The Limbic System and Function

fight, flight, fright, and function based on the limbic system

Did you know that the limbic system plays an important role in everything we do? As occupational therapists, educators, and parents, understanding the role of the limbic system and function is not only practical information…it’s essential to understand when it comes to child development and day to day functioning as children learn, play, participate in household tasks, and interact with peers.

Today I am sharing really interesting information on the brain, the limbic system, and emotional regulation. I’m hoping to make this explanation of neuroscience super easy to understand so you can take this info and run with it!

Resources and tools for understanding the limbic system and functional tasks.

Let’s do this! Recently, we covered emotional regulation and executive functioning skills. When it comes to emotions, regulating behaviors, and the mental skills of executive functioning, you can see how all of these areas play a role in everything we do on a day to day basis. Social emotional learning is part of this. The limbic system is an important brain structure involved in each of these areas.

What is the Limbic System?

The limbic system is an area of the brain including several brain structures. These include the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, thalamus, and olfactory bulb. There are some really important hormones associated with these structures and their responses as well.

These structures and their hormones control functions such as emotions, behavior, motivation, sleep, appetite, olfaction, stress response. This is really interesting, because you may connect the dots with this list and see that social emotional skills, executive functioning, inner drives, and sensory processing (including the sense of smell and interoception) all centered in one place in the brain! (This is not to say that these are the only places in the brain that operate these functions as well.)

Generally speaking, the limbic system is the emotional brain.

It’s the space where survival behavior occurs. It’s the place in the brain that coordinated emotions, fear, aggression, basic inner drives, and episodic memories.

You know how the smell of freshly baked chocolate cookies brings back cozy memories of baking with Grandma all those years ago? Now, when you smell that ooey, gooey chocolate baked into chewy dough you might feel calm and at peace and picture yourself in your grandmother’s sunny kitchen when you were young. That’s the limbic system at work!

We all have limbic memories…maybe it’s the scent of vanilla that fosters a memory from childhood. Perhaps it’s the scent of glue that takes you back to peeling dried Elmers glue from the palm of your hand. Maybe it’s a certain scent that brings back scary or bad memories. Each one of us is unique in how those connections work in our brains!

“The emotional brain, the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning, memory, and the ability to make novel connections,” (Vail, 2017).

Fight, flight, fright, and function for behavioral regulation to get things done impacted by the limbic system.

How the Limbic System and Function are connected

When it comes to participating in daily tasks, emotional response, behavioral regulation, the limbic system plays a primary role.

Here’s how this inner brain emotional powerhouse works when it comes to the limbic system and function:

The Limbic System is a Fright, Flight, and Freeze Response Center

The limbic system and function are connected by the fight, flight, freeze system of the brain.

A stressful situation sends signals to activate the amygdala, which quickly processes that information. It activates the hypothalamus which tells the adrenal gland to send adrenaline into the blood stream. The hypothalamus also activates other hormones to alert the pituitary gland.

Several hormones work together to keep the body on high alert, while suppressing other body systems. The adrenal glands release hormones such as epinephrine that work to raise blood pressure and heart rate, increase blood flow to muscles and organs, and elevate breathing rate. All of these systems keep you on high alert.

When we are on that high alert state, it is difficult to accomplish everyday tasks.

Think about being in an over-responsive state and trying to read a book, concentrate on completing complex math problems, solving difficult scenarios, or reading a research article. All of these tasks require attention, focus, and the ability to block out other sensory and environmental input. For children, accomplishing day-to-day tasks like getting dressed, completing the morning routine, interacting with peers, or learning can be a similar scenario. For some, that fight/flight/freeze state interrupts the ability to initiate a task or follow through to accomplish a task.

Let’s look at this another way: Have you ever been startled by a deer jumping out in front of your car while driving? You probably recall that whole-body sense of alertness and maybe felt prickly sensation all over your arms and that JUMP of acute awareness. When the deer pranced away, your body probably settled and while you were still feeling that sense of alarm, your body was already settling down. That’s because after a stress response is over or dismissed, hypothalamus activates the parasympathetic nervous system and inhibits the stress response.

Similarly, when in a flight/fright/freeze state, it’s impossible to accomplish routine, mundane, or novel tasks.

The limbic system impacts emotions

The limbic system and functioning are connected by our emotional response and behavioral regulation.

As our “Emotional Center”, the limbic system impacts behavioral response and emotional regulation in everything we do. This inner area of the brain are also deeply associated with emotions. The amygdala and the hippocampus, in particular are the emotional centers. These two structures connect via the thalamus.

