Parts of Your Brain Directing Regulation & Disregulation
"The Alarm" aka the Amygdala. The Amygdala is the fear or "threat" center of the brain. It's a primitive aspect of our brain and is often referred to as the "lizard brain." The Amygdala is a key player in the interconnections that make up the limbic system, which guides emotions, memory, motivation and behavior. Your Amygdala is one of the most important parts of the limbic system. It assists in identifying and reacting to "threats" in your environment. (The limbic system reacts to things it perceives as threats too. I'll discuss this more later when I get to the blog about Maladaptive Beliefs.) Our amazing limbic system was developed because of our tremendous need to act when we are vulnerable/in a dangerous situation and need to survive. You can think of the limbic system as the "Survival System."
"The Aggressor" aka the Locus Coeruleus. The L.C. is the driving force behind aggressive behavior. It's part of regulating impulse control and when dis-regulated, the L.C. releases too much noradrenaline (the brains version of adrenaline) increasing anxiety, arousal, and aggression. It also messes with your sleep cycles because it overloads the system with hormones that tell you, "Hey! There's a Tiger in the room."
"The Conductor" or Prefrontal Cortex. The Prefrontal Cortex is behind your forehead at the front of the brain. This is known as the "seat of executive function." The PFC is has the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts and inputs. It can consider future consequences of current activities, and work toward defined goals and exhibit "social control." This conductor in our brain has the ability to give us empathy, language, creativity and compassion. It is what keeps us regulated in a very dis-regulating world. When this part of our brain is shut off during a threat response, we most often have the inability to communicate, we can not get to empathy, and we don't have the ability to have solutions to conflict. This can look like what I call a "badger brain." When the PFC is accessible (most of our Prefrontal Cortex is not used) we can express ourselves, ask for what we need, and want and have the ability to set healthy boundaries. We are a more regulated being when we have access to our prefrontal cortex.
The Hippocampus or our "memory bank" is responsible for creating and maintaining memories. When the Amygdala is activated it sends signals to the Hippocampus disrupting the ability to make and store memories in a coherent way. This is why memories can be blocked, disorganized or seem to not make sense or be distorted. The Hippocampus also associates survival value to memories.
The Ventral Tegmental Area or VTA is like Las Vegas. It's responsible for rewards, motivation, and addiction. It's all about Dopamine here in the VTA. When our bodies stress-response system is overloaded time after time it dis-regulates the sensitivity of our dopamine receptors. This means you need more of the "stuff" to feel the same amount of pleasure. So, if it's sex, you need and want more, If it's shopping, you are shopping often and maybe max out credit cards. You get the picture. The biological changes in the VTA that lead people to crave dopamine stimulation like high sugar and high fat foods, also leads to high risk behaviors. ACE Studies show that there is a dose response relationship between ACE exposure and engaging in activities and substances that activate the VTA. A person with a 4 or more ACEs is 2 and a half times as likely to smoke, 5 and a half times as likely to be dependent on alcohol, and 10 times as likely to use intravenous drugs as a person with zero ACEs. If we are wanting to understand dependencies on substances or behaviors that affect dopamine centers understanding ACEs is a must.
What Are ACEs? Go to My ACEs page
Nadine Burke Harris M.D. 2021
Center for Trauma Healing 2022