How to Manage the Angry Brain

The fourth communication taboo to avoid is uncontrolled anger.  Anger can range from mild irritation to out of control rage.

When anger is managed well, it can provide a healthy release, a motivator for change, or a self-empowering strategy.  Anger also is a protectant from underlying feelings of pain, fear, guilt, or shame.  It is a normal, human response and an indicator of pain and promoter of change.

When anger reaches an elevated state, the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain is hijacked by the amygdala, the emotional, instinctual part of the brain that induces the fight, flight, or freeze response.  New information can no longer be received and defenses rise, demands persist, criticism overtakes, or vented venom leads to violence. It is at times when anger reaches an uncontrolled state of mind that a deliberate plan of action must take place.

What is uncontrolled anger?

Uncontrolled anger is an unrestrained fuel of fire with raised voices, yells of derogatory names, and can lead to physical violence; i.e. throwing dishes, shaking of your partner viciously, pushing, and beating.  If an interaction has reached this point, stop, take a deep breath, walk away, and reconvene when you have calmed down.  It’s important for the mutual interest of a committed relationship to talk in a normal tone all the while staying away from criticizing, demanding, and defensiveness.

What happens when the brain is angry?

An angry brain is overtaken by the limbic system.  The limbic system located in the lower part of the brain ignites the amygdala, a small structure that stores all emotional memories. The amygdala decides if the new information coming in warrants the fight-flight-freeze response or should continue on to the pre-frontal cortex. The depending factor is whether the new data triggers enough of an emotional charge or not.

When the pre-frontal cortex is hijacked by the amygdala, the stress hormone cortisol is released.  The process can last several minutes to several days but on average continues for  20 minutes.

When too much cortisol is freed, cells in the hippocampus short-circuit.  The misfiring of neurons stops new information from being received and makes it difficult to organize and obtain the full memory of the triggered event.

Emotional and physical responses also occur during anger.  The heart beats faster, the lungs hyperventilate, blood pressure rises, and nerve endings on the skin spring into action causing sweating and the hair on your body to stand tall.  Since the pre-frontal cortex is overridden by the amygdala, all thinking, assessing, or problem-solving skills come to a halt. Thus it is important to learn techniques to manage extreme anger.

Seven tips to cope with anger:

1.    Take a time-out and signal your need for a break to your partner
2.    Get physical — go for a walk, take several deep breaths, find an activity that gets your body moving.  Bodily activities release soothing endorphins to help calm the brain
3.    Notice and observe your thoughts – name your anger, externalize it and reframe your negative story with positive narratives
4. Expand your awareness to bodily sensations while paying attention to where anger resides in your body
5.   Learn acceptance tools — you are not your anger and this feeling is temporary.  This too shall pass.
6.    When you are calm, share your insights and experience of the event that triggered your anger.  Social support is essential for calming and letting go of anger
7.  Seek a professional if you are having difficulty managing anger on your own

While expressing your anger peacefully, use “I” statements and remember to stay within the confines of the rules of no criticizing, no demanding, no defending, and no vented anger.

If your communication is falling into the trap of uncontrolled anger, call me at (424) 258-5416 or email me at april@aprilwrighttherapy.com and let’s build a personal plan to manage your anger and build trust and intimacy again.

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8 Healthy Coping Skills for Strong Emotions

Emotions can be overwhelming. They can make us feel crazy and out of control. They can ruin our relationships and cause tremendous havoc.

There is a better way. Emotions don’t have to rule our world. We can learn to control our emotional state. It begins with understanding what emotions are, where they originate, how they affect us, and healthy ways we can manage them.

What are emotions?

Emotions are not our enemy. They are assets to tap into, nurture and put to good use. Emotions are physiological, cognitive, and behavioral responses to a personally significant event (http://www.apa.org/research/action/glossary.aspx). They are complex patterns of change that protect us from danger, ignite feelings of love, and indicate internal calm. Emotions provide valuable information. All we have to do is stop, notice and listen.

How do emotions function?

Emotions affect our body, mind and behavior. Emotions influence how we communicate and influence others. Emotions manage and motivate action. Emotions bring life and vigor to our thoughts and actions (http://www.dbtselfhelp.com/html/emotion_function.html).

Emotions Assess for Safety

When danger arises, we automatically react with flight, fight or freeze. We flee when we see an exit or an escape. We fight when trapped. We freeze when we have exhausted our efforts to fight or flee

Emotions Influence Memory

Emotions are attached to memories. When current events trigger unresolved past reminiscences, feelings are compiled.   We not only respond to the current event but also the past.

This behavior is typical. Our reaction is signaling that we have past trauma or abuse. We are responding to all the thoughts and feelings aroused by our history ignited in the present.

Knowing this helps to understand our current emotional intensity. With understanding, compassion is possible. We can soothe our thoughts and feelings. Self-compassion is number one for coping with intense emotions.

8 Coping-Skills to Manage Emotions

  1. Self-CompassiHelp to Manage Emotionson

Self-compassion is a matter of relating. When we can relate, understand, and feel the difficulties of another, we can translate the same experience to our self.

