Monkey Puzzle Blog

emotional buttons

Understand peoples’ trials and tantrums – at home and at work

When you or someone around you flips out seriously, has a meltdown, lashes out, shouts and balls or bursts into tears suddenly how do you know what’s really going on – and how to deal with it calmly and compassionately?

Brain diagramEveryone has the ability to overreact but some people do it much more often than others. If this is you, someone you work with or someone you love, it’s important to understand what’s going on in your brain when this happens and that can better inform you as to how to deal with it.

Over time human beings have evolved three brains effectively that control different emotional and logical functions:

Reptilian Brain – the oldest part of the brain that controls survival senses like hunger, and flight, flight and freeze

Mammalian Brain – the next part to develop, this maintains emotional functions key to relationships like social bonding, caring and nurturing

Rational Brain – the newest to develop handles complex thinking processes like learning, problem solving, empathy and self awareness

When someone has an outburst or meltdown, the rational brain is hijacked by one of the earlier brain functions. The reptilian brain fires much much faster than the rational brain, which is why when we are terrified or distraught, we can’t think straight. Here’s how to spot which it is and how to deal with it.

When someone is full of rage, terror or has gone numb or frozen, this likely to be a reptilian brain take over. When someone does this regularly their reptilian brain to overactive and they will need help and support to re-regulate it. This usually (but not always) happens when someone has had a lot of bad things happen to them or some kind trauma, their brain learns that ‘nothing is safe’ so is on high alert for danger. When someone reacts in this way:

  • Don’t try to rationalise with them, their rational brain is not functioning well so they can’t respond
  • Be careful about comforting them, sometimes this will make them worse
  • It is often best to give them some space and let them know where you are when they feel like talking, their brain needs to re regulated and that can take some time
  • If appropriate tend to their immediate needs, like a drink
  • If you have enough rapport with them encourage them to take some deep breaths. This really helps with re-regulation but can sound patronising if there is no rapport. So if someone is angry at you – I would advise against this one.

When someone is distressed or hurt, this is likely to be the mammalian brain taking over.

  • Think emotions first, how can you help them to get calmer without telling them too (this rarely helps). It could be guiding them to sit down or come for a short walk with you.
  • Let them express their emotions without making comment or judgement. If you want to show empathy listen and let them know they’re heard. Don’t tell them you know how they feel because this can come across as dismissive or insincere. For them, at this moment, it is a disaster.
  • Don’t trivialise their distress, this will only make them feel worse and they may never forgive you.

 Once the emotions are re-regulated, you can then have any necessary conversation with them. This can be some time later. When this happens it is important to remember that this behaviour is rarely anything to do with you, the person on the receiving end. It is their pattern of behaviour which is linked to their rational or mammalian brains being over reactive and this is something only they can deal with. It is really important not to humiliate people who behave in this way if you care about them, as that will only make it worse, even gentle banter or teasing should be avoided.


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