How Our Brain Helps Us Cope with Emotional Upsets
- Coping by Depending on Our Two Instinctive Brains
- Learning to Cope by Observing Others
- Learning to Cope by Trial and Error
- Learning to Use Coping Skills and Tools Through Education Programs
Introduction: Principles for Developing our Coping Ability
The pre-teen years are the best time to learn these skills and begin to use simple, brain-based coping tools. During this time our brain is rapidly developing and our thinking ability becomes more like an adult. These skills and tools give us the power to control our stress and get over daily upsets. We learn coping skills like we learn math, English or music. Coping is like learning a new language. Many of the terms are quite simple to learn (see Resources & Activities), but only through practice can we improve our coping ability . Let”s start by introducing some basic coping principles.
These principles are the same basic concepts that pre-teen students learn in Brain Works for Kids classroom education projects in grades 4, 5 and 6. Our ability to effectively cope with challenges and upsets requires learning and practicing skills so they become everyday coping tools. Just learning about these principles is not enough. Pre-teens need to use these skills and tools in times of stress. Coping skills become stronger the more we use them to overcome challenging experiences. Pre-teens are able to gain these skills now to prepare them for middle school life when we re more likely to be stressed, angry and sad due to normal brain changes during teenage years.
Humans are born with instinctive coping IMPULSES, but we have to learn coping SKILLS. All of us are born with strong survival brain instincts that help us to stay alive when we were helpless and totally depended on mother (and dad). While our reptilian and emotional brain coping impulses are pretty well developed at birth, our thinking neocortex needs time to develop since it s what we use to learn difficult things including coping skills. For helpless babies, crying is emotional and reptilian brains instinctive way of getting attention and help when we had too much gas in our tummy or our bottom was cold or irritated by a soiled diaper. When we were a bit older toddlers and got frustrated or upset while playing with other children, hitting playmates became our other main protective instinct. These same emotional and reptilian brain impulses were important to protect our self when our bodies or feelings were hurt. But by the time we re nine-years-old, pre-teens and their brains are far more developed. We are able to learn and use higher thinking abilities of our neocortex to “manage” those childhood emotional and reptilian brain instinctive responses when we were frustrated or emotionally upset. Research studies show that by about the age of nine, pre-teens become capable of managing upsets by themselves.
By using neocortex to “figure out” how to cope with challenges we create new brain coping cells. It s like lifting weights. Each time we challenge our thinking brain to understand why we feel upset, we also become smarter in the way we act and respond to stress. Each coping success brings greater confidence that tells us we CAN get over our next upset more easily. In the classroom Brain Works Project, pre-teens tell us that once they ve learned and practiced “thinking brain coping skills” to get over stress, they feel confident they can “bounce back” from upsets more easily. This makes kids more resilient, and may even help us to like ourselves more!
There”s nothing “wrong” with you when your feelings are hurt. Sometimes our upsets are more stressful because we believe “Something is wrong with me” when the only thing that”s happened is your brain feels threatened and that makes us afraid. We need neocortex to help us understand that everyone gets their feelings hurt, but not everyone learns healthy coping skills for getting over it.
Take the example of a crocodile. We know it only has a reptilian brain. That”s why they are mean killing machines. They have no emotional brain or any feelings at all. But even if they did have a feelings they wouldn”t have a thinking (neocortex) brain that helps them understand and cope with their anger. But in the case of C.C. Croc (shown above) it was changed into Coping & Caring Crocodile by a “Lizards Wizard” who gave it both an emotional brain and a neocortex so it could have feelings plus the ability to use words to understand why it feels so mean. Now, C.C. Croc might even want you to pet it. Try saying words to the ” Coping & Caring Crocodile Rap” to tell the story of this happy croc.
Taking responsibility for our own feelings. We cannot always control what others do or say to us which bring on our upsets. But we can learn to be responsible for coping and dealing with the emotional pain and stress we feel inside. Go to Coping Skills Exercise to practice getting over common types of painful experiences. User Manuals
Coping skills increase our self-management ability. Once we learn how our coping brains work, we gain a new sense of control over all of our own coping brain functions. The more we practice healthy coping skills, the easier it becomes to get over the next upsetting experience.
Coping takes courage. It takes coping courage to learn how to deal with difficult or painful problems head-on. Just wishing that stress and emotional pain goes away doesn t work. Neither does trying to “blur out” our hurt feelings and stress by using drugs or alcohol. Drugs are like trying to give our emotional brain a shot of Novocain like dentists use to numb our mouth. It only lasts a short time. After it wears off we still have to cope with the real hurt stored inside our brain. If you have the courage to face difficult situations, you will find yourself growing stronger after each time you cope successfully. We can t run away from brain strain or pain. If we don t deal with it directly sure enough it stays there inside our brain s memory!
