So, what does your brain have to do with relationships? The answer is, well, everything. Science has shown that specific neural pathways exist to actively help us engage in healthy relationships, and that in healthy relationships, those pathways grow stronger and stronger.
So the long and short of all this is that stronger neural pathways for connection make your relationships stronger and more rewarding. Unfortunately, though, the reverse is also true. In chronic bad relationships, these pathways do not get the extra stimulation they need. These neural pathways actually get weaker, and so do your relationships. And that is no small matter, because people who are chronically disconnected and isolated get sick more often and die sooner.
For these reasons, it is time to pay attention to your brain-relationships connections. Here are a few suggestions to get started:
1. Realize the power of getting calm.
Do your closest friends and family help you feel calm or do you need to take a vacation to Florida after being with your family for the holidays? The answer to this question is largely dependent on the functioning of your smart vagus nerve.
When you have "good vagal tone" this neural network (which innervates your face, inner ear, and throat) tells the stress response system to turn off so that you can engage safely with people. When vagal tone is low you may feel more irritable or even scared around other people. Of course, if people are dangerous, you want that sympathetic nervous system to help you fight or flee. But often, when someone's smart vagus is weak, they feel scared even when the environment is nonthreatening.
To bulk up your smart vagus try the following:
- Go a little out of your way to make eye contact and say hello to people you normally pass by. This could be a co-worker, someone at the grocery store, literally anyone you pass. Notice the lift you get when they do the same back. This is a mini-workout for your smart vagus.
- Do something to decrease your stress response every day. This could be as simple as pausing four times throughout the day and taking ten deep breaths. You might try meditating for ten minutes or going for a brisk walk at lunch. As your sympathetic nervous system becomes less active your smart vagus will be more effective at helping you feel calm with safe people.
2. Practice acceptance — and you'll literally feel pain decrease.
Acceptance is the new pain control. Have you ever felt left out at work meetings, like no one is listening to your ideas? Have you ever been at family gathering where you were the brunt of negative attention? Do you belong to a social group that is marginalized for reasons that are beyond your control? If any of these experiences ring true (and they do for most people!) chances are you are in pain, real pain.
Relational neuroscience tells us that the brain pathway that registers the distress of physical injury or illness is the EXACT SAME one that registers the distress of social exclusion. If you are ridiculed, ostracized or marginalized regularly your pain pathways are likely red-hot.
Here are a few strategies to decrease pain in your relationships:
- Stop those constant judgments. Chances are if you have been judged regularly, you are pretty good at judging yourself. You can feel the pain of your own judgment without even having to hear from others. Spend an hour on three separate occasions and record each judgment (against your self or someone else) that arises in your thoughts. With this new awareness, begin to label the judging thoughts as simple "judging thoughts, not reality" and refocus on a time you felt accepted and held in a relationship. Judging yourself or others feeds the pain and cycle of social rejection. As the judging decreases so will the pain!
- Practice a daily loving kindness meditation, which can lead to a deep-seated sense of being part of something larger than you
3. Feel the power of emotional resonance.
Understanding others and being understood are the bookends of healthy relationship. This resonance happens not just in the space in between two people but literally in the brains and bodies of each person in the relationship, through the mirror neuron system (MNS). The MNS allows you to "know" automatically what other people are doing, intending or feeling by creating an internal mimicking of the other person's experience. I reach out to hug one of my children and in your nervous system you are doing the same. To keep this system alive and accurate you need to stimulate your MNS regularly.
Here are a couple of ways to rev up the power of emotional resonance and stimulate your MNS:
- Put down your phone and have real time face-to-face interaction with others every day. This allows a total body work out of the MNS as you see the other person fully and in context, both of which are needed for accurate people reading.
- Practice "spot checks." The next time you are with a safe friend, make a pact to pause throughout your time together to "read" each other. Check for accuracy. You may find that each of you make some interesting, wrong assumptions.
4. Ask yourself if your relationships feel safe and energizing.
The dopamine reward system can be your biggest friend or your hardiest foe. When paired with healthy relationships you get a burst of energy and motivation through safe connections. However, when you are disconnected or isolated this same system can hook up with vices like drugs, Internet porn and other addictions that further pull you out of connection.
Here's how to keep relational energy high:
- Identify relationships in your life that you regularly look forward to. When you feel down, stressed or disconnected reach out to that person. If you feel too needy doing this, invite her into a mutual energy pact — she can reach out to you when she needs a lift.
- Cuddle with your pet. Yes, relationships with animals can create some of the same great dopamine that human relationships do, for you and your pet.
So there you have it: emotions (including love) aren't just about "your heart," but also your mind. It's a tall order, but you can strengthen your mind to strengthen the connections in your life. In other words, the same way you go to the gym as part of a healthy lifestyle, make sure to exercise your brain in these ways. You'll not only be smarter, but your emotional intelligence will skyrocket — as will the health and happiness of your relationships.
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