We are continuing our discussion of emotional crime scenes and subsequent relationship issues.
Emotional crime scenes can set up a situation where you keep returning to the scene of the crime. You may do this by way of relationships that are abusive or confusing. You may do this by taking on jobs that are demeaning with employers or employees who overtly disrespect you. It may be that you are returning to an old crime scene in you parenting. Or, you may have become the aggressor.
Let’s look at how this happens.
In the last blog we explored the Limbic System of the brain and its job in keeping us safe by recording all those things that happen in a lifetime that were emotionally charged and significant.
This is why the scent of cookies baking in the oven can bring you back to the living room at grandmother’s home, especially if grandmother’s home was your safe place. It is why the the smell of Ivory soap can transport you to the age of five and mother scrubbing your tongue with soap for the bad things you said, especially if this was done with anger and you felt fear. Some believe it is behind what we call deja vu. It is also why we may be drawn to certain people.
Sometimes people think that attraction to another is related to love or destiny. I don’t disagree in principle, but I wonder about the origin of the attraction. I wonder how much the Limbic System and triggers influence our decision-making. This doesn’t mean love isn’t a part of the equation. Perhaps, among other things, love is helped along due to the Limbic System and its tendency to just do its job of receiving and sending without judgments.
In childhood we may love our parents, even if we don’t like them. Children even love abusive parents.
I remember working with a small child many years ago. He was in a foster care setting and his parents’ rights were to be terminated. He had cigarette burn scars on both arms. He had belt mark discolorations on his chest and abdomen. He had healed cuts on his face and burn marks on his feet. He had been tortured by way of child abuse.
This little boy, whom I will call Jimmy, wanted to go back to his parents. Part of my job was to work with him on the fact that he would never be going back to live with them again. He protested, he screamed, he threw chairs at me and everything else he could find in the child therapy playroom. He screamed, “I don’t care if they hurt me, I want to be with them.”
Jimmy had the advantage of therapy at the time of the trauma. He would also receive many more years of therapy before he was grown.
We have described the Limbic System (structures in a particular part of the brain) as the 24-hour surveillance system that records all the details of an event, such as a trauma.
Here is an example: Let’s say that your co-worker comes up behind you and puts her hands around your neck in a choking posture. She is just kidding, because she is play-acting her frustration about being admonished by the boss. She doesn’t know you have a history of being choked by your dad when you were seven. She doesn’t know of your past child abuse or of being sexually molested by a neighbor. She doesn’t know that the lingering scent of her having eaten a hot dog earlier is related to the time you vomited hot dogs after being frightened. She doesn’t know about you.
Your Limbic System, in particular your Amygdala, registers a potential danger. It says, React Right Now!!
Your Body, by way of the sympathetic nervous system, acts to increase blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate, and adrenaline is released through your circulatory system. Your Body Is Readying For Danger!!
The Insular Cortex of the brain is registering that you are upset and must do something about this Now. It controls perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning and interpersonal experience.
The Anterior Cingulate Cortex of the brain wonders what to do next.
Now all the while your Limbic System and one of its structures, the Amygdala, has been busy with the business of keeping you safe, the Prefrontal Cortex has a mind of its own and is thinking (because that is what this part of the brain does), Perhaps we should think about what’s going on here? There may be consequences to acting on this. I might regret acting on the message from my Amygdala. Please calm down Limbic System. What is happening now is not related to what happened when I was seven or sixteen.
This is the critical juncture. Some folks will be able to follow the mediation offered by the Prefrontal Cortex, whereas others will not be able to do this.
If your amygdala can listen to the prefrontal cortex, the parasympathetic nervous system will activate, slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure and slowing your respiration rate. You will be able to calm down.
If the amygdala has had its way for a long time or has had way too many traumas to sift through, you will blow up at your co-worker. The prefrontal cortex will be ineffective in communicating to the amygdala. Or, in the case of PTSD or disorders of extreme stress, you could engage in fight, flight, or freeze.
Relationally speaking, when you meet a new person it can be a benign experience; it is pleasant and no bells or whistles go off. This is likely due to the fact that the person does not have something or does not do something that acts as a trigger to an old memory in the Limbic System where like-kind information is stored. Some folks consider this type of encounter as boring or insignificant.
Sometimes you meet someone and your heart rate increases, your blood pressure is increased and you might find yourself short of breath. You are in an excited state. You find this new person attractive. You find her beguiling. You find him enchanting. Is it real love in the making? Is this your soul mate appearing after all this time? Or, is it an old crime scene being remembered. Or, is it performance anxiety and just simple nervousness?
I hate to leave you hanging, but I have exceeded my word count. More in the next blog where we will look at the Famous 5′s of the Limbic System (Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, Feeding and Sex (I removed the F)).
Take care and be well,
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
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Last reviewed: 7 May 2012