Healing the Brain: Neurological Insights Into Emotional Reactivity and Relational Conflict
By Beverly Rodgers PhD, and Tom Rodgers PhD
When a person experiences complex trauma, the brain can be affected in a negative way. These traumatic memories are not processed or dealt with in the neo-cortex or the new brain, the part of the brain that thinks rationally, takes in information and makes logical decisions as a result. Traumatic memories are processed, stored, or dealt with in the limbic system, the amygdala to be exact. This is important because this part of the brain is where our fight, flight or freeze mechanism is located. Also, this primitive part of the brain has no sense of time, so a trauma that occurred at age five can be relived at age 25 with the same feelings and emotions.
This is important because the limbic system controls heart rate, filters external events by associating them with past trauma (emotional coloring), tags events as internally important and sets the tone of the mind. It also stores highly charged emotional memories which are critical to our survival. Because of shading or filtering a person can interpret neutral events as negative.1
The amygdala is vital because it regulates heart rate, perspiration, pupil dilation, digestion, and salivation, all of which can be activated and can put you in a hyper-vigilant state. All of this happens in one sixteenth of a second. When this occurs the deep limbic takes over and shuts off the prefrontal cortex, so a person cannot think rationally or problem solve.
Thus when a childhood soul wound is triggered in an adult relationship, a person can become extremely reactive. Reactivity is defined as giving a current situation more emotion than it deserves because a past pain is being triggered.2
We have found that people with similar wounds find each other and create dual trauma couples. Often when one mate becomes reactive they can trigger their partner’s soul wounds who can become reactive as well. We call this phenomenon interactivity. When couples are in a state of interactivity, neither is being rational. You can easily see how relational conflict can get out of hand. When this occurs people often say that they have tried everything to practice self-control. They can feel defeated as Christians in life and in relationships. It gives them tremendous relief to know that their deep limbic is betraying them and they are not bad Christians or demon possessed! There is hope for deeply wounded people and it can be found by using the Soul Healing Love model.
This model helps people identify childhood pain that causes reactivity, and then take those wounds to the Lord for healing, thus allowing them to self-soothe and become intentional in conflict. Research shows that repeatedly thinking of God as a positive, loving figure can change the brain’s functioning.4 The limbic system is healed by repetition and experience. Helping people replace negative thoughts with positive ones can create the flow of positive brain chemicals, and experiencing healing conversations and interactions in their relationships can heal the wounded brain.
To help them change their reactions we have developed two communication techniques that help couples determine the root of their anger and stop unhealthy interactivity. These tools can actually change the brain, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Reprogramming the brain with healthy information and relational interactions can help grow the brain in a positive direction.
Technique 1: The GIFT Exercise
Anger theorists teach that anger is not a primary emotion. It is a secondary response to four primary feelings which are: Guilt, Inferiority, Fear, and Pain (Trauma). Since this list is hard to remember in the “heat of battle,” we developed an acronym to help couples remember it. It is the word—GIFT.
This process becomes a gift to the couple, enabling them to communicate through the impasse of conflict by recognizing the root of their rage.
Technique 2: The Digging Deeper Exercise
The Digging Deeper Exercise is a spin-off of the GIFT Exercise. This technique allows the couple to dig deeper into their psyche to determine their soul wounds so that they can understand their reactivity and separate past trauma from their current situation. It consists of five questions one must answer. They are:
- What is the behavior that my mate does that triggers my anger? Complete this sentence, “When my mate does (this)…, I feel (this)….”
- Identify the root of this anger using The GIFT Exercise. Is it Guilt, Inferiority, Fear, or Trauma?
- Ask yourself, “When have I ever felt this feeling before?” Look in childhood for a soul wound that may be triggered. (If you have trouble with this, as many people do, pray that the Lord will show you. Trust Him to do so).
- What do I do when feel I this feeling? What is my behavior?
- What do I really NEED? (This is not the surface need, but the deeper need in your soul.
Learning why you can be so reactive in relationships allows you to create new patterns and positive brain chemicals that actually heal the traumatized brain. But more importantly, it allows you to see yourself and your relationships through God’s eyes to love yourself and others unconditionally.
- Amen, Daniel. (1998). Change Your Brain Change Your Life. New York: Three rivers Press. 37.
- Rodgers, Beverly and Tom. (1998). Soul-Healing Love: Turning Relationships That Hurt Into Relationships That Heal.San Jose: Resource Publications Inc.
- Balcom, Dennis. (1996). The interpersonal dynamics and treatment for dual trauma couples. Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 22, 431-442.
- Jennings, Timothy. (2013). The God Shaped Brain. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. 11.
About the Authors:
Drs. Beverly and Tom Rodgers
Beverly and Tom have been Christian relationship counselors for the past 35 years. They own and operate Rodgers Christian Counseling and the Institute for Soul Healing Love in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they developed the Soul Healing Love Model of Relationships. Both have their PhD’s in Clinical Christian Counseling. Dr. Bev has a Masters Degree in Marital and Family Therapy and Dr. Tom also has a Masters Degree in Human Development. Together they have written 4 books: Soul Healing Love: Turning Relationships That Hurt Into Relationships That Heal, Adult Children of Divorced Parents, The Singlehood Phenomenon: Ten Brutally Honest Reasons Singles Aren’t Getting Married, and Becoming a Family That Heals.
They have appeared on the shows — Focus on the Family, A Time for Hope, His Side Her Side, The American Family, Marriage Uncensored, and NBC Nightside, and have been featured speakers on NPR and the BBC. Together they facilitate relationship workshops for couples and singles across the globe. They have been married for over 35 years and have two grown daughters.