Understanding How Our Brain Impacts On Our Relationships

When considering your important relationships and thinking about what makes the good ones good and the bad ones bad there may be lots of things that come to mind. You may look at the beliefs and values you share with your partner, you may consider the similar interests you share with a best friend, or perhaps it is a shared experience that brings you close or repels you from another person. But there is another essential area to consider when reviewing relationships that often gets overlooked.

The brain.

How often do you consider the impact your brain can have on your relationships?

Understanding the importance of our own brains may not be the first thing that comes to mind when asked about our relationships. But, the brain is the place where we process how we perceive, evaluate, understand, communicate and interact with other people. The brain is inextricably linked with behaviour and mental processes.

There are three specific brain structures that have the ability to affect our sense of well-being and can impact our relationships.

Without going into hugely complicated brain anatomy (!) the following areas are fundamental to helping us understand how this works.

Brain Structures and Emotions

Pre-Frontal Cortex

Where we begin. This is the most important brain structure.

If you can imagine looking down on a brain from above, the upper part is the cortex. The front half of this structure is the cortex. The front half of this half is then the pre-frontal cortex. If we’re on top form, this is where we will be working from. If the lights are on up there, we will be our best selves. We will be present and grounded, adaptive to others, responsive to other people’s needs, we are being “adults”. When the neurons are firing up in this section, we are on form!


If we go lower into the brain, we find the limbic system, this is the place where we regulate emotions and assess potential threats. There may be emotional communication going on, but it’s not happening right at the top of our brains, at a higher level. The hippocampus and amygdala are two important structures within the limbic system.

The hippocampus modulates memory and processes sets of stimuli. It’s where we hold our autobiographical memory and from where can tell stories about ourselves. Our hippocampus is the part that will process aspects of emotional memories. Our memories are then what help us to respond to the world around us and inform what our emotional responses may be.


The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure lower down in the brain essential for decoding emotions. It is a more primitive part of our brain and modulates emotions directly linked to our survival such as threats or food. It is essentially the guard dog or internal alarm part of our brain.

This part is particularly important in responding to threats and many of our internal alarm circuits are found in the amygdala. As a result, it can detect threats from various sensory sources.

The amygdala also exaggerates threat on purpose. This is ideal when there is an actual threat as it helps us mobilise ourselves to keep ourselves safe. When we are activated in our amygdala it shoots out epinephrine, cortisol and adrenaline to get us active to save ourselves.

But, when there is so much focus down here, our pre-frontal cortex is essentially relegated and goes offline. Our brain is flooded and drowns out the pre-frontal cortex because in terms of biology, it’s not so important a structure in our threat response system. The amygdala and our internal threat system are going to be the brain structures keeping us out of danger. Our sophisticated pre-frontal cortex is great for rationale and higher level thinking but isn’t so necessary in keeping us safe. When our priority is reacting to an immediate threat, we don’t have time to weigh up the pros and cons of the options available to us, we just need to move quick! Thinking more or less goes out the window when what we need is to be ready for combat or to run as fast as we can.

So how do these structures come together to have an impact on relationships?

Our memories fuel our emotions

If we are in a car crash for example, the hippocampus will recall who we were with, what we were doing at the time etc. Because of the connections with the amygdala, we may then get sweaty palms and a racing heart beat too as our amygdala kicks in. If at a later date we are in the car with the same friend and a similar trigger situation occurs, we may find ourselves reacting in a very similar way even though this time we may not be at risk of an impending crash. Our system has been conditioned somewhat to this potential danger and we’re sent off on an emotional rollercoaster again as our hippocampus has been activated.

The hippocampus is important in building a theory about what works in relationships. If we recall a negative emotion we are likely to be taken to a negative mental space. If we recall happy memories we may be in a good mood. Positive memory recall entails the release of dopamine and in this way memory recall fuels our emotions.

The impact on relationships

It makes sense that if we have been in a destructive or abusive relationship, we are on heightened alert to similar situations. If we are used to operating at a level of increased self-preservation or increased anxiety, we may be at a constant level of a low grade threat response. Our reactions and emotions will therefore be informed by our previous experiences. We may find similar situations invoke a similar threat response with our pre-frontal cortex going offline even though the situation is different.

