The term “sexual addiction” is used to describe the behavior of a person who has an unusually intense sex drive or an obsession with sex. Sex and the thought of sex tend to dominate the sex addict’s thinking, making it difficult to work or engage in healthy personal relationships.
About 3% to 6% of Americans have sexual addiction. And although the Internet provides an endless amount of valuable information, it has also become a dangerous pitfall for the estimated 2 million sexually addicted Internet users, both in and out of recovery. Often an individual seeks out sexual material out of curiosity. They will start to visit a sexual site more and more or other sites like it.
Pornography gives the user the illusion that each and every one of his or her addictive sexual compulsions can be met through fantasy. It can be described as an obsessive relationship with a fantasy. Pornography, like any other sex addiction, becomes the user’s fix. The user becomes so enraptured, they may end up destroying good relationships, spending hours and sometimes days cruising the Internet for porn and throwing out thousands of dollars on illusions.
Behaviors associated with sexual addiction include:
-Compulsive masturbation (self-stimulation)
-Multiple affairs (extra-marital affairs)
-Multiple or anonymous sexual partners and/or “one-night stands”
-Consistent use of pornography
-Phone or computer sex (cybersex)
-Prostitution or use of prostitutes
-Obsessive dating through personal ads
-Voyeurism (watching others) and/or stalking
Sexual addiction can be associated with risk-taking. A person with a sexual addiction may engage in various forms of sexual activity, despite the potential for negative and/or dangerous consequences. The problem of sexual addiction may lead to feelings of guilt and shame. A sex addict may also feel a lack of control over the behavior, despite negative consequences (financial, health, social, and emotional).
At first it is almost impossible for someone caught up in a pornography addiction to believe that he or she can find real sexual enjoyment and better sexual pleasure with a person instead of a fantasy. However, with effective counseling, a genuine relationship does become the pornography addicted person’s preferred sexual interest.
Some pornography addicts believe they have the best of both worlds: their relationship and their addiction. Their belief is mistaken. In fact, they live with a severely limited relationship and a hidden addiction. One of the great rewards of overcoming a pornography addiction is the ability to be fully committed to another person in a loving way, having nothing to hide and enjoying great sex. Try the following suggestions to overcome this habit:
- Cultivate an alternative activity. Look at the circumstances of your life and how they may be contributing to your loneliness: Is it time to change living environments? Jobs? Join a social club or civic group? Attack a weight problem? Think of a hobby or activity that you have always wanted to try and commit to doing it in place of some of the hours spent currently on the Net.Take positive action in your own behalf and change your real life for the better. The more fun things you have in your life every day, the less you will miss the constant Internet buzz and give in to the craving to go back to it.
- Identify your usage pattern. What days of the week do you typically log on-line? What time of day do you usually begin? How long do you stay on during a typical session? Where do you usually use the computer? To begin to shake the habit, practice the opposite.
- Find external stoppers. Use the concrete things you need to do and places you need to go as prompters to remind you when to log off the Internet, and schedule your time on-line just before them. If this is not effective because you ignore them, use a real alarm clock to be set when you need to end the session. Keep it a few steps from the computer so you have to get up to shut it off.
- Be patient with yourself. Give recovery time. Real-life change takes longer than the instant intimacy and satisfaction you are used to from the Net. Give yourself credit for trying. It is natural to feel embarrassed or ashamed that you got hooked on the Internet and can’t seem to handle the problem overnight. Recovery is not a straight, perfect process; give yourself credit for the incremental steps you are taking. These are major accomplishments for which you can feel proud and good.
