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I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about thinking with their head vs. their heart. Or maybe you’ve asked this question yourself when faced with a real tough decision…
Should I follow my head or my heart?
But what does that mean? Do we really think with our heart? Or is that just a cute expression?
Well, it’s kinda both to be honest.
Don’t get me wrong, your heart is a muscle. It lacks any capacity to think, process, plan, or emote. But, it is connected to the brain and in particular, to the amygdala, which is where we regulate emotion and encode memories.
As a result, when we feel stress, our brain sends a surge of adrenaline and cortisol through our body. This causes our blood pressure and heart rate to increase, sometimes causing chest pain, sweating, or difficulty breathing. This is where the concept of thinking with or following our heart comes from. It’s this idea of making decisions based on our feelings and/or emotions instead of logic or reason.
So then when it comes to our sexual behavior, what are we doing? Are we following our head? Or… are we following our heart?
And again, it’s kinda both.
Recognize that we all have feelings and to a certain extent are subject to them. When stress occurs (or any form of perceived danger) our amygdala (midbrain) kicks in as a survival mechanism. This is by biological design. And at that moment we are thinking with our “heart” because we are trying to decide the best course of action based on the feelings we are experiencing.
Do we fight, run, or freeze?
This part of the decision-making process is critical because in certain situations we need to act fast. For instance, in the case of a house fire you need to run, not stand around and survey your surroundings. That will just result in you becoming a toast marshmallow.
However, it is at this point that our prefrontal cortex (the high brain) is meant to kick in and help us evaluate the situation so that we can decide the right course of action. After all, not every stressful scenario we face carries the same urgency as a house fire.
This is when we start the thinking with our head (in theory).
Understand, we all have the capacity to make decisions based on our feelings or on our logic, goals, and values. However, sometimes that is easier said than done. When we have grown up in environments where we felt under constant threat and lacked the support all mammals need to be safe, we develop the tendency to operate in survival mode.
In other words, when we are in a dangerous situation, we think and decide with our heart what we should do, even though we may “know” in our head it is not right or best choice. And for those who struggle with unwanted sexual behavior, that often means acting out sexually, so they can detach and survive rather than adhering to the beliefs and values they claim to hold.
In my book When Shame Gets Real I explain it as follows:
“Without the baggage of abuse, abandonment, and neglect our [mid] and upper brains are designed to operate in concert. One making observations and forming feelings, the other evaluating the merit of those observations and directing us towards the best decision. But when we experience trauma our primitive mind takes over, forsaking any concern for what’s truly best, and opting for what will help us simply survive.
The trick then is inviting our upper brain back into the decision-making tango allowing it to once again operate as the logical and steady voice of reason our [midbrain] can look to before pulling the trigger on the choices we make.”
The unfortunate news is that getting our two brains to talk is a process. If we have grown up developing a survival-first instinct when making decisions (including sexual), then it will take effort, connection, and possibly counseling to restore our brain back to the way it was meant to operate.
But it is possible. And that’s the bright light at the end of what can feel like a very dark tunnel.