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How to Train the Guard Dog in Your Brain

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If there is one thing we all universally share, we will all at some point experience emotional pain. It is an unavoidable part of our existence — and an essential one. Without pain, we would not be able to quantify joy and we would not grow.

However, when it happens — it seriously sucks. When my friends come to me in pain or my clients talk to me about how they are struggling with moving on from pain, I always wish I had a magic wand to swoosh away the hurt in an instant.

There are no short cuts however, the only way through pain is to feel it. If we try to displace it, numb it or run from it, the pain will get out eventually and possibly cost us more.

When I explain how the brain works to my clients, I discuss how we actually have two brains — the primitive and the intellectual. We evolved the latter as we evolved as humans. The primitive brain reacts with emotion, the intellectual brain is logical and rational.

The role of the primitive brain is still crucial. It is there to protect us from harm. Like our own inner guard dog, it helps us recognize threat and run or fight until we are safe. However, this primitive brain can be misleading, overzealous and, at worst, it can start to own us. When this happens, we can lose control and fall down the rabbit hole into anger, anxiety or depression (fight, flight or freeze). We start to see everything as a potential threat and before we know it, we are suddenly getting angry, scared or nervous about things we know rationally we shouldn’t be — but we can’t help it.

To use my dog analogy again — if you own a dog you have to train it or it will simply rule the house. It will bite, poop and chew its way to destroying your home and running your life. We want our dogs to be friendly, but also want them to protect us from intruders. We want our dogs to be free to run off, but also want them to come back to us. We want them to clean their teeth by chewing toys — but not the furniture.

So just as we train our dogs with positive reinforcement, so our brains learn by the same measure — each time we act, think or engage with our lives in a positive manner we get a chemical “treat” of dopamine which makes us feel happy, and so we learn to repeat that behavior to get that treat again.

The same works with the negative — if we get hurt we avoid that situation. However, just a negatively punishing a dog can cause aggression, fear and ultimately dangerous behaviors, the same happens to our brains. If we expose ourselves to negative behaviors, thoughts too often react by numbing, shutting down or lashing out. The trouble is — our primitive brains are not smart — merely reactive. So this behavior is often deemed as successful. You have reacted this way to cope and you are still breathing — so we learn to react that way again to protect ourselves. Your primitive brain doesn’t care if you are happy, just if you are alive.

Imagine a dog who is scared of the vacuum. It’s not really a threat, it just makes a loud noise. However, if the dog barks and runs away the first time it sees it, it has survived this monstrous beast. So when it encounters the vacuum again, this is the behavior it will repeat. Even though it’s completely irrational.

So we train the dog by gradually exposing it to the vacuum and rewarding it when it doesn’t run away until the dog learns that the vacuum means getting a treat and the fear subsides.

When we experience pain, our guard dogs come out. They are there to protect us and keep everyone and anything that could harm us further away.

For awhile this is fine. We need time to adjust, to come to terms with what has hurt us. However, at some point, we need to start training that dog to back down. We need to engage in reward behaviors — positive action, interaction and thought — and show our inner dog that it’s safe.

Of course some pain is there to keep us away from real danger, toxic friendships, relationships and addictions. However, to decipher which it is, we need to be in our rational, intellectual brain so that the guard dog knows when to stand down and go to his bed in our head.

Everybody hurts. It’s how we deal with it that defines its impact on us. So next time you are in pain, remember you don’t have to fight it or numb it out. Just make sure you have a drawer full of treats for your inner dog when you make it to the other side.

Photo by Ryan Walton on Unsplash

Originally published: October 7, 2018
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