Compassion is not about pity. It is a desire to help from a place of kindness and understanding. It is the ability to recognize without judgment or ridicule when others fail, make mistakes, and show imperfections. Compassion recognizes that we all have faults, make slip-ups, and possess limitations. It is part of our shared human experience.

Self-compassion is taking the same attitude toward others and giving it to our self. Just as we listen and empathize with our friend who lost their job, relative who had surgery or stranger homeless on the street, we can transfer those same nurturing thoughts and feelings to our self.

  1. Nurture

We can get out of our head by nurturing and socializing with others. Problems are distracted when we tend to children, friends, and relatives. By occupying our minds and lending a hand to someone else, we help ourselves. What could be more rewarding than that?

Developing and maintaining social alliances lowers stress. When we interact with those we care for, Oxytocin is released.   Oxytocin is a hormone that naturally calms.

Sharing our feelings with those we trust can help to normalize and validate emotions while helping to get out of isolation and see other perspectives.

  1. Notice the Breath

Becoming aware of our breathing helps assess our feelings. For example, when we breathe shallowly we may be feeling anxious. When we are breathing deeply into our abdomen, we may notice we are feeling calm or restful. Observing our breath at the moment gives us indicators as to how we feel.

We have control to deepen and slow down our breath. Paying attention to the location of our full inhale and exhale gives the opportunity to change our state of mind. We can choose to take a deep breath and breathe in our abdomen. Abdomen breathing calms a racing pulse and scattered mind.

Observing the muscles especially around the shoulders, neck and jaw may also give us a gauge into how we are feeling. If our muscles feel tight, we can choose to move around, stretch, and relax any tight areas.

Using our imagination to visualize the tension flowing out with our breath as we relax any tense muscles can have a tremendous effect on our mood.

  1. Visualize

Sometimes when we are flooded with feelings, it can be difficult to manage. It may be helpful to think of a calming visualization when we are calm. Thus, we have a tool from our toolbox we can resort to in times of stress.

Here is an idea, try putting emotional pain in a treasure chest. We can bury our treasure chest of emotions for the time being and come back to them when we have time to give them our full attention. It is important to make time for our feelings. They need acknowledgment, validation, and nurture just like a crying child. By tending to our emotions, we are caring for our self.

  1. Take a Break 

Sometimes we just need to pause for a moment. There are times when it is not appropriate or convenient to express intense emotions. During these incidences, it is best to excuse our self for a few minutes.

Try saying, “I need a moment to get my thoughts together. I’ll be back in ten minutes.” Make sure to return at the time indicated. Following through with your word ensures trust and reliability.

Taking the time to calm down and compose our thoughts and feelings, gives us a moment to think clearly.   We can then determine the best approach for expressing our self and finding solutions that are agreeable to all.

  1. Write

Writing can be extremely useful. Studies showed that survivors of traumatic events lowered their distress levels significantly by journaling.

Transforming thoughts and feelings ruminating in our mind to paper helps to stop the spiral. When we are in the thick of things, our thoughts manifest and continue in a downward twist. Externalizing them in a journal gives us the opportunity to clarify what we are thinking and feeling. It is valuable to practice self-compassion and validation when writing.

Closing our journal can also be symbolic. We are physically putting away our distressing feelings and letting go from the upsetting event.

  1. Speak Up

It is important to speak up when an issue is bothersome. Otherwise, we build up resentment. Built up anger causes us to lash out and nitpick at the tiniest of incidences.

It is most effective to think about the problem and clarify our position. It is at times like these to step away, breathe, and formulate a plan of action. We are then able to voice our concerns with an even tone and clarity.

Changes in our relationships are a process. It takes time to adjust to a new way of thinking and behaving. Impulsive confrontation never results in positive outcomes. With practice, talking about what bothers us becomes easy.

  1. Feelings are Temporary 

Emotions are like waves in the ocean. They are always moving and changing. It may be helpful to remind our self that we have not always felt this way. This too shall pass.

Think of previous times when intense emotions were felt. Remember that they eventually faded. Knowing they are temporary can help to begin the process to feeling better.

It may be useful to use a visualization of the ocean. Associate each wave with an emotion. Watch how each emotion moves through the continuum of the water, builds with momentum, crashes on the shore, and then washes away into the sand and current.

Taking time to acknowledge what we are feeling and understanding intense emotions are temporary can help calm a turbulent sea.

Managing our emotions becomes easy with practice. If we recognize the full range of feelings from fear, anger, sadness, and depression to happiness, inspiration, peace, and love, we can use them to protect our self and balance negative experiences. We can make the most of our emotions by opening our mind and utilizing healthy ways to manage them. Choosing what techniques work best for us in the situation is optimal.   We can learn to stabilize an out of control state of mind.

Exercise for Thought

Getting to know our emotions helps us to decide how we want to act rather than act. We can learn more about our feelings by keeping an emotion diary. Choose without judgment the strongest, longest lasting or most difficult or painful feelings. Describe the prompting event and the response in body, mind, and behavior.