Therapy Lingo

reptilian-lizard brain emotions

The Reptilian-Lizard Brain:

"The emotional alarm center for the brain".

If you're frustrated by your lack of progress in changing specific emotions, consider that the reptilian lizard part of your brain is holding you back. This primitive area of the brain controls much more of our behaviour than we realize.

This is one of the key insights from body psychotherapy. When you calm the reptilian brain, you have more control over your thoughts and your intentional behaviour.

Our brainstem is a top-of-the-line reptilian brain.

The reptilian brain is located in the brain stem and both terms are used synonymously.1Reptile Phylogenetically-speaking, it was the first part of the modern brain to develop in human evolution. It operates behind the scenes, regulating our survival needs: food, oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and reproduction, among many others.

The brainstem is like a bodyguard who's always watching your back, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats. The reptilian brain also decides whether you will move into fight or flight. The thinking brain is too slow for such an important task.

So for example, when a 90 mile an hour curve ball's coming at you, it's the reptilian brain that reflexively jerks your head out of the way before you even realize what’s happening.

We can't leave our reactions up to the thinking side of the brain. We'd still be back there lying on the playing field wondering what happened and how we got that lump on the head!

When you think of your "instincts" think, reptilian-lizard brain. It's responsible for our survival related functions like:

  • breathing
  • digestion
  • circulation
  • elimination
  • temperature
  • fight or flight
  • movement, posture and balance.

A New Way of Looking At...

The Reptilian-Liard Brain and Therapy

Harness the energy of the "24/7 bodyguard"
and put your counseling on the fast track!

The reptilian-lizard brain is an ancient beast. It was developed over 100 million years ago. The higher brain or the neocortex came along a mere 40,000 years ago. So, when the reptilian brain is on alert, it's pretty hard for a youngster like our neocortex to tell a 100 million year old brain to behave!2

One of the insights we've learned from body psychotherapy is that hardship in counseling is needlessly provoked if the reptilian brain isn't calmed down first. That is, it's very difficult to dig into our psyche (e.g. and explore childhood issues) when the reptilian brain is calling the shots.

However, when the nervous system is regulated and balanced, it far easier to move through our emotions.

Emotionally triggering material will be that much more difficult if the reptilian brain is activated. When you are suffering from high anxiety--by definition--your activation level is high and the reptilian brain is controlling too much of how you will respond to events in your life.

As an aside, the more the reptilian brain has learned from early infancy experiences and subsequent traumas (both physical and emotional) the higher our activation will be. For many people, high activation will show up in anxiety symptoms. And as I have described elsewhere, chronically high activation (sympathetic arousal) can lead to depression (parasympathetic dorsal vagal).

What's often difficult for us to accept is the fact that the brainstem (in partnership with the limbic system), determines and conditions a great deal of our behaviour. The higher our level of activation, the more this is likely to be the case.

As human beings we like to believe that we're "rational", that our actions are based on thought, not "blind emotion". There is no such thing actually as blind emotion. Our emotions have rational explanations even of we cannot locate the source.

My Personal Musings

I think some people have not taken up counseling for the very reason that they suspect it will make them feel worse. There may be some truth to this. My guess is that their reluctance is related to the idea of being thrust into material before they're ready.

If a therapist starts to probe emotionally triggering material before the nervous system has settled sufficiently, the level of activation will increase. One may even experience an increase in anxiety symptoms!

How do you know when you're ready?

If you're agitated or racked with anxiety then the conditions are not optimal for deep emotional work. When your relationship is developed sufficiently between you and your therapist, you will naturally step into the material and feel sufficently safe in doing so. When this is happening for you then the conditions are optimal for change to occur.

One of my inspirations for developing this website was the discovery of friends and colleagues who had undergone a course of treatment and--from my perspective--seemed worse off.

I acknowledge that it isn't easy to assess when you're getting good therapy from not-so-good therapy. The reality is that one therapist cannot simply know all there is to know about working with everyone.

Hopefully, armed with enough information on this and other counseling websites, consumers of mental health services will be able to make good decisions on their choices in psychotherapy.


Levine, Peter, A. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books.

McLean, Paul, D. [1990]. The Triune Brain in Evolution. New York: Plenum Press.


1"...the portion of the brain that is continuous with the spinal cord and comprises the medulla oblongata, pons, mid-brain and parts of the hypothalamus; controls reflexes and such essential internal mechanisms as respiration and heartbeat." Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionay (2006).

