Today I finished teaching a course based on Hold On To Yourself, the book I co-authored with Emotional Brain Training Master trainer and therapist Judy Zehr.

The course was offered online weekly over three weeks to interested employees at a large organization. Needless to say, I had a group of very motivated and keen individuals interested in the topic of personal growth, wellness, and conflict transformation. The experience was a privilege, a thrill, and a learning for me as well.

Today, the last day of the course, I asked people what insights they gained as a result of reading the book and working with the concepts for a few weeks. Many wise things were shared and I wanted to share one with you:

Firstly, the intention of the book is to offer a brain-based explanation for the relationship between conflict and stress and how we can hold on to ourselves through the vicissitudes of relational life.

One participant said she appreciated learning how everyone has the same brain and therefore will have the same physiological reactions to perceived threat.

When we feel like we’re under threat, we jump our thinking brain (so we don’t know we’re having this reaction) and go into our “NO!” brain state. This will look like either:

  • Fight (raise our voices, pick up its speed, pour on the words)
  • Flee (“I’m out of here!”)
  • Freeze (I can’t think clearly or at all)
  • Fawn (also known as faint or submit: giving in or people pleasing).

In the class, we did a few exercises that highlighted the difference between what it feels like to be in our reactive or “No Brain” state vs in a receptive or “Yes Brain” state. They feel fundamentally different and it can help to realize which state you’re in, as your thinking will be completely different. It’s like having different personalities all in one body!

I learned about these fundamental brain states initially when I studied Emotional Brain Training (and what the book is based on). I also learned from the research Dr. Dan Siegel has done on the Yes Brain. Here’s his short explanation.

Learning this information was “freeing” for my workshop participant as it made her more conversant with how conflict works. It’s become just that much more predictable and therefore navigable. She knows now that she’s not the only one who gets uncomfortable reactions and what the common nervous system reactions are.

This insight allows her, she said, to de-personalize intense interactions, to gain more compassion for herself and more understanding of others. She also knows she can pick a tool to help her, depending on what brain state she is in.

This built on another learner’s comment that when someone has an emotional reaction, she asks herself: What they might be coming in with?

What she means is, she gets curious about them. She doesn’t personalize their comments as she recognizes they have something going on that they are trying to express. Marshall Rosenberg has said that blaming and judging are tragic expressions of unmet needs.

Asking ourselves a question also turns on our pre-frontal cortex, pulling us away from our amygdala’s alarm responses. Questions put our thinking brains back online. Questions shift us from the No brain to our Yes brain state.

This workshop participant said her question enables her to switch into curiosity about how that other person might be feeling and what they might be needing. She also said when she gets a big reaction, she will also get curious about her own reaction at the moment. What is going on for her?

I so appreciate the wisdom participants brought to the course and their willingness to dive into the material in the book and to deepen into this topic of self-regulation.

We affirmed how important it is to get comfortable with discomfort. We all need this skill of holding on to ourselves to lesson our automatic, survival, and unconscious “No Brain” reactions. We all have an inner reptile which can be brought alive in a nano-second, and often without our conscious awareness. Just notice your own reactions to the daily news if you’d like a reality check about the primacy of your body to hijack your calm.

Most importantly, we will all have moments of popping into our “No Brain” now and again.

So, let’s give each other a dollop of grace and space when we find our breathing quickening and our temperatures rising. Take a Quick Pause to come back to that wiser, more expanded Yes! Brain self. Let It Be. Breathe. Through Being we come back to our whole self. We hold on to ourselves.