“USING THE COGNITIVE TO CONTROL THE TWITCH…”
On May 14 2011, Dr. Daniel Papero presented Self-Regulation in the Family in Santa Rosa, California. With clinical videos and a review of current research Dr. Papero unpacked what’s understood about the functioning of the brain and the psychology of self-regulation – in the context of what it looks like to work on self-regulation in the family. A DVD of his presentation is available for sale on the website – click here. Here is a brief summary of the meeting:
Emotions are based in hardwired neural pathways that humans have in common with other mammals. They coordinate our physiology, cognition, motivational, behavioral and subjective responses in patterns that increase our ability to meet the threats and opportunities that countless others before us encountered over the course of evolution. Through experience, emotion becomes linked to triggers in the environment and in the family system.
When triggered, emotions impact how we see things and how we see one another. Emotion, for instance, shapes our perceptions in ways that seem to justify continuation of the emotion. The human tendency to seek only information that is consistent with how we already feel about something or someone, a confirmation bias, has been identified by social psychologists. Emotion influences attributions of responsibility and blame, for instance, between family members, attributions which can range from accurate to delusional.
Moods alter the way we process information. Positive mood for instance, can increase mental flexibility – a positive asset if one wishes to remain autonomous while in emotional contact with the family.
When we are overwhelmed by an emotional experience, brain mechanisms associated with higher rational processes are disrupted by the intensity of automatic feelings and behavior dictated by the more primitive brain control systems. Unregulated emotion in one person transfers from person to person much like the flu. The resulting emotional and behavioral synchrony between family members has the same adaptive utility and drawbacks for the group as emotion has for the individual. Emotional flooding of higher brain centers that overwhelms areas of the frontal cortex impairs the ability of the individual and the group to change behavior in response to changing contingencies in the environment and can impair recognition of when threats are real or imagined.
Research on automaticity in relationships and its relationship to awareness clarifies the process of self-regulation (see references below). Benjamin Libet’s work in the 1980’s demonstrated that the body is aware of and responding to stimuli a half a second ahead of conscious awareness. The context, of which people are often unaware, influences the impressions family members have of one another, and changes in functioning can be completely automatic in response to unseen contextual factors in the family system. Since emotion occurs reflexively and automatically, the first choice one can make, if there is awareness, is whether to inhibit an emotional impulse or not. Recognition of emotional reactivity and the decision to inhibit reactivity is basic in self-regulation.
Meanwhile, in the pursuing the goal of controlling emotional reactivity, self-regulation itself can become more automatic. Research demonstrates that having a conscious goal primes automatic functioning towards the goal. Controlling emotional reactivity can become increasingly automatic with practice and repetition of the skills involved. Central to practicing regulation of emotion is directing attention to observing one’s own physiological, psychological and behavioral reactivity in order to understand one’s own role, and to shift one’s own part in the spread of reactivity in the family. Equally important is evaluating one’s subjective feelings and interpretations of others to a more objective view of what it is like for them given their position in the emotional system.
Meditation, biofeedback, prayer, writing and exercise, among other disciplined practices, provide opportunities to work on emotional reactivity outside the family system. But the test of progress is the ability to control emotional reactivity while relating inside the family system. In the family an individual can direct attention to their own responses while in the heat of emotional exchanges that pulse through the relationships. Being able to observe self and others in the middle of the emotional process and getting one’s head to work when upset are real skills.
A goal is to bring one’s own biases into awareness and test them against reality. With awareness, one can practice “Free Won’t”, and learn to contain one’s own reactivity while actively relating with others. This enables better contact in challenging relationships and get’s us on the road to becoming more sure footed in emotionally charged situations.
The clinical videos demonstrated going from intellectual awareness to actually “using the cognitive to control the twitch” in the family. One case involved a woman who came to know her mother with less bias as she became more able to see her own emotional reactions and how they impacted her mother’s response to her. As she became more in charge of her responses, her relationship to her mother became more open and satisfying with significant positive impact for both. Theory says that resolution in the relationship with parents impacts total quality of life more than most anything else.
The other clinical case involved a married couple in which each spouse talked about working on regulating their own reactivity. Their lengthy effort has been challenging. But the couple described their pleasure in the outcome for their now adult children as they keep working at the long-term effort toward self-regulation with one another and in the family.
A coach who knows the terrain can help a family maintain a focus on emotional reactivity and self-regulation in the emotional system. This moderates the emotional intensity in the family, which reduces symptoms of all kinds, and prepares the ground for the motivated to increase differentiation of self in the family emotional system.
The DVD of Dr. Papero’s presentation of Self Regulation in the Family and discussion with the audience are available for purchase …click here.
Readings in Automaticity
•Bargh, JA, (ed). Social Psychology and the Unconscious. NY and Hove: Psychology Press, 2007.
•Hassin, RR, JS Uleman, JA Bargh (edes). The New Unconscious. NY: Oxford Univ Press, 2005 (paperback 2007)