Shutting Down and Changing the Subject

Do you take the time to reflect on your relationship with your loved ones? What influences our feelings, perceptions, and behaviors as evolving human beings? Are you consciously creating a nurturing environment where safety and trust influence the activation of genes and sculpt the structure of the brain?   

The genes that children inherit influence their development and shape the inborn characteristics of their nervous systems. Their experiences also directly shape their development and influence which genes are activated. Relationships that provide contingency (responses to other's signals with a quality, intensity, and timing which clearly reflect the signals that were sent), especially when emotions are heightened, offer our loved ones repeated experiences where they feel connected, understood and protected. 

I noticed when homeschooling my son, Rylan, that rather than sharing a mutual sense of interest and wonder as we focused on learning, Rylan would shut down and then change the subject! I would feel tight tension, become rigid, and very intent on my specific strategy to provide the foundation necessary for his learning to take place. When I insisted on continuing with my focus, he would explode with anger and then literally fall asleep. 

Mystified, I took the time to slow everything down inside myself, and noticed I had an underlying inner story I was running in the background - I was telling myself that my strategy was the only one available! 

This repeated experience created a very relationally stressful environment for my son. His body and brain quickly became accustomed to high levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, chemicals the adrenal glands pump out when we are stressed, which influenced him to feel threatened and very unsafe. 

High levels of cortisol can cause us to feel overwhelmed and fearful, coloring our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions with a sense of dread, as if everything we need to do is way too hard. Epinephrine and norepinephrine can strongly affect our mood, telling our liver to release glucose, our heart to pump faster, fat stores to release fat, and our muscles to mobilize energy stores. When strongly activated, rather than helping us feel alert with clear thinking, just like cortisol, they cause us to feel anxious or angry or both! We can become intensely focused on real or imagined threats and we move into a hyperarousal state, activating our fight or flight impulses of aggression or withdrawal and avoidance.  

I am forever grateful I could call my empathy buddy for support. By getting support I was able to hold a part of myself that was desperate to be seen with warmth and compassionate understanding. 

As an adolescent, I had such a hard time learning how to form healthy relationships with my peers. This part of myself was still stuck in hopelessness that it was possible to connect creatively with pre-teens and have fun with learning! What a relief it was just to touch base with this old story and begin to glimpse the beautiful needs underneath. When I sank into this moment, letting all the sensations, inner pictures and sounds float by, I felt my body soften and my stomach relax, as I willingly let go and the story unraveled and dissipated.   

When we are held with attuned resonant empathy, our bodies, emotions, and states of mind come into balance, and we are able to attain a sense of integration internally and feel connected in our relationships with others. Our brain's neurochemicals, opioids and oxytocin, are activated in combination, and we can experience the deepest sense of calm and contentment and develop the capacity to remain open-hearted to life. These chemicals can only be activated in the brain through warm human connection.   

The next day when my son was giving me a good morning hug, he asked, "Mom, can I do Sim Social first?"   

I smiled into his eyes while giving him an affectionate squeeze, and said, "Absolutely!"   

His eyes widened with surprise, and joyfully he gave me a much stronger embrace, exclaiming, "Thanks Mom! I love you so much!"   

When we continued to stay in dialog around how to keep the learning fun and engaging, it includes lots of freedom of choice and space for both of us. A key aspect of this being success was maintaining a safe, warm environment, attuning my internal state with my sons nonverbal signals, and taking any distress seriously by not making either of us "wrong," and providing consistent, warm physical contact to release those wonderful stress-relieving chemicals.


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