- Frequently Internet addicts have increasingly cut themselves off from their family, friends, social activities and hobby activities that they used to enjoy. Consequently, it is a good strategy for recovery to be intentional about reconnecting with loved ones and friends. They also are wise to seek out social opportunities and new experiences. To replace the camaraderie often experienced with on-line friends, addicts can seek out a social or support group to provide some of that support.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Let’s try and exercise. The exercise is: Don’t think of an elephant! Whatever you do, do not think of an elephant. I’ve never found a client who is able to do this. Every word, like elephant, evokes associations. Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, are associated with circuses, and so on. The word elephant is defined relative to its features and context. When a person tries not to think about an elephant, for example, direct and associated experiences with elephants are likely to come to mind. In short, when you suppress a feeling, you evoke that feeling. This can be seen in everyday speech when you say, “Don’t worry, Don’t be late, Don’t blame me.” By saying “don’t” you are encouraging yourself to think and feel what you were trying to avoid. The conscious effort made to avoid concentrating on something can, ironically make our attention focus on something more.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
If a baby starts to cry several hours after drinking his last bottle, his mother knows precisely what he’s feeling: He’s hungry. But suppose a woman’s eyes brim with tears while she watches a DVD. Her husband sinks into the couch: What is she so upset about? She might tell him directly: “This movie is so tragic. It’s all about a doomed romance.” That may be true. But she could be thinking about how the story reminds her of her own marital troubles. Maybe she’s feeling hurt because she thinks her husband should realize what’s bothering her and acknowledge it. Or maybe she isn’t even aware that her real-world concerns are intensifying her reaction to the fictional couple.
Quickly and unknowingly, he scours his mental files—on his wife’s relationship history, on her reaction to the fight they had that morning, on the way she typically reacts to similar movies. He notes the particular quiver to her voice, observes the way she’s curled up on the couch, watches the expressions flickering across her face. He takes in information from all of these channels, filters it through his own wishes and biases… until finally it hits him: She knows about his mistress!
Every day, whether you’re pushing for a raise, wrestling with the kids over homework, or judging whether a friend really likes your latest redecorating spree, you’re reading other’s minds. Drawing on your observations, your databank of memories, your powers of reason, and your wellspring of emotion, you constantly make educated guesses about what another person is thinking and feeling. Throughout the most heated argument or the most lighthearted chat, you’re intently collecting clues to what’s on the other person’s mind at the moment.
No matter how much you try to control your body, you inevitably leak tiny bits of information, that if picked up read correctly by others will give your feelings away every time. Body language consists of communication through the use of facial expressions, eye behavior, gestures, posture, positioning, orientation, touch and the use of space. There are times you choose to express your emotions, needs, and attitudes through your body language and at other times your true feelings leak out accidentally, even sometimes contradicting the words you have spoken. In fact often most people find it easier to express how they are truly feeling by using their body language rather than their words. Over the centuries, many sayings have risen from what you have instinctively learned from watching others. Here are just a few:
BEADY LITTLE EYES: The pupils unconsciously constrict when someone is lying or being deceitful.
SHIFTY EYES: The eyes avert the gaze of when someone is lying, so the eyes shift around looking at anything and anyone but the recipient of the lie.
SPARKLE IN THE EYES: The pupils unconsciously dilate when someone is seeing something pleasurable; this action allows more light to be reflected off the back of the eye.
OPENING UP TO YOU: A physically open gesture, uncrossed arms and legs allowing more of you to be emotionally and physically vulnerable.
BITE YOUR LIP, TONGUE, LYING THROUGH YOUR TEETH, COVERING
UP: To stop you saying something inappropriate or lying you might bite your lip or cover your mouth as you tell the lie.
GUT FEELING, STOMACH CHURNING:
A physical feeling in the stomach indicating a dislike or uncertainty.
CHIN UP or OUT, SHOULDERS BACK:
Often said to people feeling a bit down, by raising the chin up and out with the shoulders back it causes physiological changes making you feel more positive.
FEET ON THE GROUND, STAND ON OWN TWO FEET: Refers back to the ancient Chinese custom of female foot binding, as those who had this done were usually Royalty and therefore could not or would not stand on their own two feet without causing pain.
STAND OFFISH: When people stand a just little to far away from you for comfort, outside your personal zone.
KEEP YOUR DISTANCE: When you don’t want someone to get to close to you, or into your personal zone.