Together, these connections play a role in emotional activities like friendship, affection, and mood. Regulation of emotions also occurs here: particularly emotions that have a role in survival such as aggression, love, fear, or anxiety.

These brain organs also help the brain interpret the emotional content of memories. The amygdala assigns emotional meaning to memories and helps the brain form fear-based memories. The hippocampus helps form sensory memories, which are memories associated with sensory input.

The limbic system regulates those automatic responses to emotional stimuli and plays an important role in behavior. Other places in the brain, such as the frontal regions (executive functioning center) are recruited for modulation of amygdala activity. This is when self-regulation happens.

When it comes to self-regulation, many children have a difficult time learning and achieving without help. In any given moment, a child (and an adult) encounters multiple situations and circumstances that require an awareness of self and others as well as the ability to have or gain self-control.

Generally speaking, a child should achieve an optimal level of self-awareness and mindfulness to identify their inner feelings and emotions and be ready to regulate themselves when the time comes. They need to learn strategies and techniques that work for them to assist them in leaving a less optimal level in order to get back to a “ready-to-go” level of regulation so they can accomplish tasks like brushing teeth, reading a book, interacting with a friend, crossing the street…the list can go on and on!

Is this brain talk fascinating? Or are your eyes glazing over??

How to facilitate the limbic system for function

The main thing to remember is that we CAN help kids with regulation and modulation of those inner brain workings, so the can play, learn, interact with others, and complete day to day tasks.

  • We can teach them tools to help with the stress input and give them strategies so they are not in constant fright/flight/freeze mode.
  • We can offer sensory input that provides the movement that their body needs so the nervous system has what it needs.
  • We can give kids the words they can use so they can recognize their body’s emotions.
  • We can show them strategies to help regulate.
  • We can offer opportunities to connect with them.
  • we can help them build a personal toolbox of emotional regulation strategies.

Fostering connections and providing the right kind of tools facilitates emotional regulation, behavioral regulation, and functioning skills.

The Creating Connections Toolkit is powerful in working on the emotional regulation skills of kids. Not only does it offer resources to explain and better understand behaviors, but it offers solutions that kids want to use. It’s a goldmine in building social connections between friends, family, and social relationships…but also builds those essential brain connections, too!

Many of you have already purchased the Creating Connections toolkit. So many of you have reached out to get your copy of my added bonus after purchase. A lot of you have told me that the toolkit looks amazing and that you are exited to get started with it’s use in your practice, classroom, or home.

Creating Connections toolkit

Others have reached out with questions on the toolkit. I wanted to take a minute to answer some of those frequently asked questions in one place:

1 || What is included in the Creating Connections Toolkit?

There are 20+ amazing digital products included in this toolkit. Plus, we have some extra bonuses you will receive when you purchase. Here is a list of all the products included in this toolkit. To read a detailed description of each, you can click HERE to read more.

EMOTIONAL REGULATION ITEMS

  • Breathing Exercise Cards for Kids
  • Emotional Regulation Activities Pack
  • Sammy the Golden Dog Games
  • Emotional Regulation Bundle for Teens
  • Social Emotional Learning at Home
  • How to Teach Your Child Emotions and Increase Frustration Tolerance Through Play
  • Social Stories Shadow Puppet Kit

SENSORY PROCESSING ITEMS

  • Sensory Processing Explained: A Handbook for Parents and Educators
  • My Senses Day Camp Program
  • Sensory Regulation “I Feel” and “I Need” Tools Board
  • The Newbie’s Guide to Sensory Processing
  • Play2Learn Sensory Bins eBook
  • Heavy Work Exercise Cards
  • Rewiring the Brain Handbook (Intermediate Guide)
  • Outdoor Visual Schedule and Supports for Kids Printable Pack

Growth Mindset & Affirmations Resources

  • Growth Mindset & Affirmations Journal for Kids
  • Growth Mindset & Affirmations Journal for Teens
  • Rainbow Mindfulness & Movement Packet
  • Teen Mindset Challenge
  • Superhero Affirmation Cards

Family Connection Tools and Resources

  • Family Game Night Social Skills Pack Family Connections eBook
  • Our Family Journal
  • Family Scavenger Hunts
  • Town Mouse, Country Mouse Activity Unit

BONUS ITEMS

  • Creating Connections Toolkit User Guide & Video
  • Special coupon codes totaling over $70 in value 
  • Collection of printable resources

THE OT TOOLBOX BONUS ITEMS

  • 20 Video Modeling Emotions Videos
  • Stop and Think Cards
  • Sensory Processing Handbook
  • Sensory Processing Handbook (Spanish Translation)
  • Sensory Diet Strategy Tools

2. What ages of kids will I be able to use these resources with?

The toolkit includes tools and strategies that can be used with toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary school-aged children through middle and high school. 

