Browsing the archives for the amygdala tag.
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Anger: Keeping Your Cool with Preparation and Self-Awareness

Handling negative emotions

This is the second article in a series on anger. The first article was Monday’s “Anger: Does Venting Help or Just Make It Worse?

One of the tricky things about dealing with anger is that our immediate mental response system for dealing with threats–run by a primitive part of the brain called the amygdala–doesn’t wait for us to understand what’s going on. This is pretty reasonable: if you’re a primitive human being and you’re being attacked by a Smilodon, you don’t want to be thinking about whether to react or not: you want to be immediately jabbing with your spear or running away (fight or flight). This is why people can be startled even by things that they know intellectually aren’t dangerous, like a loud noise in a carnival haunted house.

But Smilodons are extinct these days, and while the fast-track fight or flight response is still useful sometimes, as when we jump out of the way of a falling object, at other times anger and fear responses are very bad news. For instance, if someone is scared or upset and says something ill-considered to us, we may have a hard time not immediately responding in kind and turning a offhand comment into an argument.

Yet we do have the power to override our amygdala-driven gut reactions, and two of our best weapons in this fight are preparation and self-awareness.

Preparation in this case means putting ourselves in a mood to defuse instead of magnify negative feelings. One of the best ways to do this, notes Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, is to look at people toward whom you may be feeling angry “with a more charitable line of thought,” which “tempers anger with mercy, or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage.” In other words, thinking about what circumstances may be driving people to do things we don’t like rather than focusing on our mental condemnation of those people for doing those things creates an opportunity for compassion and keeping our cool.

As for self-awareness, this is an approach I’ve praised in other articles, such as “Mindfulness and Deer Flies.” Being aware of our own emotions gives us the opportunity to do something about a situation using our thoughts, for instance by noticing and repairing broken ideas. Lack of self-awareness–that is, acting without considering why we’re acting or what we’re feeling–closes off that option to us completely. When we’re not aware of our own emotions, we are mostly slaves to our own emotional habits.

This series will continue in the next week or two with more information about and strategies for dealing with anger.

Photo by euthman

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How to overcome specific fears and anxieties

Handling negative emotions

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"

In his book Mind Wide Open: The Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Steven Johnson provides some highly practical information about where strong fears, anxieties, and phobias come from, and how people get past them. This post passes on some of that information.

The human mind is an orchestra of specialized systems, handling everything from sight to heartbeat to speech to emotion to complex planning. At least two of these systems handle fear, and they handle it differently.

The most obvious way we experience fear goes like this: we see something (like someone writing tickets and approaching our car, where the meter has just expired), we identify it, we dig up information about it from memories, and we make a rational conclusion as to whether or not we should be worried. This process mostly goes on in ways that we can observe with our conscious mind. This route is called the “high road.”

But there’s a completely different route, the “low road,” and in some ways the low road is much more powerful.

This different route is governed by a fairly primitive part of our brain called the Amygdalae. The Amygdalae are concerned with major threats that require us to act before we even recognize them, and they don’t really care if there are some false alarms now and then as long as the job gets done.

Imagine (not too vividly, please) that you’re driving to work. A few small, dark clouds are scudding across the sky. Some clarinet music is playing on the radio, and you’ve just passed a big, orange truck. Suddenly, you hit a piece of sharp metal that has somehow gotten onto the road, your tire blows out, your car spins of out control, you smash into the guard rail, and two other cars plow into you, after which it takes emergency workers almost half an hour to get you out of your totaled car. Let’s say that you’re miraculously all right, just to keep this as low-stress as possible while still making the point.

When this horrible thing happened, your body knew on a profound level just how horrible it was, that it was something to be afraid of. As soon as you knew to be scared, the Amygdalae charged into action and started taking note of all of your sensory impressions–the orange of the truck, the clarinet music, the scudding clouds. Your Amygdalae take in everything they can, but they don’t really understand any of what they’re tagging in your memory; all they know is that something horrible happened that you never want to have happen again, and all of those sensory impressions occurred just before the Bad Thing, which as far as the Amygdalae are concerned, makes them suspect. As a result, the next time you experience one of those sensory impressions, your Amygdalae may notice and scream “danger, danger!”, leaving you frightened and confused simply because your next door neighbor’s kid is practicing her clarinet. This is where phobias come from.

And because of mood congruity, the fear or anxiety your Amygdalae give you can kick off memories of other frightening experiences, making you more fearful and perhaps making it harder to figure out what you were responding to in the first place.

A widely-accepted approach to dealing with these kinds of fears is to get in touch with them, to re-experience them. This is part of one possible solution, but only part: the key is that revisiting those memories–or simply experiencing the same sensory input, like the color orange or the sound of a clarinet–has to occur in a safe environment. If you experience the thing that produces the fear but feel safe because you’re in a different environment, the Amygdalae begins to recognize that they may have been too hasty with that particular stimulus. When the danger-signal-in-safe-environment experience is repeated, the Amygdalae’s warning signs begin to fade and eventually disappear altogether.

This is partly why talking with a trusted friend about something fearful can help the fear go away, and why talk therapy can work well for people in certain situations. It’s not necessarily an easy solution, since it involves facing fears, but it can be immediately comforting and encouraging.

As always, please keep in mind that I’m not a therapist or physician, and that nothing I say on this blog should be considered professional advice.

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