PUSHY: Someone who invades the personal space of others will be often referred to as too pushy.
CLOSE, INTIMATE FRIENDS: Allowing someone into personal or intimate spatial zones.
PAIN IN THE NECK: A physical gesture when something is not to your liking.
GET A GRIP ON YOURSELF: Someone usually touch themselves for reassurance in times of stress; a tight grip on the upper arm is common.
UNDER THE THUMB: Controlled by another person, referring back to ancient Rome when the thumb turned downwards would almost certainly indicate death.
THUMBS UP: Generally a form of OK, Good or Yes, but be careful where you use this gesture, it can be highly offensive in some cultures.
MAKES MY SKIN CREEP, CRAWL, GETS UNDER MY SKIN: A physical sensation encountered when you are not comfortable in a particular persons company, conversation topic or tone. This is an expression mainly used by women, as women have been proven to be more sensitive to touch and are more aware of sensations than their male counterparts.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Does your management say things like: “Our employees aren’t angry! We run a happy ship! They get frustrated sometimes, or upset, and we’ve got one guy who is disgruntled, but we never get angry!” This popular anger management technique is called “denial.” If we don’t know how to solve a problem, we just pretend that it isn’t there.
Anger comes in many forms, all of them unpleasant. That is why we are so quick to deny it out of existence. That way, the problem is “solved;” we are off the hook. It’s a good thing that we don’t have to solve it because we don’t know how to solve such problems. We’d only fail if we tried. We didn’t go to school to learn anger management. We feel inadequately prepared to cope with it. We deny the problem in order to prevent the humiliating expose of our inadequate preparation.
In the meantime, our angry employees are walking around with unresolved anger problems in their hearts. They become discouraged and depressed. We wonder, “What happened to the morale around here? Why is production falling off? Why is turnover so high? Why are they taking so much sick leave?” When our employees’ energy is bound up in unresolved anger, there isn’t much left over to do the work that needs to be done. They keep on getting their paychecks just the same.
Anger doesn’t have to erupt into violence to take a chunk out of our bottom line. Suppressed, subterranean anger poisons our corporate atmosphere and does its silent damage day after day, year after year. “Denial”, therefore, is a very costly “solution” to the problem of employee anger. It is a luxury that no business can afford. Why do managers “deny” that their “happy” troops might possibly have unresolved anger in their bosoms?
They deny that there is anger in the ranks because they have attitudes about anger, attitudes that they acquired a long time ago and never outgrew:
“Anger is scary and dangerous. I don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole.”
“Anger is a problem that might take up too much of my valuable time and attention. Why don’t we just fire him and save ourselves a lot of trouble.”
“Anger isn’t ‘nice,’ and angry people aren’t ‘nice’. I don’t want to talk to people.”
“An angry person is a threat, and I have never learned how to cope with threats in the right way, only the wrong way with counter threats.”
In addition to our attitudes about this nasty emotion, we have attitudes about ourselves as problem solvers:
“Life is very pleasant when I solve problems.”
“Life is very unpleasant when I don’t!”
“I feel out of control when I have a problem that I cannot solve.
“That makes me angry! I don’t want to be angry because anger is painful and scary.”
“If I pretend that the problem doesn’t exist, maybe it will go away.”
That’s no way to manage our lives! We don’t realize that we have these attitudes deep down in our psyche. Neither do we realize that these attitudes are predisposing us to behave in the same counter-productive way time after time. Our behavior doesn’t change because our attitudes have never changed.
Jack is a top salesman. Out on the road he is all charm and smiles. Back at the ranch, he has anger attitudes. For one, he is predisposed to get angry whenever he doesn’t get his way, right now! Jack is angry at Nancy for not typing his sales reports fast enough. He wants them “now!” He doesn’t see why she shouldn’t do what he wants, when he wants it. To him, it’s a perfectly reasonable request.
