When we believe we are under attack, our body generates surging waves of energy to prepare for running or fighting. Our heart pounds, our mouth goes dry, our muscles tighten, our blood pressure increases and our mind generates intense thoughts and feelings. In that stimulated frame of reference, we react more aggressively and have more highly charged feelings than are appropriate. Our intensity leads to impulsive actions that make matters worse. And while nature gave us sensitive arousal mechanisms, she wasn’t so generous with an all-clear signal. Once we’re aroused it’s hard to calm down.
While all of us find ourselves in this state occasionally, some of us experience it too often with too much intensity. We realize we are hurting and pushing away the people in our lives, damaging our family, social and work relationships. But even after we realize we are at fault, we don’t seem to have much control over ourselves. When something sets us off, by the time we realize what’s happening our body has already been thrown into a heightened state of alert and our thoughts fan the flames. Even while we’re watching ourselves, and perhaps even wondering about our overreaction, we feel caught up in the state of mind and don’t know how to turn it off.
During our aggressive fight-or-flight reaction, it’s almost impossible to learn new tricks. When we want to change our reactions, we need to review them in a calm light. By carefully considering the process, we can find opportunities for improving our state of mind.
Fight or flight arousal often starts up when we’re in a vulnerable state. When we’re feeling emotionally raw, for example when we’re hungry, tired, cranky, or been experiencing frustrating emotions, we have less resilience. There may be times of the day when we routinely tend to be more vulnerable, such as when we first wake up, when we come home after a long day at work, just before dinner or as we are getting ready for bed.
In addition to feeling vulnerable in situations, we may also feel vulnerable in general. Life might not be treating us the way we want or we may feel that we are unable to steer safely through the obstacles that lie in our path.
Triggers, or “hot buttons” are events that start our anger. Even though we know about them, we still get upset. Perhaps we get upset waiting in a restaurant or toll booth, or when our child disobeys a request. Even though we’ve been triggered into a response 500 times, and we realize our overreaction isn’t helping, we do it again. Sometimes our triggers are more open ended. We may have a rigid sense of right and wrong, and we become infuriated when someone violates our rules.
Overly sensitive to insult
When we have doubts about our own value, and don’t feel that we’re worth much, it becomes extremely important that other people give us the proper “respect.” When we feel “disrespected,” even if the perceived insult was small or even imagined, we may rage as powerfully as if our life was being threatened. The “chip on our shoulder” is based on our fear that others don’t feel we’re worth the respect we so desperately want.
Once our feelings have been triggered, we begin to fuel our reaction with a cascade of inflaming thoughts. We have many types of inflaming thoughts at our disposal. We label the other person, “You jerk,” and limit our vision to only their negative aspects. We review our list of expectations of what the other person “should have done” as if we are the righteous keeper of the rules. Or we focus directly on our negative attitude and think of all the reasons we’re so upset. We see red, or some other angry image. In short, we stir ourselves up.
By now, our body is firing up to prepare into its primitive survival mechanism. Adrenaline pours into our blood stream, making our heart beat stronger and faster. As our muscles tighten, we become aware that our body is sending out powerful danger signals. The adrenaline is also stimulating our brain, making us feel pressured, edgy and ready for more action.
Mental responses to our aroused state
As we enter into the state of arousal, we are now leveraging off of both our body and mental responses. In this aroused state, we jump out of our normal thinking and into self-defense patterns. These patterns take over and begin to control the way we react.
Our rational ideas about forgiveness, negotiating, or empathy towards the other person are drowned out by our noisy mind. We forget about self-soothing techniques, and even moral values. We amplify our aggression and self defense in fantasy, visualizing violent revenge or terrifying fear. Our impulses might spill out into actions, hurting people verbally or even physically. By acting out, we involve others in our fight-or-flight response, stimulating them into an aroused and defensive position. Whether we act out or rage in our imagination, our arousal disturbs us.
When is it over?
Once we’re this far into the cycle, it’s difficult to get out. Even after the situation is over, we may stay caught in a loop, mulling over agitated thoughts and images for no productive purpose. Whether we’re bottled up or acting out, the surge of feelings leaves us with a lingering sense of anger, victimization, and disappointment that permeate us and those around us for hours, and things we’ve said could continue to hurt them for years.
Acting in turns the body into a vessel of anger
Instead of acting out, we might try to act in. Acting in means turning the anger in towards ourselves, using tricks to shut off our feelings, and in the process often hurting our health. This process of clamping down on highly charged feelings requires an enormous amount of energy, and leaves us edgy and fearful and even depressed. Acting in also leaves our anger unexpressed. This creates problems when we have important issues to bring up with other people but don’t know how to do it courteously so we don’t do it at all. Our bottled up emotions raise our blood pressure and heart rate. To try to escape, we may reach for a bottle or pill to chemically damp down our feelings.
