Are You going to Blow?
What makes you blow a fuse? Do you burn slowly or erupt quickly? When author Julie Barnhill wrote a book for moms about anger, She’s Going to Blow, she wondered if anyone would want to read it. After the book was featured on a radio station, she was flooded with bags of mails from readers. It was the most frequently requested interview in the radio station’s history! If you are the type to overreact to stressors, there is hope.
So how do you learn to regulate volatile emotions? Dr. Darlene Mininni attempted to shed light on this question when she developed a course at UCLA called The Emotional Toolkit. Initially geared to women, the course also drew male attendees in record numbers. And students invited their family and friends to take the course too. Multiple sections were quickly added.
Anger is one of our most primitive emotions: hardwired into the brain and tied to our instincts to fend off threats. Even Jesus showed anger in the Bible- but took time to reset by praying in solitude. The ability to recover quickly and regulate our emotions comes from engaging the prefrontal cortex- the rational reasoning part of the brain.
The problem occurs when we do not know how to turn off the fight flight response testosterone and adrenalin hormones increase, often resulting in aggression. We are no longer be chased by tigers, but we see everyone as a threat. Under stress, the amygdala is triggered: the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions and memories. Dr. Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger, discovered that anger and aggression was often a result of unregulated nervous systems from accumulated trauma.
We are taught many things, but not always how to control feelings. Perhaps we grew up in homes where emotions were stifled, or outbursts of anger were a frequent occurrence, and were never taught how to regulate emotions. We can get stuck in a spiral of negative thinking or a struggle to feel control.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Scientist and meditation expert Jon Kabat Zan founded the coping mechanism of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which brings us back to the breath. Fortunately, these methods are becoming more widespread today. Slower rhythmic breathing helps us recalibrate and returns us to our parasympathetic nervous system: the system involved with rest and digestion.
Mindfulness and deep breathing helped Chef Greg Vogt, restaurant manager of the former Windows to the World, manage his anger after losing 72 of his employees in the World Trade Center collapse. Years later, when a customer in his new restaurant complained about not having a separate fork to eat his oysters, Vogt later joked that he wanted to poke the patron in the head with it.
Earlier, he was forced to attend anger management courses when he choked an ex-employee who flipped him off. Vogt had never learned to deal with past traumas, including losing his brother in a fire that he felt was his fault. He had always focused his efforts into helping others and never dealt with his own pain. Eventually it all caught up with him –and he had to give himself permission to move on.
Change Your Wiring
This is the good news: we are not victims of our wiring and can change how we respond to stress. Research has shown we are more “soft-wired” than we think.
Fortunately, we have lots of resources and therapies at our disposal. Dr Mininni of UCLA outlines 7 “power tools” to help manage emotions, master overwhelm, and find the inner peace that Vogt craved. These include thought shifting, finding your voice through writing, meditation and quiet.
Another mindfulness practitioner, Laurel Mellin in Wired for Joy, outlines 5 ways we can rewire our brain back to well-being. Thanks to neuroplasticity, we can form new neural pathways in our brain. Simple changes in how we respond to situations can literally change the shape of our brain, according to Dr. Fotuhi in Boost your Brain. He reminds us that diet, exercise, and “brain workouts” can make a huge difference on brain health, and outlines a 12-week plan to improve brain health.
But why is it that some people have natural resiliency bounce back from adversity, while others have difficulty managing their reactions to life’s stressful events or interactions? Our brains’ wiring can be related to an early trauma or a difficult birth or even the stresses we went through in utero.
My younger son would grow frustrated when struggling to learn a bike and would toss it in the street. Even as a baby, he reacted instantly to stress triggers. He had suffered a traumatic birth and a life-threatening virus as a newborn. Somatic experiencing therapy to help calm the nervous system, patterned after the work of Peter Levine, was especially useful for him. Left untreated, some people can carry a volatile temperament into adulthood, jeopardizing jobs and relationships.
From Chaos to Calm
We don’t have to search the news for long to find dozens of stories of people blowing up. Even complacent Canadians are not immune to eruptions. A husband in Quebec punched a nurse in the face, when he learned his wife had received a Covid 19 vaccine.
Covid has further heightened emotions; people are fueled or frightened by social media. It is one more daily stressor to put people over the edge, after a year of tumultuous politics, race issues, climate changes and job concerns. Fear and insecurity are often anger triggers. After years of stifling grievances, people are becoming more emboldened to speak up, often from the safety of their computer screens.
The good news is we are not a victim of our brain’s wiring- we can change the way we are wired. Hopefully the past year will show people how to better manage our emotional responses to stressful events and put life triggers in perspective.
I once remarked to a seatmate on a plane how calm he appeared after our flight had been subjected to endless delays. He recounted how his boss had become so irate once over a similar scenario that he yelled at the ticket agent and actually burst a blood vessel. And he continued to holler while catching to blood in his Starbucks coffee cup. Later, the boss died of a heart attack. This clearly motivated his employee set up emotional boundaries! The pitfalls of anger and stress are well known- from heart attacks and strokes to digestive woes and insomnia.
Julie Chan in a CNN article entitled “Stress is a Part of Life, Burnout Doesn’t Have to Be” reminds us of the toll of microaggressions and burnout, and the importance of building daily resilience habits- daily walks, spending time with family, playing with puppies, and watching streamed movies. Find whatever gets you rejuvenated and keeps you from lashing out or losing it. We never know what traumas people have been exposed to, but we can control our reactions to the stressors of others and protect our health in the process. The next time you get irate with someone, and it goes straight to your amygdala, go to what gives you joy and gets you grounded again.