Brains Rule! Neuroscientists have used new imaging equipment that let s us see where feelings start inside our brain. Our powerful coping brains are there to tell us when we are upset and need to use our coping skills. Just like emotional and reptilian brains help us recognize when we feel threatened, our thinking brain is always there if we use it to figure out why we”re upset. We have a choice to go on “automatic” and let our instinctive brains – reptilian and emotional – take over and tell us how we should react when we re upset. Or we can get our neocortex involved to take control of the coping process.
Ignoring or just storing our hurt feelings can be a dangerous coping habit. Once we sense our feelings are hurt by something that happens, trying to ignore it doesn’t make it go away. It only buries the pain more deeply in our emotional brain memory system, where it can challenge and threaten our sense of safety and even the ability to like our self. Since pretending that we re not hurt doesn t help us get over it, that same part of our brain that remembers pain is what we need to use to learn, pay attention and remember when we re learning new things at school.
When we are upset and under stress, so is our brain! Yes our brain can become so stressed when we”re upset for long periods scientists have found the stress chemicals in our body can shrink portions part of our emotional memory. So our brain can lose some of its ability to remember, concentrate and learn. If you re having trouble paying attention in class your brain may be distracted from learning. Coping skills just don t make you feel better, they are important so that we learn to deal with and recover from stress and use all our brain s thinking and learning ability.
Our coping brain has three different and necessary parts, but just one “captain.”. We can learn how to make the different parts of our coping Brain Team work together. Learn more about our Brain Team led by Captain Neo, our neocortex. Neocortex is by far the largest and most powerful learning tool in the universe. This thinking brain contains 85% of our total brain cells for learning, six times larger than each of our two instinctive (reptilian and emotional) coping brain functions. So Rep (reptillian) and “Emo (emotioal) brains mostly work automatically rather than think.
Our thinking brain can tell us when we can’t cope and need help. We can learn that it”s OK to ask for help when we just can”t get over some upsets, anger or sadness. Coping skills include the ability to seek and use outside help when we know we need to build more coping confidence. People who learn to ask others (friends, parents, counselors, etc.) for help to build coping ability become stronger (not weaker) the next time a challenging experience causes stress. We all need help and support from others sometimes. It s nothing to be shy about telling others. Often the most resilient people are those who ve learned to ask for help when they know they need to build their own abilities to get over upsets more easily in the future. This website has lots of activities and resources you can practice to become better able to use brain-based coping skills.
How Our Brain Helps Us Cope with Emotional Upsets
Coping by Depending on Our Two Instinctive Coping Brains
In the Brain Works Project we learn that instinctive coping brain functions are very useful because they work automatically from the time we are born. Reptilian and emotional coping brains can act without the help of our thinking brain! We need them to help us stay safe and secure. But, may act like a child if we depend too much on our instinctive emotional and reptilian coping responses whenever we feel upset. For example, babies are born with a natural ability to sense how safe they are by reading their mothers face and listening to the sounds she makes. When mother is smiling or talking in high pitched and happy “baby talk”, infants feel secure. But what if mother is upset, angry or frightened? A baby”s emotional coping brain instantly goes into panic. Instinctive emotional and survival impulses send warning signals throughout baby s brain that they may be in danger of dying!
All this happens because a baby”s brain can sense from mother”s face and tone of voice, if she is distressed. Babies cry at birth as a survival instinct. No one taught babies how to cry or understand why they need to be emotionally attached to their mother. This is simply a primitive survival instinct. Both reptilian and emotional coping brains come equipped with the ability to keep us alive. Emotional brain tells us if we are safe, loved and cared for, or in danger of being *abandoned. These are a baby”s brain first coping capabilities, which remain with us throughout life. We never outgrow the baby brain s strong instinct to feel safe, to be loved, or to scream and get attention when our safety and emotional bond with others is threatened. This is why we instinctively scream for help when we are frightened; and also yell out in the excitement of some great achievement.
Four Core Wounding Experiences To understand our instinctive reaction to being abandoned read more about “loss” or betrayal by those we trust in “Coping Challenges” (Lesson #2). If baby is left alone and fears mother may never return, its primitive survival brain takes over. Fear of death from abandonment stays deep inside us our whole life since it triggers primative instinctive brain responses.
Learning to Cope by Observing Others
When we are born we have a large head compared to our small body. Our head needs to be large because we have billions of thinking and learning brain cells in our neocortex coping brain. How do we learn to cope when we re very young? We observe our parents. As a baby we use mostly instincts — the emotional brain, and protective reptilian brain — to help us survive during a time when we are helpless and dependent upon parents for our survival. Parents are the most important people to help us cope with our fears. When baby falls down, hurts and cries, mom or dad quickly come to the rescue by holding baby close and comfort it let them know they are safe, loved and protected. If a baby”s parents are often upset, fearful, angry or sad it is hard for baby to be cheerful and happy.
