Our brains are like control panels that are interconnected and communicate with different parts of our body to help us stay alive. Have you ever felt overwhelmed and had difficulty managing your emotions? Many of us have had times in our lives, especially when we have experienced high levels of stress. When the parts of our brain are communicating with each other, we can rationalize and talk ourselves down from stressful situations. However, when we have high levels of stress our brain struggles to communicate with the different parts.
Have you noticed that sometimes when you are overwhelmed or experiencing high stress you can flip emotionally very quickly and feel not in control? Often, we may feel like we are being irrational, but find it difficult to shake it off or regulate ourselves. Sometimes we may see a child go suddenly from playing to a big meltdown and are not able to reason with them. Dr. Dan Siegel calls this experience “Flipping your Lid” and in this blog post, we will explain what is happening in our brain and body when this happens.
The Hand Model of the Brain
Dr. Daniel Siegel has created a hand model of the brain that helps us picture and understand why it’s challenging to control our reactions when we’re feeling overwhelmed with strong feelings and stress. As humans, our brains are continually developing into adulthood, and this can make us more vulnerable to regulating high levels of stress. The hand model of the brain can help us imagine and understand what’s happening inside the brain when we feel overwhelmed.
Look at your hand and imagine your wrist is the spinal cord where your brain sits, the palm of your hand is the inner brainstem, and your thumb is the amygdala. If you place your thumb in the palm, you’ll form the limbic system, your other fingers are your cerebral cortex.
Close your fingers on your palm and thumb and now you have a model of the brain. When our brain is overwhelmed, we can lose control of our abilities to think and act clearly. We may feel unable to control our reactions or emotions, feel numb, fidgety, restless, scream, and throw things.
What is happening in the brain when we’re stressed?
Dr. Dan Siegel stressed that to understand the model, we need to understand the parts of our downstairs and upstairs brains. In the downstairs brain, the brainstem helps regulate important basic functions such as breathing and heart rate. The limbic system which is our folded-over thumb with fingers up, is responsible for regulating our emotions, and memories and triggering our survival reactions such as fight, flight, and freeze. Fight, Flight, and freeze are activated when our body thinks that we are in danger. The hippocampus still in the downstairs brain helps us form and save new memories and aligns them with certain emotions. The last part of the downstairs brain is the amygdala which is responsible for detecting danger and sends warnings to signal our autonomic nervous system to react. For example, if you had been bitten by the neighbour’s dog the hippocampus has saved this memory and linked it to the fear you felt towards the dog. The next time you see the dog, the amygdala will identify the dog as a potential threat, and you will automatically feel fear again.
When your system has reacted and alerted the body that there is danger, a hormone called cortisol is released into your body. This hormone increases your heart rate and breathing, and energy is sent to your muscles so that you can protect yourself. This is the fight-flight response.
The upstairs brain also called the cortex is where the thinking part of our brain is and that is the back of our four fingers when they are folded over the thumb. This is the part that helps us imagine. Problem solves, rationalizes, and creates. The prefrontal cortex helps us look at situations that the amygdala has activated such as the dog bite and control our emotional response before our feelings escalate and we can’t control them.
Flipping our Lid
Dr Dan Siegel explains that when our brainstem and limbic system work together to release cortisol and prepare our body for the fight-flight response that’s a normal bodily reaction. However, if we have experienced trauma or high levels of stress the pathways to our amygdala and the prefrontal cortex can miscommunicate with each other.
When we “Flip our lid” the downstairs part of our brain takes over. Using our hand model of the brain, lift your finders to release your fist. The connection between the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain is not together. We can no longer effectively communicate with others, control our emotions, or respond to any reasoning. Our brain is not able to communicate with the other parts.
Many types of stressful situations can cause our cortisol to rise and shut down our thinking brains. We don’t have to be in real danger to flip our lid and it can happen when we are experiencing long-term stress.
What can we do if we flip our lid?
When we have flipped our lid, our brain is not able to communicate with the other parts. This means we struggle to communicate our needs or problem solve the problem with others. Some things that we can do to help us regulate our emotions are.
- Breathing: box breathing, square breathing
- Exercise: going for a walk
- Imagining a comfortable calm and safe place
- Talk with someone we trust
Written by Melissa Laird
Siegel, D. (2012, February 28). Flipping your lid [Video]. Youtube.
Siegel, D. (2017, August 9). Hand model of the brain [Video]. Youtube.