When Jack is angry, everyone in the unit knows it. He slams drawers, he barks at everyone in sight, he clams up, he sulks and pouts. In other words, he is manifesting his anger just as he did when he was four years old. He hasn’t learned a thing about anger in forty years. We all get angry from time to time. Most of us are able to get through these painful periods without making our co-workers miserable with our inappropriate behavior. Jack never had an anger problem until he became Section Chief. It seems that his promotion gave him a license to abuse his fellow citizens that he did not seem to have before. Jack is displaying several main characteristics of the angry employee:
He is angrier than he needs to be,
He isn’t aware that his anger is out of proportion to the provocation.
He makes no effort to manage his anger like a mature, responsible human being.
He doesn’t see why he should learn how.
To Jack, his request for instant service is reasonable or rational. The rest of us see that his anger is not rational or under conscious control. The more Steve, his Department Head, tries to make Jack “understand the inappropriateness of his behavior,” the angrier Jack gets. Jack doesn’t want to understand, he wants his report and, as far as he can see, Steve is doing nothing to speed up the process. He is angry at Steve for letting Nancy “slack off.”
What Steve didn’t know was that Jack had come to define his worth as a person in terms of getting what he wants. He acquired this attitude toward himself during the formative stages of his personality. Jack has plenty of attitudes:
“It is my right to get my way. If I don’t get it. I am nothing! I cannot allow that to happen It’s too scary. It is unacceptable!”
“I am special. I am entitled to special consideration. It makes me angry when I do not get what I am entitled to.”
“When I have to wait to get what I want, I feel out of control. That feeling is painful. I want to get relief from my pain as fast as I can.”
“When I am kept waiting, it forces me to waste time. Waste is irresponsible. It makes me feel guilty of a crime. That is painful, too.”
“Wasting time and irresponsibility are wrong. Wrongness makes me angry. I must be right and never wrong. I must be perfect.”
Jack never outgrew these attitudes; he carried them into adulthood where they are determining his behavior to this day. Each time we react to Jack on the basis of these immature attitudes, we confirm him in his fictitious role. He is so busy defending his “specialness” that he never has a chance to question the basis of his inappropriate behavior.
Steve is learning that many people have these anger attitudes and that they can not be reasoned out of them. He has also learned that the issue here is not Nancy’s typing speed, or her work schedule. The issue is not even “getting my way.” The real problem to be addressed is Jack’s anger when he doesn’t get what he wants when he wants it. The most important thing that Steve learned was that he had the power of choice: to respond to Jack’s anger the old way, which never worked, or to manage his anger in a way that makes things better instead of worse.
He chose not to defend Nancy, (Nancy isn’t doing anything wrong, she does not require defending).
He chose not to defend himself. He didn’t say, “You can’t talk to me that way,” because ‘manner of speech’ is not the issue. It is a distraction from the real issue. It would have poured kerosene on Jack’s fire.
He chose not to take Jack’s demands as a reflection on his competence as a manager.
He chose not to take Jack’s negative, unpleasant behavior personally, as if it were a reflection on his worth as a person.
He chose to retain his self-respect on an appropriate basis.
He was able to remind himself of the definition of self-respect: it is the feeling that I am a worthwhile human being in spite of my faults and imperfections. Jack cannot take that away from him with his posturings.
He identified Jack’s imperious behavior as mere mischief, which means, “that which does not need to be done.” Steve was able to put this mischief in its proper perspective. “It’s only Jack being Jack again.”
He did not overreact to Jack’s provocation.
He did not try to make Jack “understand.”
He identified his own anger at Jack for causing him and Nancy this grievance, but he had learned how to manage his anger. He put it in perspective. Jack’s anger wasn’t the end of the world, it was only a nuisance.
He did not “solve” the anger problem by firing Jack on the spot.
He did not get personal revenge by depriving the firm of the talents of an imperfect, sometimes unpleasant employee.
He did not give up in discouragement.
He did not stand in moral judgment on Jack for his disruptive behavior. Jack is not “wrong,” he is merely imperfect and his imperfections can be unpleasant.
He did not hang on to his anger. It was in his way. He chose to “let it go.”