If we are at home awaiting the return of our partner and the door slams shut, if our threat system is activated we may respond in a jumpy way. Our limbic system will be activated and we may be responding to what we perceive to be a potential danger. We may snap at our partner and react angrily as our amygdala has flooded us with stress hormones. I might attribute my threat response to what is going on in front of me instead of understanding it in a more rational way. Perhaps my partner has let the door blown shut and I find myself reacting in response to what I perceive to be a major threat because I am remembering alarm bells from back in the days.

It’s Complex

This is just a simplistic look at how the brain impacts on our relationships. The connection between the brain and relationships are so closely intertwined that relationships can also actually have an impact on our brain. Our relationships have the power to also alter the structure and neural pathways in our brains.

Moving Forward

If you are interested in how you came to be the way you are, why you make decisions that you do and why you avoid making other choices in life, get in touch. Transactional Analysis therapy is an amazing way to aid understanding of ourselves, our personalities and our relationships.


Depression: Coping With The Desire To Hide Away

When we have depression, we sometimes feel like we want to run away from everything and everyone. The urge to get away and leave everything behind can seem like an attractive option. We may feel incredibly low, overwhelmed by what’s going on for us, claustrophobic and trapped in ourselves.

It’s usually the case however, that running away either isn’t a viable option, or, doesn’t in fact hold the answers to our problems. If you are relating to what has been mentioned so far, read on….

A fantasy

Our vision of what things could be like if we were able to just run away may seem idyllic. It may be a wonderful place of peace, calm and equilibrium we imagine we could run to. It’s a place where we don’t feel depressed. But, our vision isn’t a reality. It is highly likely that feelings of depression will move with us as we try to leave it behind in a futile attempt to start afresh.

Fed up?

So where to start?

If there’s a chance we can identify what it is that we’re wanting to run away from, there’s a chance that we can figure out what to do about it.

Identifying an issue in this way is the first step to taking action to limit the impact it is having on us. We can start to break down what the issue is until we have manageable chunks of resolvable smaller issues.

You may have established that a current issue is that you are in an unfulfilling relationship or stuck in a seemingly dead-end job offering little opportunity for you. Together we can start to break things down and work to find a way through.

An inability to take a step back and stop ourselves being engulfed with overwhelming emotion can often be a stumbling block to helping ourselves. An opportunity to gain perspective on our situation can help us to appreciate that there is a way to help us through.

Start now

If you’re after some simple and practical steps to get you through your darkest days, try some of the following;

  • Acknowledge where you are right now

Noticing how low you’re feeling and acknowledging how rubbish things may appear for you is a first step. Before you can fix issues you’re facing, acknowledging the pain you are feeling will bring your attention to the present moment. It will be an opportunity to ground yourself and be in touch with what’s going on for you. Seeing what is there is a chance to do something about what’s there.

  • Keep in touch

It may feel like the last thing you want to do, but keeping in touch with others around you is crucial to how you can help yourself out of your dark place. Finding a genuine connection we can touch base with when we’re feeling really bad, even if it’s just to make contact with, is a way we can be heard and noticed.

  • Get outside

Get outside for a walk each day. Even if you have no where to go or no place you need to be, getting out of the house and walking for half hour each day will really boost mental health. Having a chance to engage with the outside world may be a useful reminder to us that it is still there. There are people around who can help and support us and who will be people we can interact with if we choose to. It may lift your mood, give you a new environment to focus on and break patterns of thinking.

Talking It Through

Talking it through is also a practical first step.

The idea of talking to someone about what is going on may itself seem like an impossible task. If all you want to do is retreat from the world, opening up and talking to a therapist may not be on your radar. But, if there’s a chance that taking that first step and getting in touch is a step you’re willing to take, it could also be the first step on a journey to feeling better about yourself.