2. Other family members
Next to mom and dad, our next coping teachers are other family members like brothers and sisters, or close relatives like grandparents, aunts or uncles. They teach us by displaying their own coping behavior; and they help us deal with our hurts with their love and caring for us when we are young. Any of our close family members can become our coping models until we become old enough to play with other children.
3. Our peers – their friends and classmates
Young children are often frightened the first days when they go off to day care, pre-school and kindergarten. This is the first time parents are no longer with them throughout the day. Both reptilian and emotional brains are powerful forces that make young children fearful when parents or regular care givers are no longer present to “fix” their hurts. Children begin to see new models for coping once they start nursery or pre-school. They are exposed to other children who exhibit their own coping styles or habits. Young children quickly learn new coping patterns from being around others and observing the way their friends and classmates deal with difficult situations. During their pre-teen, adolescent years we are old enough to choose from different types of coping patterns. We also begin to pay more attention to the coping habits of our peers.
4. Teachers and school staff
Once we go off to kindergarten and elementary school all of a sudden we spend more time away from home and in the company of teachers, school staff and possibly after school caregivers. These teachers and school staff, like our parents, can also become important coping models for students from kindergarten and throughout elementary school. As we near the teenage years, students have usually begun to pattern the coping styles of both parents and teachers, since our neocortex is able to form our own unique coping habits. This is why the Brain Works and Coping Skills classroom education is useful helpful for pre-teens in grades 4, 5 and 6 whose thinking brain is capable of understanding new ways of coping with stress, upsets, anger and sadness.
5. Entertainment media: TV, movies and video games
By the time we”re pre-teens many students are used to playing video games and watching TV and movies with lots of action and violent behavior. What kind of coping behavior do we learn from these forms of “entertainment?” There are many studies trying to understand if violent entertainment actual shapes a child”s way of coping with stress, frustration and emotional upsets. There is some evidence that students who have coping problems and can”t get over their upsets easily become addicted to violence in media and video games. Here is an observation you can test out by asking yourself and your friends the question: Why do we like watching or participating in violent games where there is a high chance of actual or simulated injury? Could it be that our reptilian survival brain instinctive need to “attack or hide” when we feel threatened is stimulated by this media opportunity to get “revenge” by using visual entertainment to feel we are getting even with someone or something that is or has caused us emotional pain? We don”t have evidence yet that can prove this theory, but knowing about our instinctive reptilian coping brains is what causes people around the world to spend millions or perhaps billions of dollars a year to be “entertained” with violent media.
Learning to Cope by Trial and Error
One of the most power ways our brain learns how to cope is by practicing different ways of dealing with upsets that we find challenging and difficult to deal with. Sometimes we learn lessons by accident or by making mistakes. Maybe we try one way of coping with an upsetting experience that makes us feel angry or sad, but still can”t get over it. We may remain angry, upset or sad for long periods of time that cause us more stress. So we then try something else to get relief from our pain and upset feelings. One problem with learning to cope by accident or trial and error is that we may learn coping habits that are harmful to us or others. We know that all of our three coping brains – reptilian, emotional and thinking – have coping habits. It is important that we learn through education programs that we have choices in how we cope with stress. Yes, we need to experiment with different coping methods. But we have a thinking brain that is nearly fully developed by age 11 or 12, which means we can learn how to use coping skills and tools that are safe, healthy and effective for getting over our upsets without harming our self or others.
Learning to Use Coping Skills and Tools through Education Programs
School-based coping skills education programs are now being demonstrated and their effectiveness evaluated by 4th, 5th and 6th grade pre-teens. We know that education programs can help kids to understand about and better manage their coping brain functions. These programs are quite new, but are already proving to be a simple and effective way to develop healthy coping skills and tools before kids enter their emotionally challenging teenage years. See information about the Brain Works Project.
Today pre-teens, their parents, teachers and student services professionals can learn about coping brain functions, skills and tools to improve coping confidence. We live in an exciting time for learning how our human brain works. Each year there are new and exciting brain research discoveries. But what is most exciting is applying brain function research to everyday coping situations. We hope this website helps you to better understand the interaction between the three coping brain elements. It”s amazing to think that human brains are now capable of understanding their own functions! The 21st Century will reveal far more insights that will shatter traditional thinking about our human ability to control natural instincts that begin in our brain and influence how we think, feel and act.
The Internet now offers a new way of learning coping skills in the classroom or at home. Check out all of the free Resources & Activities on this website to discover ways to practice and learn more about how your coping brain works and use the full power of your thinking brain. You can get even more information and activities by signing up for the FREE Brain Works and Coping Kids e-newsletter.
Go to the activity “How the Brain Team Deals with Emotional Upsets.”