The Child Brain, The Parent Brain, & The Grandparent Brain

In many ways, we all have three brains:

The Child Brain – highly reactive, automatic, not conscious, not logical, doesn’t learn through language. Only learns through experience. It’s the threat detection system. It’s perfect for keeping us safe and alive. However, it constantly overreacts. In fact, it’s wrong most of the time. At the same time, we’re lucky to have the Child Brain because it’s better to have a system that overreacts to possible threats opposed to one that under reacts or doesn’t react at all.

The Parent Brain – smart, logical, aware, conscious, not automatic, learns through language. It’s the analytical system. Just like all parents though, it’s not perfect. Often times it wants to shelter the Child Brain by helping it avoid or escape “dangers.” It’s hard not to. It pains and scares the Parent Brain to see the Child Brain crying and screaming. But, when it does, the Child Brain becomes even more sensitive to stressors and slowly starts to internalize unhelpful lessons: “This situation is dangerous” and “I can’t cope.”

The Grandparent Brain – wise, logical, highly aware. It’s the highest system. This brain coaches the Parent Brain to understand that just because the Child Brain is screaming and crying, it doesn’t mean anyone is in danger. It’s uncomfortable, but not dangerous. The Grandparent Brain teaches the Parent Brain to react in a way that teaches the Child Brain that it can cope with uncomfortable situations without needing to be sheltered. We don’t do this through language, the Child Brain doesn’t learn that way. The Child Brain only learns through experience. Only by staying in “dangerous” situations, repeatedly, over and over, does the Child Brain begin to learn that it can cope and that the situation isn’t dangerous.

We all have a Grandparent Brain. We have access to it whether we believe it or not. By reading these words you’re accessing it. When thinking about anxiety after a triggering situation, you’re accessing it. When you read a book about anxiety, you’re accessing it. Anytime you step outside the anxiety and become an observer, rather than a participant, you’re accessing it.

The more we access the Grandparent Brain, the more opportunities we have to coach the Parent Brain. And the more we coach the Parent Brain, the less distress it feels from the Child Brain’s false alarms and the less it colludes with the Child Brain’s urge to escape and avoid. The Child Brain slowly learns and stops sending false alarms. This is the general pathway to anxiety recovery.