The opportunity to really be heard by someone else may be the glimmer of hope that we need to plough on through. Sharing your problems can provide clarity on what is going on for you and how you may be able to take steps forward. It may not be immediately obvious what we can do or where you would even begin, but my role as a therapist is to be there for you and alongside you on your journey.

Together we’ll find that space in which you can take a breath and begin to make headway on that journey.

If you would like to explore options, get in touch to find out more.


What Is The Therapeutic Alliance and Why Is It So Important

The therapeutic alliance is the key to successful psychotherapy. It is the strength of the bond and connection that can be built between you and your therapist over time. Without a trusting and respectful therapeutic alliance, no meaningful therapy can happen.

So what is a good therapeutic alliance?

The therapeutic relationship is multifaceted and varies between every client-therapist relationship. Broadly speaking though, there are a number of common characteristics that make up a positive therapeutic alliance.

Mutual trust and respect

Empathy and warmth

Honesty and sincerity

Commitment to a treatment plan and treatment direction


Strong interpersonal skills of the therapist

A feeling of ‘connectedness’

Naturally, it may take time to experience and be aware of each of these in your own therapeutic relationship. You will however, quickly know whether there’s enough connection between you to be curious about continuing in therapy together.

Why is it important to have a good therapeutic alliance?

A successful therapeutic alliance can radically change the path of therapy. It is one of the most important indicators of a successful outcome. It is an intensely personal journey and there is a great deal of growth and change possible when there is a healthy bond between therapist and client.

If you consider any of your personal relationships, the ones in which you feel you can be more yourself are likely to be the same relationships from which you gain strength and comfort. We are more open to learning from those people we trust. The same concept is true of the therapy room. We are more likely to trust and grow with the support of a therapist we have a healthy bond with.

Working At It

Naturally a therapeutic alliance may take time to nurture and grow. It is especially important for those who have experienced mistrust, ruptures or trauma in previous relationships. If it has been a struggle to form relationships in adulthood, experiencing a strong bond in psychotherapy may be all the more crucial and valuable to your learning and growth. Therapy offers an opportunity for clients to explore relational attachments and to perhaps relate in a healthy way for the first time in their lives. As a client it may be new to us to feel respected and trusted in a relationship in which we know we don’t have to please the other person. We can be our authentic self, safe in the knowledge that our therapist is holding a safe and confidential space for us to try new ways of being and relating.

The respect and trust must also be mutual. As a therapist my role is to offer you a time and space in which you have the opportunity to move forward in a positive direction. I will also be looking out for how we are responding to each other, from moment to moment. I will be listening to how you say you respond to others in certain situations. I will be noticing for my counter-transference reactions which tell me what is being evoked in me. My role is to understand how all this can be used in our therapy. In order to do this an early goal will be to establish a therapeutic alliance and continue to nurture it throughout therapy together.

Trust and respect in the therapeutic alliance - Southdowns Psychotherapy

It’s Not Always Easy

It may not always be easy. Some clients coming to therapy for the first time may find it challenging to trust in a person they see in a caring role. Previous experiences may mean it is not safe to trust in caring relationships. Some clients may inadvertently set out to sabotage a therapeutic relationship for a variety of reasons. Therapy may be undermined or not afforded a healthy level of respect. Powerful internal messages may prevent a client from believing that the therapist is there for them, there to support them and to offer a non-judgemental and confidential space. It may be that a client is afraid their therapist will let them down in a way that is familiar to them. They may act towards their therapist in a way in which they believe this is inevitable or has already happened.

Our work together is to explore what is going on for you and what may be stopping you from leading a fulfilling life. When there is mutual trust and respect, there is the chance to explore how you are in relationship in and out of the therapy room. My job is to help you grow, learn and change in a way that works for you.


How To Find a Good Therapeutic Alliance

Like any relationship, building trust and respect can take time and effort. The therapeutic alliance is no different. When we meet I will be looking out for signs that we are able to to work together. Finding a therapist right for you is a bit like dating. Not everyone is right for us, some relationships work and some don’t. It may feel right the first time we meet, in which case we are already on our way to supporting you through therapy!

Please get in touch if you would like to arrange an initial meeting.