Coping with arousal is a skill
We each develop our own individual relationship with fight-or-flight responses. When our skill set is limited, we are frequently swept up in anger, and don’t know how to avoid it gracefully. The more skills we have available to us, the more we expand our choices. Learning how to soothe ourselves increases the quality of our lives, by giving us the mental space to react with more poise and balance, reducing the stress that anger creates. Counteracting fight-or-flight arousal is a valuable life skill that can help our relationships, improve our effectiveness at work, and reduce the harmful health effects of stress.
At every step along the way, we can develop skills that help us improve our emotional response. We can learn to reduce or avoid trigger situations. After triggers get us started, we can use calming, positive explanations to help reduce the tension. Even after the adrenaline starts arousing our body, we can learn techniques to soothe the intensity of our body reaction. After the episode is over, we learn to talk ourselves down, improve harmony with others and find closure.
Preparing ourselves for trigger situations
Once we understand that some situations routinely and predictably trigger our overreaction, we can learn to anticipate them. We are more likely to become triggered when we are tired or needy. We become aware of our own vulnerability and learn to reevaluate and challenge our own over-reactive impulses. We could also use our knowledge of our reaction to avoid hot topics when we’re already feeling vulnerable.
Since we can predict certain trigger situations, we can rehearse in advance more appropriate and gentler things we could say to ourselves and to others, to counteract our automatic response. For example, to prepare for times when our parent criticizes us, we could practice saying to ourselves, “If I ignore this, it will be over in two minutes. If I complain, it will take an hour to get out of my system.” Or we could practice saying, “These are old habits. I don’t need to defend myself to my parent now that I’m grown up.”
We can explore our feelings around trigger situations, questioning what makes us feel so vulnerable, and how we can improve our response. Answers to these questions provide opportunities for growth. For example, when we become angry with our parents, partner or teenagers for the same situation over and over, we should try to understand why our emotions get so tangled up in these episodes.
Soothing the body
We can calm down our agitated body by taking a few deep breaths, going for a walk or taking a few minutes to stretch out tense muscles. By learning progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, yoga or other stress reducing methods, we can relieve some of the pressures that stimulate anger.
In addition to methods to soothe body stresses, we can become smarter about interpreting our body reactions. We realize our pounding heart would help us deal with a deadly enemy, but gives us no advantage in the present situation. Instead of using a pounding heart as “proof” that we should be angry, we can learn to take it less seriously, allowing us to respond with more detachment and poise.
The best opportunity for reducing frustration and anger is to damp down disturbing thoughts. Instead of letting our automatic thoughts have their way, we can develop the habit of saying soothing things to ourselves. Our own reassuring words help us step back from frustration and anger. We regain our poise as we listen to and believe our thoughts of forgiveness, safety, personal responsibility and inner strength.
Self-soothing is a skill we are supposed to learn as children. When we became agitated, our parents spoke to us with a gentle soothing voice, rocked us in their arms, and told us everything was going to be alright. Their reassurance taught us that our emotional world was safe, and that we could let go of our agitated feelings and regain our composure. If we didn’t get enough of this training, we can coach ourselves now, by imagining the calming hand of a kind parent. We can say gentle, reassuring, soothing things to ourselves, to remind us of the peace and calmness we can find within ourselves. Even if it sounds peculiar at first, we gradually become comforted hearing ourselves say “It will be alright”, “This will pass,” or “I can cope with this situation.”
Disputing cognitive distortions and beliefs
Many of our triggers are based on inaccurate beliefs. If we rigidly believe we know how other people are supposed to behave, we may become agitated and rage when they behave differently. We feel righteously indignant, and our harsh judgment adds fuel to our rage. We can improve our emotional balance by bringing our expectations more in line with reality. Each person has their own rules, and the person who offended us, whether we like it or not, does not have our interests at the center of their universe. The other person does whatever they deem most suitable at the moment, just as we do. When we accept that they have the right to obey their own rules, not ours, we can begin to refute many of our angriest trigger thoughts.
Other types of inaccurate thinking also agitate us. For example we may think we can see into the future, and panic over what we predict is going to happen. Or, when something bad happens, we generalize it and extend it out to all times and places, ignoring other more positive examples. Learning how to watch our thoughts and refute ones that make us miserable can be a powerful tool to maintain balance.
When we understand the high price we pay for anger, including the damage to our health and relationships, we can arm ourselves by building up a strong mental case against anger. We can use this wisdom to choose more comforting self-talk, before, during and after fight-or-flight arousal.
We can find great comfort and safety by learning to visualize more peaceful images. When we’re thinking about difficult situations, or actually in them, we can imagine colorful lights around the person we are uncomfortable with, or visualize ourselves comfortable in a safe, peaceful place.