Some products are recommended for specific ages and this will be included in the description of each product and also in the user guide.

3. Why is this only available for a limited time?

This digital toolkit is filled with 20+ products from many different authors and contributors. They have agreed to offer their products for this limited time at the special price of $19. After the sale is over, you won’t be able to get all these digital products again in one place or at this low price.

4. How will I be able to access the products?

All of the products in the toolkit will be digital downloads. Upon completion of your purchase, you will receive an email with links to download each of the products.

5. I work with children. Am I able to use the products for virtual classrooms?

Yes! All of the authors have graciously allowed this exception to their terms of use in light of the pandemic and distance learning. However, they ask that items are only uploaded for your own classroom use and not used in a school-wide or district wide capacity.

Are you ready to create meaningful connections and navigate big emotions together?

CLICK HERE TO BUY NOW.

Navigate big emotions together with the Creating Connections Toolkit. You’ll save 90% and just pay $19 for 20+ digital products that will give you “quick wins” for addressing emotional regulation, mindset, regulation, sibling and family connection and so much more! Get yours here before it’s gone!

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function

executive function and emotional regulation skills

Emotional regulation and executive function are connected in more ways than one. Development of social emotional skills includes an awareness of self and self-monitoring skills, among other areas. The regulation of those emotions is critical for executive functioning cognitive tasks. When we regulate behavior, the frontal lobe is at work with it’s impulse control, initiation, self-monitoring, and other cognitive skills. Furthermore, emotional skill development includes the ability to self-regulate. These skills mature and develop throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Executive function and emotional regulation is deeply connected. This article includes resources on executive functioning skills and emotions.

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function

In a previous blog post, shared a little background information on social emotional learning and regulation. We’ll go more into this relationship below. We’ll also cover social emotional learning and occupations that our kids participate in each day…and how executive functioning skills and regulation impacts functioning at home, work, and school. You will also want to check out these social skills activities for interventions to build areas related to social-emotional skills.

Here is a social emotional learning worksheet that can help kids identify emotions and begin to address emotional regulation needs.

Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with.

For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, ASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging.

Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships. 

Sometimes, emotions become intense and out of control. They become dysregulated and impact the ability to manage behaviors and cognitive thought processes, or the executive functioning skills. Emotional dysregulation requires mental skills like focusing, following directions extremely difficult. When the emotions take over, our brain has trouble communicating between the limbic system and the frontal lobe.

Social emotional learning is defined as a process for helping children gain critical skills for life effectiveness, such as developing positive relationships, behaving ethically, and handling challenging situations effectively. The specific skills that allow kids to function and complete daily occupations (such as play, learning, participating in social situations, rest, dressing, writing, riding a bike, interacting with others…) are those social emotional skills that help children to recognize and manage emotions, interact with others, think about their feelings and how they should act, and regulate behavior based on thoughtful decision making.

One piece of addressing underlying needs in kids is the fact that the behaviors that we see have an underlying cause that can be found as a result of regulation of emotions, making decisions, and acting on impulses. Social emotional skills are not always a cut and dry aspect of development.

Today, I wanted to expand on that idea. So many times, we run into children on our therapy caseloads or in our classroom (or hey, even in our own homes!) who struggle with one area…or several. Remembering that beneath the behaviors, troubles with transitions, acting out, irritability, sleep issues, inflexible thoughts, frustrations, etc…can be emotional regulation components.

Let’s consider some of the ways our kids may struggle with social and emotional competencies. We might see kids with difficulty in some of these occupational performance areas (occupational performance = the things we do…the tasks we perform):

  • Academics/learning
  • Management of stress in learning/chores/daily tasks
  • Creating of personal goals in school work or personal interests and following through
  • Making decisions based on ethical and social norms in play, learning, or work
  • Understanding/Engaging in social expectations (social norms) in dressing, bathing, grooming, etc.
  • Social participation
  • Conflict resolution with friends
  • Empathizing with others
  • Responding to feedback in school, home, or work tasks
  • Making good judgement and safety decisions in the community
  • Showing manners
  • Understanding subtle social norms in the community or play
  • Transitions in tasks in school or at home
  • Ability to screen out input during tasks
  • Cooperation in play and in group learning
  • Considering context in communication
  • Emotional control during games

Wow! That list puts into perspective how our kids with sensory processing concerns really may be struggling. And, when you look at it from the flip-side, perhaps some of our children who struggle with, say, fine motor issues may have sensory concerns in the mix too.