2Dr. Daniel Siegel made this same point at his lecture, "Psychotherapy from the inside out: The brain of the mindful therapist", at the Justice Institute in New Westminster, BC., in November 8-9 2007.

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Reader Comments

Taya (West Yorkshire, UK)

Hello, I liked the article and I am thinking that this could be the answer to my problems. I am under psychologist' supervision from when I got 13. I always have been very neurotic and psychotic - both, and was always labelled as a loner or "complicated" and hard to understand person.

Now I am 24 and my emotions are still very undeveloped. I can see and understand the way others behave, but it's very hard and stressfull for me to copy that sort of normal behaviour... I react very differently from other young adults whom I met, to the sense of fear, happiness, joy, sadness, comfort, and discomfort etc. As if I have never learnt how to express any possible feelings.

Thus, nothing really helps, nor the CBT, nor any medication. Therefore I was wondering if you could advice me where to search for answers and how possibly I could try to help my self to become a healthy person that would behave alike any other healthy and stable people around?...

Maybe you could provide any could references to some literature?..

With Best Regards, Taya.

Hi Taya, thank-you so much for your question and your detailed description of your situation. I'm certain there are others out there that can resonate with your experience. In fact, I counted myself in that group at one time.

Give me a day or so and I'll be back with some resources and things to think about.

Warm regards,




I have some serious issues with a short fuse syndrome a walking ak 47 in mental terms...My councelor words. He has thought me technics so i can control it. But to anyone out works just keep up the therepy.

Reptile syndrome is everythings a problem before we think of it.


Henry (Exeter, UK)

I was at an Arts Therapies Conference in Italy and went to a wonderful workshop entitle "If you should meet a crocodile" which explored these ideas in a more experiential way. It was facilatd by my former colleague, pioneering Dance Movement Therapist, Jeanette MacDonald. I'm in the process of writing about this conference on my blog - see below. The next post will have an account of this workshop. I'm a Music Psychotherapist by the way.


Look for forward to hearing more Henry!

Mary (New York, USA)

This is a belief taught in Peruivian medicine that the "reptilian brain" needs to be released.Thru the medicine wheel they work to release this reptilian brain on a metaphysical level.

There are a few good books on this by an author by the name of Alberto Villoldo PhD. I have studied under a women who was trained by him. Very interesting work!


David (UK)

Although a nice and simple model, not that many neuroscientists support this 'reptilian' model of the brain - just take a look at the entry under 'Triune Brain' on Wikipedia! Its main virtue is that it is a simple concept for people to understand; but it doesn't really describe the reality of what's going on in the brain.


Hi Davd, yes it's useful to a point in terms of how the structure functions. However, there's no denying that as human beings we are motivated first and foremost by fear. And it's the connections from the reptilian brain to the limbic system (i.e. amygdala) where most of the action occurs.

Whether it's fear over loss of connection or generalized fear, unless our fear is harnessed to a stable resting point, there's little use in doing any targeted change.


Wije (Colombo, Sri Lanka)

Your suggestion as well as Glenn's comment above appears to me valid when one considers the teachings of the Buddha. He has said that there is no meaning in preaching a sermon to a person in hunger, possibly because the reptile in him is not at ease.

What matters it appears from your write - up there that neocortex which is to receive good suggestions cannot play its role if the reptile has been agitated. This may be the source of all mental problems.


You're definitely onto something here Wije...and it's one of the reasons why I chose a reptile as a mascot for the site.

What's even more exciting is that taming the reptilian brain - once you know how to apply the basic rules - is more a effective means for managing emotions than medications or talk therapy put together.


Glenn (Coffs Harbour, Australia)

Your suggestion that the reptilian brain must be at ease in order for counselling to be effective, reminded me of scientology auditing sessions I used to have. Before each session there is a checklist that must be satisfied including being well rested, not hungry or thirsty, not too hot or cold, and not troubled by a PTP (present time problem), which could distract the person from participating fully in the session.Only once these criteria were satisfied was the session begun.

I have since had sessions with proper psychologists, and none of these basics were checked by the therapist. In hindsight the value of each session depended on these 'reptilian brain' factors, especially when the therapist was new to me and therefore not easily trusted.


Frances (Ontario, Canada)

I am enthralled.


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