Building Relational Connections
In the past few decades, researchers and neuroscientists have learned amazing things about how the human brain functions. For example, they have discovered that the brain shows activity in specific areas when someone is relating well to others. When someone is angry or anxious, those same areas of the brain show lower activity. Some psychologists describe this as having one’s “relational circuits” set to the “on” position, similar to an on/off switch (2).
Your relational circuits (RC’s) can be fully on, or weak, or completely off (1). When your relational circuits are off or dim, you are not going to connect with your partner, child, or friends in positive ways. You will see him or her as someone who can’t help you or as someone you don’t want to be around, and you will act accordingly. You may want to run away, fight back, or freeze and shut down. When your brain is in this type of “enemy mode”, your natural instinct is to protect or defend yourself, and you are not able to connect with your loved one. On the other hand, when your RC’s are fully on, you engage with others in healthy ways, you enjoy being together, and everything seems to flow more easily. Together, you work to solve problems in creative ways that make you both feel seen, heard and valued.
To assess whether your relational circuits are on or off, read the following statements (3)(4). If you find yourself answering yes to any of the descriptions on this list, that is an indication that your RC’s are either off or weak.
- I just want a problem, person, or feeling to go away.
- I don’t want to hear what you have to say.
- I just want to get away, or fight, or I freeze.
- I don’t want to be connected to someone I usually like.
- My mind is “locked onto” something upsetting.
- I more aggressively interrogate, judge and try to fix others.
To help your relational circuits turn back on, here are several things you can do:
Take a short break
If you are physically tired or experiencing a situation that feels overwhelming, it could be time to take a pause from interacting with the other person. If the situation allows, you may want to tell your loved one that you need some rest, and that you will be ready to engage after you’ve been recharged. Sometimes giving each other space to rest and renew can defuse the situation. Keep in mind that relational circuits are dim or off for most people when they are tired or when they first wake up in the morning.
Write a list of ten or more things that you are grateful for. How many can you think of in the next five minutes? Taking time to stop and appreciate your life and those around you may be all you need to get back into relational mode.
Learning how to calm yourself when you’re stressed, anxious or overwhelmed can take time and lots of practice. Learning to calm yourself begins with awareness. Pay attention to your body so that you know when you’re feeling stressed, angry, overwhelmed, tired, or sad. Is your stomach or back hurting? Are your muscles tight, especially in your legs, abdomen, or back of your neck? Do you feel like going to bed and pulling the covers over your head? Is your heart racing, your adrenaline rushing, or are you feeling restless? Your body is sending you signals about how you are feeling. It may surprise you to know that these messages can go both ways. Just like your body tells you when you are anxious, you can change your anxious thoughts and breathing patterns to let your body know that everything is going to be ok.
Change your breathing patterns to calm yourself by taking slow, deep breaths. Doing this may seem silly at first if you’ve never practiced this, but it really works! While you practice slow, deep breaths, notice how your body feels. Is your heart rate slowing down and are your muscles less tense? You have changed your body’s signals, and you will find yourself feeling calmer.
If you are still having trouble calming yourself or you are feeling stuck in negative emotions, then therapy can help. A therapist who understands how relational circuits work – and how important they are for building better relationships – can help you learn these new skills and provide support as you practice staying relational.
- Brown, A., & Coursey, C. (2019). Relational Skills in the Bible: A Bible Study Focused on Relationships. Carmel, IN: Deeper Walk International.
- Lehman, K. C. (2008, November 12). Identifying When you Have Lost Sccess to your Relational Connection Circuits, and Getting Them Back on Line. Evanston, IL, United States. Retrieved February 7, 2021, from https://kclehman.com/download.php?doc=151
- Wilder, E. J., Kang, A., Loppnow, J., & Loppnow, S. (2015). Joyful Journey: Listening to Immanuel. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.
- Wilder, E. J., Khouri, E. M., Coursey, C. M., & Sutton, S. D. (2014). Joy Starts Here: The Transformation Zone. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House, Inc.