Break it down

Let’s break this down even further. There is a connection between social emotional skills and executive functioning skills. When you read through that list of occupations, many of the areas of struggle have a component related to impulse control, working memory, attention, focus, metacognition, and persistence, etc. This chart explains more:

Executive function and social and emotional learning relationship in behavioral regulation and emotional regulation skills.

Image from here.

And, that is just one aspect of friendship/social participation. Consider the connection of social/emotional skills and executive functioning skills in activities of daily living, social participation, learning, play, or chores!

Emotional regulation is a topic that can get hairy, and fast. Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with. For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, FASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging. Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships.

>>When you’re a parent or teacher watching a child you care about struggle, it can be a helpless feeling. Some kids just don’t know what to do with their big emotions.

>>Perhaps you’ve tried everything you can think of and you’re still being held hostage by your child’s emotional outbursts.

>>Or, maybe you are a therapist working with dysregulated children having emotional meltdowns and a fixed mindset who really need the tools to manage overwhelming emotions.

What we do know is that more and more research is showing that emotional regulation and learning are linked.

  • In 2007, researchers stated, “Our findings suggest that children who have difficulty regulating their emotions have trouble learning in the classroom and are less productive and accurate when completing assignments,” (Graziano, Reavis, Keane, & Calkins, 2007).
  • “The ability to regulate emotions is an essential prerequisite for adaptive development and behavior” (Sousa Machado & Pardal, 2013).
Emotional regulation and executive functioning are deeply connected and critical of each other in completion of most every task and childhood occupation.

Social Emotional Learning Strategies

When we equip our students with tools to identify their emotions and self-regulate, we are giving them tools for life and promoting a positive environment for learning.

What might this look like at home, in online schooling, or in a classroom setting?

1. Connect emotions to behavior- Children may not have the language knowledge or understand how to explain what they are feeling. They may need concrete examples or scenarios to help them understand how their emotions are tied to their behavior. Does a storm make them feel nervous or scared? How do they react when they feel anxious about a test or quiz? When they argue with a sibling, how do they react? Once they are able to understand their emotions and how they are feeling, they can start using emotional regulation tools and strategies, like in the Creating Connections Toolkit (more on that in a minute!).

2. Be flexible and patient- Flexibility is something we have all been thrown into more than usual lately. But working with children on emotional regulation and understanding their emotions takes patience and being flexible. You may need to change up how you introduce emotions, or maybe a strategy you thought would work isn’t.

3. Set the tone and share your own feelings- This may feel uncomfortable for some of us, but sharing our own feelings with our students and clients and modeling the responses and strategies we are encouraging them to use will have a huge impact.

…it’s ALL connected!

A Sensory Strategy Guide

Having a toolkit of ideas to pull from so you can change things as needed is why we created the Creating Connections Toolkit.

This collection of products is a huge resource of printable activities, movement cards, breathing information sheets, games, play mats, journals, and so much more. It’s a resource that covers all of the areas listed above…the areas that our kids struggle in!

Myself along with other professionals have created this bundle of social emotional products. The Creating Connections Toolkit includes over 20 incredible social emotional and emotional regulation products that you can use every day in your therapy practice, in the classroom, and at home…for $19.

The guides in this bundle will help to teach your child breathing exercises and help you tame tantrums. You’ll get a routine planner and visual chore chart. The resources will help you understand sensory in a whole new way, and have a wealth of sensory play ideas right at your fingertips!

Get the Creating Connections social-emotional skills bundle here.

Executive Function and Emotions

Let’s break this down even further. There is a connection between social emotional skills and executive functioning skills. Critical thinking is a huge part of this. When you consider the daily occupations of kids, many of the areas of struggle have a component related to impulse control, working memory, attention, focus, metacognition, and persistence, etc. Big emotions can impact task performance in each of these areas in different ways.

  • Play
  • Cleaning up after oneself
  • Social/family relationships
  • Learning
  • Chores
  • Homework
  • Schooling at home
  • Reading
  • Grooming/Hygiene
  • Dressing/Bathing
  • Caring for materials

And, that is just some of the daily jobs that occupy a child or teen’s day. When we consider the connection of social/emotional skills and executive functioning skills in activities of daily living, social participation, learning, play, or chores, there is a lot going on!

Self-regulation skills of both sensory regulation and emotional regulation depends on various subcategories of executive functioning skills, including inhibition/impulse control, task initiation, working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. We know that all of these mental skills are deeply inter-connected and that executive functioning is like the air traffic control center of the brain…it keeps us operating as we should.

