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I get asked all the time: what exactly is emotional regulation?

Let’s start with a rudimentary tour through the neurological process of emotion and emotional regulation (I’ll make it more fun than it sounds.) Although I learned about the complexities of the brain from several different perspectives in the run of this career, the one (and only) theory that made emotions and the brain clear to me was proposed by Dan Siegel, psychiatrist and brain expert extraordinaire. He calls emotional dysregulation the “lid flip.” 

For the ease of clarifying the complex process of the brain, think of it as being modeled on the outside of your body by your hand and your arm. If you hold up your hand for me right now, with your palm in front of your face, I want you to tuck your thumb on the inside of your palm and wrap your fingers around the outside of your thumb. That, right there, is a hand model of your brain. Your arm represents your spinal cord; your wrist represents your brainstem. Now, I want you to flip those fingers up and notice that your thumb, tucked still on top of your palm, represents your limbic system. All humans develop from the inside out; the most primitive parts are developed first. That thumb (your limbic system) is where your most primitive responses to big emotions live. When we’re in a heightened state of arousal, the body enters a biologically protective state and we are left with three primitive emotional regulation strategies, the ones all mammals come hardwired with— “fight, flight, and freeze.” 

Our senses are heightened, and we cut out any of the “extras.” We pay less attention to detail and use every bit of our energy searching for danger and reacting to the things that are most concerning. So, in my interpretation of Dan Siegel’s words, I want you to imagine that your four fingers, that prefrontal cortex, represents a lid. When that lid is wrapped around your thumb, it is “on.” Your brain is calm and connected, and you have access to everything you’ve ever learned. You can use your words, you can remember things easily, and you can feel all the emotions—like compassion, empathy, and kindness—you’ve ever been taught. 

Now, consider this. Have you ever heard this term, “They’ve flipped their lid! Lost their friggin’ mind!”? Primitively speaking, we flip our lids (flip those fingers up and away from the thumb—if you’re still playing along) when we’re scared or in danger. When you’re in danger you don’t need to remember anything from before. In that exact moment, you want to flip all those things out of the way and have the brain primitively take over into either fight, flight, or freeze.  

As I’m sure you can appreciate, in the state that Siegel calls a lid flip, you’re unteachable. You’re not your “best self” because you’re working with only the most primitive parts of who you are. And there’s a reason for this when there’s an actual threat. When you are an infant who has no resources in that prefrontal cortex to solve the problems that you might need to, you flip it out of the way in the hopes somebody with more skill in that moment will walk you through it.  

As adults, we do the same thing, it just looks a little different. Emotional regulation takes practice, and the dysregulation is not to be avoided. In fact, the chaos is necessary to learn the calm. This month I’ll be exploring this concept in more detail (it’s a big one), and I can’t wait to share more with you. Today just remember this: We never outgrow the need to have another (regulated) person walk us through hard things. 

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