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By Lindsay Leimbach
Do I have an angry brain? At times I sure do, I have a brain that will blow up like a volcano. I do not have an angry brain all the time, just some of the time. It can happen when my teenage boys forget to do the chores, even when I have left a reminder note on the kitchen table. Or when my cell phone bill is twice as high as usual and no one can explain how it happened... the irritating life stuff that we all face. Anger and fear are normal responses when a situation appears threatening. These are primary emotions that are actually good things. These are functions of our internal radar that screams “life-threatening situation! Be prepared to fight or flee”. Anger and fear serve all animals well in protecting their lives, families and territory. However, the issue is that these emotions can be triggered over chores not being completed or a phone bill. I do not need the flight/fight response to be activated to conquer my teenage children or the cell phone service representative. Actually I have found that I make things worse when trying to solve an issue with a brain that's reacting in anger or fear. I evaluate incoming information incorrectly, I cannot truly understand another’s point of view, I overreact, and I often say something off-topic that just escalates the anger. I also have found that my emotions are contagious. It seems that when I let them leak out, others catch them and they multiply. Then I don’t just have one angry or afraid brain but an epidemic of angry or afraid brains on my hands! The epidemic creates misery for everyone.
Because of this, I have chosen to make sure that an epidemic of angry brains will not start with me. Through Mindful Living I have learned how to work with my emotions instead of fighting them. I am able to listen to the warning signs that my brain is telling me, and not feel I need to fight or distance myself from other people. Mindful Living has made me aware that stuff happens: good stuff and bad stuff. Things are always happening. It's what life is about. Things change every moment. I have realized that if I want to be a positive influence on my own life, I need to start living my life in the present moment and notice what is happening in my own thinking, moment by moment.
I used to be frantic in my thinking. I was completely caught up in worry of past or anxiety of the future and I was not aware that I was becoming angry until my volcano blew. Those around me were often as shocked as I was to the amount of anger that possessed me.
I have learned through Mindful Awareness of my feelings and thoughts what causes and promotes my anger: mostly when I am over tired, stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed. I have learned there are other common causes that promote anger: physical or emotional trauma, chemical or biological issues with the brain, alcohol and drug abuse and learned behaviors through families and cultures. I now realize that I have some well-established habits that I slide into when I get angry. I am trained to a response just like Pavlov’s dog that starts to salivate when he hears the dinner bell. For example, when I feel my family is taking me for granted, then the angry bell rings and I am fuming. This negative reaction does nothing to make the situation better and I never feel better. My fuming actually makes things worse.
I found that “what you think about you bring about”. As I feel angry and taken for granted, I am connecting neurons in my mind by thinking to myself “I am angry”, “no one cares”, “I am forgotten”. The pathways become deeper in my thinking and are reinforced by strong emotion. Then my brain looks for outside events that support these negative pathways and I find myself on the “poor me” angry loop that I cannot jump off.
The good news is that I have learned the brain has neuroplasticity. In short, the brain is always changing: neural networks are being built and reinforced with what we think about and other neural networks are falling apart when they are not being used. I now realize I can be the master builder of my brain! Mindfulness has taught me that I can jump off the loop of past angry behaviors and responses anytime I choose through awareness in the present moment. It sounds easy and it's easy to say, but it takes practice, practice, practice to execute. Mindful Living is not one skill. Rather, it is a way of being. It requires numerous skills and techniques to live mindfully. These aids help you stay in the present moment without judgment.
Two Mindful Living tools that have worked for me when dealing with my angry brain are:
1. Event Happens + Being Aware of Thinking + Skillful Response = Positive Outcome
Events happen, and some of these events stimulate the emotion of anger. That is okay. I am listening to myself; I can sit with my anger. I know that feeling the anger won’t hurt me and in time I always calm down. I know that when I calm down, I can clearly judge how angry I am. I often rate my anger on a scale of 1 to 10. This gives my brain some objectivity about how intensely I should react to the event. Now that I am calmer, I am ready to make a more skillful response. My response is what I want the world to know and hear. I might be doing a skillfully planned battle cry as a response or maybe I need to skillfully just let it go and know stuff happens. Whatever I choose, I recognize that I am reinforcing my outlook on the situation in my mind and in the minds of others. I will mindfully implement a skillful plan of action to achieve a positive outcome. I am ending any angry brain epidemics that could have started from me
2. Breathing 4 x 4 x 4
When I am aware that anger is arising, I breathe in for the count of 4, breathe out for the count of 4, and do this for 4 times. Breathing should not be a big surprise. We instinctively tell others that are upset “catch your breath, breathe, breathe, breathe”. Breathing at a slower rate calms us. The brain is able to shift out of a fight/flight response and have greater impulse control and planning ability. Being aware of what you’re thinking and feeling cannot happen if you feel your head is going to explode. Breathing slower and more deliberately will decrease your blood pressure and clear your tunnel vision. With a calmer state of mind, you can achieve a more skillful response and a more positive outcome.
To learn more about using mindfulness to transform your response to stress and become more calm, centered and creative, see our Stress Shifter Skills CE Course (14 CE Contact Hours).
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