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Reboot Your Relationship Circuitry

Retraining your brain can make your relationships more rewarding


by Janice Holly Booth

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Society places a hefty value on our strength as individuals. We should be impervious to the hurts that others try to inflict on us; we should not care about others’ opinions; we should blaze our own, unique trails, right? Dr. Amy Banks disagrees. A pioneer in the new field of relational neuroscience, she insists that our relationships are not external to us, they are us.

Banks, author of Four Ways to Click: Rewire Your Brain for Stronger, More Rewarding Relationships, says we are wired for close relationships and that we’re just not as healthy as when we try to be an island unto ourselves. According to Banks, our relationships impact our brain’s function and chemistry. This can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on the type of relationships we have. (And remember, good relationships are founded on communication. So check out Life Reimagined’s Building a Better Together program.)

In Four Ways to Click, Banks takes a deep dive into this new thinking about relationships. She tells Life Reimagined about a system she created to isolate and nurture four neural pathways essential to developing healthy relationships. She calls it CARE system. Check out how this system works to reboot your relationship.

C is for calm. The smart vagus nerve (the one that reduces inflammation, among other wondrous powers) can turn off the stress response system when you are in a healthy relationship. When activated, the smart vagus nerve makes you feel calmer.

A is for accepted. Here’s a pathway that becomes active when you are experiencing either social rejection or physical pain. It’s called the dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus. This part of the brain stays quiet—you literally feel less pain—when you’re in a healthy relationship.

R is for resonance. The mirror neuron system is a collection of nerve pathways that allows you to spontaneously read the actions, intentions and feelings of another person. A strong resonance system helps you understand and communicate with other people, instead of wanting to throw rocks at them.

E is for energy. We’re all familiar with the dopamine reward system—we get a little squirt of it every time we hear our phone ping, we buy a little luxury for ourselves or do something that gives us a rush. This system is the brain pathway involved in addiction too, so there are two sides to this brain chemistry coin.

How can the average person use this information? “Once people begin to focus on the quality of relationships in their lives, they can see patterns that need to be changed. Some people find that they are reactive and not trusting even with their closest friends and partners. In this case, it is likely that your sympathetic nervous system [stress response system] is working overtime and your smart vagus nerve [which should help you feel calm in close relationships] may need some bulking up,” says Banks.

Likewise, someone who always feels excluded from group activities might work on decreasing the reactivity of their dorsal anterior cingulate gyrus (you don’t have to be able to pronounce it—you just have to know what it does), which will help them feel less painfully isolated. People who value gambling or other addictive behaviors over the people in their lives need to learn how to reconnect their dopamine reward system to their relationships; it’s essential to stopping their destructive behavior.

Banks is a psychiatrist but understands not everyone will seek professional assistance. “All human beings are healthier in mind and body when they are in healthy connections. Everyone needs a new blueprint for understanding, evaluating and building their capacities to connect.”

Daniel J. Siegel, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine commented on Banks’ work: “You can intentionally transform your life by improving how you connect with others. Relationships are not simply ‘icing on the cake’ for a life well lived. Relationships are the cake.”

Photo Credit: Betsie Van der Meer/Getty