Retraining important lessons from childhood
When our parents allowed our fear and anger or their own to escalate out of control, we grew up without the self-regulation we need to keep our emotions balanced. Without balanced, skilled responses to our own arousal, we learned clumsy methods, like stuffing our feelings or acting out. These methods covered over the underlying pain, but didn’t soothe it. With these limited tools, we can get through life, but feel weighed down by tension, turmoil and pain.
We long to learn new skills, but find ourselves trapped in old patterns, so deep and so persistent we seem powerless to change them. When we are troubled by feelings we don’t understand, we need to work with a counselor and use other methods to heal the child within. Childhood memories continue to haunt us with unfulfilled needs that often seem to come out at the wrong time. When we open up to a romantic relationship, or discipline our children, or come under pressure with subordinates or authorities at work, we feel the old turmoil coming to the surface. By coming to terms with these deep memories we may soothe the fires of our chronic and episodic arousal, and improve our poise, as well as our health.
Negotiating for change and other healthy assertive skills
When we were small, and felt powerless to change our situation, we may have learned that what we wanted didn’t matter. The only thing we could do was to rage or pout. Even though these childhood responses hurt, they became a deeply engrained habit that we continued to express as we grew up. Now, as adults, when we feel frustrated we repeat these childhood patterns, getting mad, and acting out or becoming moody. Anger is a poor method for getting what we want. Even if it works sometimes, in the long run it pushes people away and makes us feel bad.
As adults, we can reevaluate and change these old habits and beliefs. Instead of throwing tantrums, like small children, we can use more harmonious and effective methods. Instead of expecting others to fulfill our needs, we can learn how to clearly communicate them, and then open ourselves up to learning what the other person wants. Our demanding tone changes into a win-win negotiation, in which each person learns to fulfill the other’s needs. By creating harmony and cooperation, rather than rage, we can improve the quality of our lives and the lives of the people around us.
Social and spiritual supports
Good ties with family, friends and community help us keep our emotions more balanced and less vulnerable to threats. When we are involved in mutually supported relationships we’re less vulnerable to the insults that trigger us into fight-or-flight. We can also find emotional support by taking care of our spiritual health. When we work at our connection with the universe, we are less likely to be thrown out of balance by routine assaults on our emotions.
Twelve Step programs provide both a social as well as a spiritual environment in which we can deepen our poise, and learn techniques to react more appropriately. Twelve Step principles are embodied in such affirmations as “Let go and let God,” and “Easy does it.” These ideas help us step away from our own intense feelings and thoughts, and let situations unfold on their own, without our need to control them.
Obstacles to healing
Fight-or-flight arousal arouses us. When we grow up in an environment in which this arousal is normal, we become accustomed to this state of arousal, and may want to continue this state even though it is destroying our family. When we are angry, and our fight-or-flight hormones are surging, we may feel as if nature is giving us permission to express our power, even though these responses are not appropriate. Such adrenaline addiction will be especially difficult to give up, and requires a change in our attitude towards our own body and mind.
Another thing that makes it hard to give up anger is addiction. When we are addicted, our primary focus is to find the next high. Such a mental state entraps us in our own desires, and reduces to a mere trickle our ability to empathize with other people. Anger is difficult enough to control without addiction, but with the added burdens of addiction, we are less likely to gain the upper hand. Reducing addictions can be a crucial step toward reducing our emotional overreactions.
If we have been traumatized, in our childhood, in combat or in a violent crime, our body/mind mechanisms are set at a heightened state of vigilance. Small noises, shadows or people walking in the distance may trigger full blown fight-or-flight responses. Frequent, intense arousal triggered by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) disrupts our lives. Post traumatic stress disorder requires professional help and deep personal healing, as we reprogram our minds to increase our balance, and learn how to get past the pain that has been imprinted in our memories.
In a primitive world our fear and aggression kept us alive. In modern life, the stresses caused by fight-or-flight arousal undermine our ability to react appropriately, in work, and relationships. We need to modify our relationship with fight-or-flight stimulation so we can respond effectively and appropriately. Instead of being vigilant for danger, we need to become more skilled at poise and balance. We can learn how to soothe ourselves with self-talk, time outs, deep breathing, and other tactics, so we can let go of fight-or-flight responses more quickly.
It’s difficult to change deep emotional habits. We can work at it with support groups, and self help books and tapes. A counselor can help us uncover reasons for our actions, and help us learn ways to move beyond our current state. By slowing down and taking the process of change one step at a time, we make incremental steps in a manageable transition.
See also: Anxiety, Assertiveness, Blame, Body/Mind, Boundaries, Breathing, Child abuse, Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Self-talk, Soothing, Visualization, Yoga
When Anger Hurts, Quieting the Storm Within by Matthew Mckay, Peter D. Rogers and Judith McKay
Anger, How to Live With and Without It by Albert Ellis
The Anger Workbook by Lorraine Bilodeau
Emotional intelligence by Dan Goleman
The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph Ledoux
Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies by Sandra L. Bloom