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The Limbic Lag

In a bit of irony that nearly drove me to tears, I got a note from Simon’s teacher last Wednesday that he has made a complete 180-degree turn in class. He is no longer shy, no longer hesitant to raise his hand out of fear of making a mistake, and is fully and fearlessly participating in class. Later that night, he collapsed in the biggest fit I’ve seen outside of toddlerdom, all over the fact that he couldn’t get a drum beat right.

No, scratch that, the melt-down was owing to the fact that he couldn’t get the drum beat right fast enough. Which is ALSO ironic, because only four days prior to this collapse, I marveled at Simon’s patience and equanimity as he struggled to master a drum beat in class. “Wow,” thought to myself, “he’s really learned to give himself time and not freak out if he fails to achieve immediate mastery in something.”

Fast forward to Wednesday night, when I arrived home from pilates to the sounds of howling and wailing from the basement. This went on for some time, punctuated by drumming, until at last Simon emerged from the basement with red-rimmed and puffy eyes. He barely held it together to talk to me, staggered upstairs, and at one point crawled under his bed to mope/weep/hide/whatever.

Silly me, I assumed that he failed to perform the drum beat in question. But Matt would soon inform me that Simon had in fact pulled it off at the end, an accomplishment that did nothing to temper his fit. The issue, of course, is that Simon’s limbic system—the part of your brain involved in the fight-or-flight reflex—was so worked up that it could not, would not, listen to the part of his brain that involves logic, language, or reason.

I tried helping him breathe slowly with mixed results. I tried talking to him with no real results. In the end, we just had to wait him out, get him into bed, and accept that our night took an unfortunate U-turn at around 7:15 p.m.

But before he fell asleep, I had a little chat with him about the night’s events, wherein I explained that the part of the brain that makes you feel scared, angry, and hurt doesn’t always listen to the rest of your brain. That means you can still feel scared, angry, or hurt long after the scary thing is gone, the person who angered you has apologized, and the hurt should be over. Sometimes this delay—called the limbic lag—is short and you hardly notice it. Other times it is so extreme that the thinking part of your brain decides something must still be terribly, terribly wrong if you still feel so bad and then goes looking for reasons.

That limbic lag is the reasons couples resort to “kitchen sink” arguments every bit as much as 8-year-olds hide under their beds in frustration over something. The partner has apologized and the drum beat has been performed, but a sufficiently stimulated limbic system is slow to listen, and sometimes that means the partner looks for other reasons to be angry and the 8-year-old forgets he ever liked drumming.

Simon is a little young for explanations like this, but it seems reasonable to plant a seed, much as I did the first time I caught him engaging in catastrophic thinking. I was in my mid 20s before I learned about the latter and mid-30s before I discovered the limbic lag. Earlier knowledge of either could have been a huge tool for coping with stress and arguments as an older child or young adult. Here’s to hoping Simon can begin using these tools a little earlier.




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