He was able to sort it out. He was in control of himself. He didn’t try to “control” Jack.
He was able to make a rational choice in a non-rational, regrettable situation.
Steve was able to take himself through this process in a matter of seconds. He had learned the drill. He knew how to find the meaning of Jack’s mischief by identifying the hidden purpose of the behavior. Jack was making him feel powerless and out of control. That feeling told him that he was in a power struggle with Jack over who could make Nancy do what and how fast. This insight gave Steve a new choice to make: he could pull back in a tug of war, or he could drop the rope and end the power struggle on his terms. He chose to drop the rope. He let it go. It was only mischief on Jack’s part. It didn’t need to be done. What really needed to be done was to resolve Jack’s anger problem in the right way so everyone could go back to work.
Steve had learned to spot employee mischief a block away. He had also learned how to disengage himself emotionally, not from the employee, but from his unacceptable, provocative behavior:
He did not take Jack’s behavior personally, as a wipeout of his self-respect.
He reminded himself that “I am a worthwhile human being in spite of Jack’s negative comments.” This technique is called ‘self talk.’ It keeps him on an even keel.
He did not take Jacks words literally, as if he really meant what he said. Jack is only “firing for Effect,” trying to use Steve’s own vulnerabilities against him.
He disengaged from his own predisposition to make counter mischief:
Steve didn’t make any of these mistakes from the old days. He made a new choice using his adult judgment on an informed basis. He knew that Jack’s anger was painful and out of control. It was his appropriate responsibility to deal effectively with his employee’s psychic pain as he would the physical pain of a cut finger. Just as he was prepared to perform the Heimlich maneuver if someone were choking, so is he prepared to give “emotional first aid” when it became necessary. It was necessary now. Steve made the right choice. He cut to the chase. He chose to address the issue of Jack’s anger.
Steve chose to say, “It makes you angry when Nancy takes so long, doesn’t it.” In making this choice, Steve was using an anger management technique called validate. Steve knew that Jack’s accusation was not a valid one. He knew it wasn’t rational, it was based on self-serving attitudes. He did not make the mistake of correcting Jack’s thinking, which would have made things worse for everyone. He knew that he could not relieve this pain by invalidating it. In calling Jack’s anger by its rightful name, Steve was giving Jack “permission” to have this unpleasant, disruptive emotion. He did not “fight the feeling.” He validated the anger, “I don’t blame you for feeling that way.”
Jack heard his anger being validated, perhaps for the first time in his life. He felt that he had been heard and understood by someone who knew what he was talking about. He felt that he was being validated as a person. The pain of his grievance was relieved. The second validate is for Jack. He heard himself being treated with respect in spite of his unpleasant behavior. He respected Steve for doing that. If he doesn’t respect his superior, he will not cooperate with him. He will make destructive mischief instead.
The third validation is for Steve. He had the courage to address the scary problem of Jack’s anger instead of defending Nancy. He had used good judgment. He replaced his good intentions with real intentions. He had earned the right to respect himself as a worthwhile human being with an identity of his own, not merely a role opposite Jack’s immature role.
There are two sides to this anger coin: Jack is one and Nancy is the other. Nancy needs to know what to do with Jack’s anger when it hits. As part of the Anger Management Process, Steve prepared Nancy to cope with Jack’s anger on a new basis. He broke the problem down into its components so she could see what she was up against.
Do not take it personally. It is not a reflection on you.
Do not defend – you are not guilty of a crime and you require no defense.
Do not become counter-angry. That just prolongs the problem.
Do not try to make Jack “understand” the realities of the situation. He is not interested.
Identify the real issue: the issue is that he is angry
Jack is making mischief. He wants to control so he will get his way sooner, also, he wants
revenge. He wants to hurt Nancy as she “hurt” him. These are negative purposes. They need to be identified so that they can be turned around in the right way.
