Flipping your Lid

What is flipping your lid? If you search for the ‘hand model of the brain’ by Dan Siegel on YouTube, you will find a video explaining how our brains react to stressful and triggering experiences. The video shows a hand held upright. The wrist represents the spinal cord. The Palm of the hand represents the lower part of the brain, known as the brain stem. This part is responsible for survival functioning of the body. It is where the impulses to regulate your heart rate and tell you to breathe come from. Now put your thumb across the palm of your hand. This is the limbic system. It is responsible for keeping us safe. It monitors our emotions and triggers our fight, flight or freeze response to frightening situations. If you then put your fingers over the top of your thumb and close them to make a fist, you have the thinking part of the brain, the Cortex. This is our conscious brain. It is where we think, reason and perceive the world around us. This part also regulates our lower parts and maintain a balance in our limbic system. But when danger is detected, this information goes first to the limbic system and this area reacts. If the situation becomes extreme enough, this area takes over and puts us into fight, flight or freeze mode. At this time our cortex is “offline”. Dan Siegel refers to it as flipping our lid. When that happens, our cortex can no longer regulate what is happening in the limbic system.

Some of the things the cortex can do are to regulate the part of our nervous system known as the autonomic nervous system. This is all the things in our bodies that we don’t consciously control. It involves the way our body responds to situations. For example, when your body detects danger your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. This is to prepare you to flee should you need to. If your cortex can no longer control that system then your body is out of control.

Another thing the cortex can do is to allow you to tune into someone else. By tuning in I mean being aware of the internal experience of another person. Being able to tune into another person allows you to have compassion and empathy for another person. If you lose the ability to tune into others then you lose compassion and empathy.

Your cortex also balances your body between the extremes of rigidity and chaos. If you ‘flip your lid’ you lose the balance and can become either too rigid or too chaotic.

Your cortex also allows you to be flexible in how you respond to things, to be able to calm yourself when afraid and to be able to have social relationships. All these things are affected by ‘flipping your lid’.

It is possible to learn to monitor your body to detect when your cortex is in danger of going off line and to learn strategies to remove yourself from the dangerous situation and calm things down. This is where counselling can be very helpful.

It is very helpful to learn to recognise when you are about to flip your lid. It is also helpful to understand that when you ‘flip your lid’ you lose control over what you are doing and saying. This is helpful for you to have self-compassion when you are back in control. By self-compassion I mean making allowances for the stressful situation you were in and how perfectly understandable your reaction was. We are often great at being compassionate to others but judging ourselves harshly. This is something we need to change.

I frequently work with people to help them to learn how to manage ‘flipping’ their ‘lid’. I also teach people how to develop self-compassion. These are important things to learn in order to manage the difficulties of life.

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