Relationships are mystifying because they fill you with happy chemicals one minute and drown you with stress chemicals the next minute. You may be shocked and relieved to learn that our brain is meant to work this way. Here’s a brief introduction to your social neurochemistry and the steps you can take to rewire it.
The human brain creates life-or-death feelings about relationships because in the state of nature relationships truly were a matter of life and death. Our emotional brain is inherited from earlier mammals who needed social alliances to survive. The mammal brain rewards you with nice-feeling chemicals when you see a way to gain social support, and it alarms you with a bad-feeling chemical when you see a threat to your social support.
Animals work hard to sustain social bonds because it helps them avoid predators and pass on their genes. They don’t do this consciously. Natural selection built a brain that releases the good feeling of oxytocin when you find social support. It would be nice to coast on oxytocin all the time, but that wouldn’t promote survival. The mammal brain makes careful decisions about when to release the good feeling of social trust and when to withhold trust.
If you see a potential threat, your mammal brain blasts you with cortisol (the “stress chemical”). Cortisol works by making you feel like you are about to die, so you do what it takes to make it stop. This is why your threatened feelings may surge in response to relatively minor social threats. For example, not being invited to a party can make you feel like a lion is about to eat you.
What turns on the chemicals?
The chemicals of emotion are controlled by neural pathways built from past experience. Your past cortisol experiences built the cortisol pathways you have today. Your past oxytocin surges paved the oxytocin pathways that tell you when to trust today. When a new experience fits an old pattern, the electricity in your brain flows effortlessly to the on switch of the chemical associated with it in your past. This is why we have mystifying up and down responses to the people in our lives despite our best intentions.
Stop berating yourself for these responses, and start noticing their patterns instead. It all makes more sense when you understand the survival value of emotions in the state of nature.
Imagine you’re a newborn gazelle. You’re hungry and vulnerable so your cortisol surges, but you get relief from oxytocin when your mother nuzzles you. Your brain connects all the neurons active in that moment, which wires you to release oxytocin in response to those sights, sounds, and smells in the future. This prepares you to transfer your attachment from your mother to a herd.
If you wander off from the herd, your oxytocin falls and your cortisol rises. The bad feeling motivates you to return to the safety of social support even though you’d rather explore greener pastures. This is how a young gazelle protects itself from threats without conscious awareness.
But life in a herd is not all warm and fuzzy. You’re surrounded by gazelles who have a sense of urgency about meeting their own needs, but your needs feel urgent to you. The other gazelles seem to get in your way, yet they act as if you are in their way! Cortisol motivates you to keep your distance, but when you do that, you end up with even more cortisol. It’s not easy being a mammal!
And bigger brains lead to even bigger complications. Gazelles only focus on immediate threat signals, but the big human cortex can anticipate potential threats. The threats you imagine feel real enough to trigger your threat chemicals, and that alerts your cortex to scan for evidence of threat.
Social disappointment can spark this cortisol loop. If you expect social support and it doesn’t come, your internally created threat triggers the same chemistry that your ancestors released when they faced a real external predator.
Your cortex struggles to make sense of this chemical soup. You’re not aware of your own pathways so you blame the other gazelles. Sometimes you blame your frustration on the gazelles in a rival herd, and sometimes you blame those closest to you.
No one thinks this way consciously of course. But, it’s easy to see this response pattern in others; and if you are honest you will see it in yourself.
Had enough of these up and downs?
You have the power to build new neural pathways to manage your chemicals in new ways. To do that, you must feed your brain a new experience over and over. It may seem hard to create a new experience, but just imagining the new experience is enough to redirect the electricity in your brain. For example, you can tell yourself:
1. My threatened feelings are not evidence of a real threat; they’re just cortisol triggered by old neural pathways.
2. I should not blame my loved ones for letting me down because I know I am creating those threatened feelings myself.
3. I can accept the social rivalry all around me because this natural mammalian impulse is in everyone including me.
Repeat these thoughts to yourself every day for 45 days and you will build a new neural pathway. To power up the process, focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want. Focus on the moments of connection you have instead of on the connections that you woulda-coulda-shoulda had.
Keep it up for 45 days without fail, and you will wire yourself to enjoy social support instead of feeling frustrated and blaming it on others. You will make peace with your inner mammal instead of swinging from love to hate in an instant.
For a complete explanation of your mammalian neurochemistry and your power to rewire it, read my book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry. And for a fast, fun introduction, check out my video, You Have Power Over Your Happy Brain Chemicals.