Jack reminded Nancy that she could choose to keep her self respect in spite of Jack’s anger. She is a worthwhile human being whether she pleases him or not. As a self respecting, independent human being, she, too, can choose to validate Jack’s anger, which is the real issue. She, too, can say, “I’m sorry you are so angry, but I’ll have it done by 4:30 today.”
When Jack came by to voice his complaint about the “service,” Nancy did her anger Homework: She disengaged from the mischief, not from Jack. She was able to “Consider the Source”; she reminded herself that it’s only Jack sounding off again. She didn’t hang on to her protestations of innocence, she chose to let them go. When she made that choice, she felt relief from the pressure, tension and stress that these anger situations had been causing her. In letting go, she didn’t feel out of control, she felt in control. She was making this happen in the present. She was choosing to live on her terms, not reacting to someone else’s. She had her own independent identity.
As Jack went on and on, Nancy rode it out. She didn’t prolong the process with explanations of the situation that Jack didn’t care about anyway. She saved her breath. Nancy noticed that the storm blew over in half the time. Jack walked away talking to himself, but he settled down much sooner than he used to when people got in his way and made his anger worse.
Nancy was angry at Jack’s abusive behavior. We relieve pent up anger by giving people choices that they didn’t know they had. Steve has learned what some of those choices are. Instead of ignoring Nancy’s painful resentment, he validated it; “You must be very angry at Jack for dumping on you like that. If you keep it in, it will make you sick. One way to drain it out of your system is to write him an anger letter. It’s not for him, it’s for you.”
Nancy wrote her anger out in a letter to Jack and then tore it up. Steve asked her how she felt afterward. Nancy said that she felt “good.” In debriefing Nancy, he helped her to break this “good feeling” into its many components: feelings of relief, the power of choice, trust in her judgment, control, accomplishment, success, confidence and independence. These good feelings are all components of self respect.
Nancy had done an anger homework in her own behalf. She had earned the right to respect herself. Self respecting employees are more motivated, more productive and more free to be creative than employees who are filled with self doubts, anxieties and feelings of inadequacy to cope. Nancy was able to use an unpleasant anger situation as an opportunity to improve the way she felt about herself as a person in the world.
Even Jack benefitted from Nancy’s new way of managing her anger. He expected to be met with scorn, invalidation, criticism, excuses, denials and all the other counter-productive defenses that people use when they don’t know how to manage anger. Instead, he felt that Nancy had listened to his complaint without demeaning him as a person. She had not compounded his anger as people usually did. He didn’t feel “good” about the conversation, but he was aware that he felt “less worse.” He felt relief from the pressure, tension and stress that he had been causing himself with his unrealistic attitudes. To him, that was progress. Steve had taken the sting out of a potentially inflammatory situation. There were no cuts or bruises, no one got fired. Under this new regimen, Jack’s anger attacks came farther and farther apart, and they ended sooner each time. He remained a productive, valued employee of the firm.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
On a humid evening last September, Susan and James burst into my office looking like two high schoolers in the grip of a classroom giggle fit. Usually serious and reserved, James, 36, explained between chuckles that he had been telling Susan a story about his boss’s gaffe at a meeting earlier that day. Still giggling as she landed on the office sofa, 27-year-old Susan ran her fingers through her cropped, blond hair and tried to compose herself, then eyed her gleeful husband and began hooting all over again. After a bit more banter, I steered the conversation to the main order of business– the state of their six-year marriage. Susan began to recount an incident that had occurred a few days before, when James had volunteered Susan to drive his daughter to a birthday party so that his ex-wife wouldn’t be inconvenienced. “I felt used,” Susan said bluntly. So far, so good, I thought — she is simply stating her feelings. Then looking directly at her husband, she continued: “But what upset me even more was your reaction when you saw that I was unhappy. You started defending her!”
