stem from activity predominantly in the reptilian brain & amygdala. The Limbic system contains likes and dislikes, emotions, feelings and dreams, habit control and memories. The Limbic system can be very out of balance if the reptilian brain, and especially the amygdala are full of a sense of being unsafe, or even in danger.

The Neo-Cortex is the advanced part of the brain and sometimes called the wise brain. It contains language, ideas and imagination. It is high level thinking - rational thinking. It allows us to plan, remember, develop and produce language. It can overview, control impulses, and empathise with self and other. It allows us to make decisions, and engage in moral reasoning about what IS and IS NOT ok. It has the power to regulate the rest of the brain. Hence why this part of the brain is so important and why mindfulness, awareness and meditation are so important as with these techniques we can quiet the other parts of our brain and therefore quiet the neo-cortex allowing for more peace, more clarity of thought and wiser decision making and alignment with Higher Self. It enables meaning-making, perceiving purpose and connecting with values. It also enables acceptance of less desirable circumstances, aspects of self and of others.

Our nervous system is made up of our para-sympathetic nervous system and our sympathetic nervous system.

The para-sympathetic system is otherwise known as rest and digest. It is energy conserving. It relates to being and sensing. When the para-sympathetic is operating our body produces endorphins which are feel good hormones, we breathe deeply and feel relaxed.

Our sympathetic sphere, on the other hand, is our defense system and is activated in times of stress or fear. It is energy mobilising, involves thinking and doing, and acts like an accelerator. When our sympathetic system is activated our body produces adrenaline, everything constricts, and our oxygenated blood races to our defence muscles/extremities to get ready for fight or flight.

In times of fear or stress the amygdala sends a distress signal.

After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream.

When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, the pituitary gland, which anatomically branches off of the hypothalamus in the brain, releases Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) into the bloodstream, increases cortisol levels, causing various physiological changes including heart rate increase. Simultaneously, the adrenal gland, a neural ganglion located on the kidneys, releases norepinephrine and has a similar effect on the heart.

Think of the brain like a clenched fist with the thumb under the fingers. The wrist is the reptilian brain, the thumb nail is the amygdala, and the thumb is the limbic system. The fingers over the top are the neo-cortex.

When we, or our kids, get over-aroused we can flip our lid and the fingers fly up to straight hand whereby the neo-cortex essentially goes off line. This can happen much more for kids who haven’t developed their neo-cortex sufficiently. Hence why mindfulness, awareness and meditation are good for them too. But mostly they learn by seeing what we do and by being supported emotionally by us. We are their neo-cortex and hence why we need to be the calm rather than joining the chaos. We need to help calm them down by firstly calming ourselves and we need to help them develop their neo-cortex by educating them about their brains, emotions and by keeping their reptilian brains and amygdalas as safe and secure as possible. And by responding well to their limbic system.

FIRSTLY, we need to breathe ourselves to calm our own reptilian brain and help them calm theirs. We can encourage them to breathe but they learn best by witnessing. We need to sit, be calm, tend to our own nervous system.. Help to calm by the breath, by being close if they need/want that, by supporting and being a safe and calm presence. We then, in time, need to respond to their limbic system to calm amygdala. To bring the Ne-Cortex back on line. BECAUSE WHEN WE FLIP OUR LIDS THE NEO-CORTEX GOES OFFLINE AND THERE IS NO LANGUAGE OR SELF REGULATION!


  1. Calm ourselves

  2. Calm them appropriately

  3. Name to tame (to support Limbic system) by naming or asking about emotions present. Gently enquire. This can slowly bring their neo-cortex back online and into a stance of curiosity.

  4. Give or create together a brief overview

  5. Ponder a possible solution

It is important to remember that our body feels the effects of the sympathetic nervous system often before the brain registers any thoughts associate with it. We go into fight, flight or freeze and we develop a pathological story and thoughts about what is taking place. We need the breath throughout this process to calm our nervous system and brain so that the story and thoughts don’t get out of hand and when the advanced brain comes back on line we can create sense and a more grounded story about what has happened.

Good luck!

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