Impulse Control– Attention and impulses are another set of executive functioning skills that are very closely related.  When the distracted child can not focus on a specific task or conversation, or situation, then the tendency to impulsively respond is quite likely.  A great tool for assessing and monitoring impulses in the child with attention struggles is the impulse control journal.

Working memory– This executive functioning skill is the ability to act on past memories and manipulating the information in a new situation. Processing short term memories and using it allows us to respond in new situations. 

Attention– Executive functions are heavily dependent on attention. Distractions can come in many forms. The child who is overly sensitive to sensory input may over respond to the slightest sounds, textures, sights, scents, tastes, or motions.  Children who are excessively distracted by their sensory needs will struggle to attend to simple commands. Other children are able to “keep it together” in a classroom or home setting yet their concentration is challenged. 

Self-Monitoring– This executive functioning skill goes hand in hand with attention and focus. Self monitoring allows us to keep ourselves in check in a situation.  We need to stay on task and focus on that a person is saying and respond in appropriate ways.  If the child with attention issues can not focus on what a person is saying for more than a few minutes, than the ability to respond appropriately can be a real issue.

Emotional Control- Kids with attention issues may not be able to attend for extended periods of time on a situation that enables them to control their emotions.  They can perseverate on the emotions of a specific situation or may not be “up to speed” on the situation at hand or be able to process their emotions as they attend to a different situation.  Issues with emotional control can then lead to behavioral responses as they struggle to keep their emotions in check.

Prioritizing- Planning out and picking the most important tasks of a project can be a struggle for the child with attention issues.  It can be easy to become overwhelmed and distracted by the options for importance.

Processing Speed- Processing speed refers to the ability to receive, understand, and process information in order to make a decision or response.  It also involves using working memory in a situation or experience.  Children who experience attention struggles may experience difficulty in retrieval of information (using working memory) and responding using that information (initiation). This carries over to missed information, difficulty keeping up with a conversation or lesson in school, or a fast-moving game or activity. 

Task Initiation– Children with attention difficulties can be challenged to start tasks.  It can be difficult to pull out the starting point or the most important parts of a multi-step project so that just starting is a real struggle.

Task Completion- Similar to the initiation of specific tasks, completing a task or project can be a real challenge for the child who is limited in attention.  Reading a multiple chapter book can seem overwhelming and quite difficult and just never is finished.  Cleaning a room can be a big challenge when there are visual, auditory, or other sensory-related distractions that make up the project.

Emotional regulation is a topic that can get hairy, and fast. Emotional regulation is essentially a person’s ability to manage stress. This is not a skill we are born with. For children, particularly those who have anxiety, autism, ADHD, FASD, early childhood trauma, Sensory Processing Disorder, and other special needs, it can be especially challenging. Poor emotional regulation can lead to social issues, meltdowns, problems at home and school, negative behavior, anxiety, and later in life, even addictions and difficulty with relationships.

Executive function and emotional regulation activities for kids

Further development of executive functioning and emotional regulation can be fostered by the methods described here, as well as by some basic strategies:

  • Routines
  • Modeling behavior
  • Establishing a support system
  • Creative play
  • Emotional regulation strategies
  • Opportunities for movement and motor skill development
  • Practicing wellness, healthy habits, and wellbeing
  • Family Connection
  • Mindfulness and Growth Mindset
  • Social networks and interactive play
  • Coping tools for worries, stress, or changes to routines

All of these areas are covered in the 2021 Creating Connections Resources Bundle!

Emotional Regulation and Executive Function Strategies

Having a toolkit of ideas to pull from so you can change things as needed is why we created the Creating Connections Toolkit.

This collection of products is a huge resource of printable activities, movement cards, breathing information sheets, games, play mats, journals, and so much more. It’s a resource that covers all of the areas listed above…the areas that our kids struggle in!

Myself along with other professionals have created this bundle of social emotional products. The Creating Connections Toolkit includes over 20 incredible social emotional and emotional regulation products that you can use every day in your therapy practice, in the classroom, and at home…for $19.

The guides in this bundle will help to teach your child breathing exercises and help you tame tantrums. You’ll get a routine planner and visual chore chart. The resources will help you understand sensory in a whole new way, and have a wealth of sensory play ideas right at your fingertips!

Get the Creating Connections social-emotional skills bundle here.

P.S. This sale only goes from 7-8-21 through 7-13-21!

Colleen Beck, OTR/L is an occupational therapist with 20 years experience, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 2000. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. As the creator, author, and owner of the website and its social media channels, Colleen strives to empower those serving kids of all levels and needs. Want to collaborate? Send an email to contact@theottoolbox.com.