So really, what does your brain have to do with having better relationships? The answer is… well,…everything! Studies have shown that specific neural pathways are already hard-wired in to actively aid us in engaging in happy, healthy relationships. Not only that, happy, healthy relationships cause those pathways to grow stronger and stronger.
In short, stronger neural pathways for connecting with others make your relationships more resilient and rewarding. However, the reverse is also true. In chronically bad relationships, the pathways do not get enough reps of stimulation they need, in other words, they are not activated often enough. Then the neural pathways actually lose their strength, and your relationship gets weaker. That is very significant! Because people who are chronically isolated and disconnected fro others get ill more often and have shorter life spans.
For these reasons, it’s best you explore and enhance your brain-relationships connections. Here are some tips to begin:
1. Practice acceptance… and your pain will decrease or vanish.
Acceptance is the new pill for pain relief. Have you ever been at a family holiday gathering where all you got was negative attention? Have you ever been ignored at work meetings, like no one is open to your suggestions? Are you a member of a minority group that is marginalized for reasons beyond your control? If any of these resonate (and they do for most of us) chances are you are in some kind of emotional pain. This type of pain is as real to your brain as any other.
Relational neuroscience reveals the neural pathway activated during physical injury or illness is the EXACT SAME one that is activated while feeling the pain of social exclusion. If you are humiliated, bullied or shunned regularly, your pain pathways are literally electrified… and not in a way that feels pleasant!
Here are a few tips for easing relationship pain:
Stop judging yourself so harshly. It is likely that if you’ve been negatively judged regularly by others, you are too well practiced at judging yourself negatively. In other words, you don’t even need to avoid others because you self-administer your own pain! Spend awhile on two or three separate occasions and write down each judgment (they can be directed at yourself or others) that comes into your head. With this new-found awareness, start labeling the judgments as neutral “thoughts & projections… not reality or truth”, and shift your focus to a time when you felt accepted and unconditionally accepted within a relationship. Negatively judging yourself or others perpetuates the pain and feeds the power of social rejection. As you practice self-acceptance, pain will decrease!
Practice a daily love-based meditation… this will lead to a deep-seated feeling of being one with an all accepting universe.
2. Understand the power of being calm.
Do your best friends and family members help you feel calm, or do you need to escape to your peaceful hideaway after being with them? Your response to this question will be hugely dependent on the functioning of your smart vagus nerve.
If you have “good vagal tone”, this neural network (which innervates your inner ear, face, and throat) signals the stress response system to shut off so that you can interact safely with others. When vagal tone is low, you may feel more agitated or even frightened around others. Naturally, if someone is threatening you, you’ll want that sympathetic nervous system to invoke the “fight or flight response”. But quite often, when someone’s smart vagus is weak, they feel frightened even when their environment is not dangerous.
To strengthen your smart vagus, give the following a try:
Make an extra effort to make eye contact and greet people you normally walk past. This could be a colleague, somebody at the hardware store… literally anyone you encounter. Be conscious of the uplifting feeling you get when they reciprocate. This is a small workout for your smart vagus nerve.
Or… take action to lower your stress response every single day. This could be as easy as breaking three times throughout your day and taking nine deep breaths. You could meditate for five minutes, or go for a speed walk at lunchtime. As your sympathetic nervous system slowly deactivates, your smart vagus will become more efficient re: allowing you to feel calm in the presence of people who are non-threatening to you.
3. Tap into the power of emotional resonance.
Understanding others and being understood are the hallmarks of a happy, healthy relationship. This resonance exists not only in the gaps among people, but also in the brains and bodies of each person in the relationship. This is possible via the “mirror neuron system” (MNS). The MNS lets you automatically “get” what other people are intending, doing, or feeling because it produces an internal mimicking of the other person’s experience. For instance, if I hug somebody, in your nervous system you are doing it too. In other words, MNS helps put you in others’ shoes… allows you to feel empathy. To maintain this system so it remains active and accurate, you need to stimulate it often.
Here are some methods for increasing the power of emotional resonance and firing up your MNS:
Leave your phone at home and have real “face time” with others more often. This lets you have a whole body workout of the MNS because you experience the other person totally and in context. Both are crucial for accurate people-reading.
Practice! Next time you’re with a friend you are comfortable with, agree to pause throughout your time together to practice “reading” each other. Check in for accuracy. You’ll probably find that you make some interesting but wrong projections about each other!.
4. Ask yourself if your relationships feel safe and energizing.
The dopamine (neurotransmitter) reward system can be your biggest ally, or your hardiest foe. When present during a healthy relationship, you get hits of energy, pleasure, and motivation from your dopamine secretions. However, when you are isolated or disconnected fro others, this same system can steer you toward vices like drugs, Internet porn, gambling, and other addictions that isolate you further.
Here’s how to sustain high relational energy levels:
Identify relationships in your life that you really enjoy. When you feel depressed, stressed or lonely, reach out to those people. If you feel too clingy or needy doing that, invite them into mutual pacts… they can connect with you when they need a lift.
Pat and cuddle your pets. That’s right, relationships with animals can conjure up some of the same wonderful dopamine that human relationships can, for both you and your pet.
So there you go! Emotions (including love) don’t just live in “your heart,” they also inhabit your mind. It’s not easy, but you can train your brain to strengthen your ability to make connections with others. In other words, the same way you go to the gym as part of a healthy lifestyle, make sure to exercise your brain as well. You’ll not only be wiser, but your emotional intelligence will skyrocket… as will the health and happiness of your relationships.