With these words, Susan’s voice began to shake and she ducked her head, starting at the flowered pattern of the Kleenex in her fist. When she looked up her eyes were narrowed and her face flushed a deep, mottled crimson. “You are so full of crap!” she spit out. “You’re too weak to stand up to her then you look at me as if I’m the one with the problem. God, what a sucker I am to stay with you!” James rolled his eyes and let out an exaggerated sigh. “You see what I have to deal with here?” he asked beseechingly. It was as though he had lit a match and was flicking it at his wife who was holding on to a gas can. “Oh, that’s good James!” sneered Susan. “Blame me again! This is classic. You’re such a fucking wimp!” James didn’t respond. In fact, I wasn’t even sure he had heard her. His whole body seemed to tense as he turned toward the window and stared with his mouth clenched. Though he sat very still, I could hear the strained sounds of his breathing. The relaxed, affable husband who had entered my office 10 minutes earlier had simply vanished.
I have often been struck by how swiftly and dramatically the moods of intimate partners can change in the midst of an interaction, as though some internal switch gets flipped that compels each partner to react in a particular, almost automatic way. In a previous session, James had jokingly called Susan “Sibyl,” noting that whenever she became deeply emotional, she “changed.” Like the incredible hulk she would transform from a loving and thoughtful woman to a raging beast, reacting with white-hot wrath. At times, that rage turned physical: during one particularly savage fight, she pushed James down causing him to hit his head on the coffee table.
In the past, they had gone to therapy and were taught new habits of thinking and behaving that they could call into play whenever conflict arose. They were coached to listen to each other attentively and give each other the benefit of the doubt. But over the years, their progress, like many couples, tended to be disturbingly short lived. Most couples therapy today concentrates on teaching partners to consciously think and act differently toward each other. This assumes that telling others how to make changes in their thinking and behavioral would short-circuit their emotions, promoting renewed intimacy and trust. But this assumes that your thinking, conscious brain is in charge of your emotions.
After all you may have been taught that what distinguishes homo sapiens from so-called “lower” animals, is the capacity to consciously reason before reacting. But what if the human brain isn’t actually wired that way? What if your neural circuitry programs are so fast and strong that you rage, cower and collapse in grief in a nanosecond, before you ever get a chance to fashion an “I” statement or otherwise think things through? With the help of modern technology, brain-imaging techniques can generate precise portraits of the brain in action. As a result, scientists have found that your brain actually favors intense emotions, not sweet reason. Thinking still counts, but not nearly as much as you’ve always assumed. So dogma shattering is this mounting evidence for the supremacy of the “emotion brain,” or more formally, the limbic brain, that some have called it a genuine “neuroscience revolution.” Your good at thinking, you learned logical cause and effect reasoning when you took math and science. But like Susan and James you have come are less skilled in emotional matters.
You, like most humans values rational thinking, cause and effect principles and logical conclusions to understand the events in your life. For centuries emotion has been looked down on as primitive and reason has been held as superior. Plato said, “We are prisoners of our feelings and that we should therefore hold fast to the sacred cord of reason lest we be lost.” Euripides declared, “Folly occurs only when desire conflicts with reason.” Aristotle argued, “Emotions have a logic of their own and must be understood on their own terms.” He asserted, “Emotions are not simply animal passions unleashed, but they are a complex part of our thinking.” Yet, research maintains the counter-intuitive position that feelings are crucial for rational decisions. Emotions point you in the proper direction, shining a spotlight on where logic can then be of best use. And in recent years, there has been an explosion of research, which indicates that, rational and emotional processes, rather than being natural adversaries function together.
One reason why reason is placed above emotions that is scientists have divided in to three layers. The bottom layer is called the reptilian or instinct brain, the middle layer is limbic or feeling brain, and the top layer is the neocortex or thinking brain. The bottom layer, the reptilian or instinctual brain, is in charge of your most basic functions such as digestion, breathing, and blood circulation. This area of the brain is source of the “fight or flight” responses to stress, and it is highly concerned with the survival instinct. The second layer, the limbic system or feeling brain, is the primary place for your emotions. This part of the brain also involves your appetite, sex, and senses. The neocortex is the top layer and is known as the thinking brain. This is where your logical thought occurs. Logic is what makes language and writing possible. This top layer allows you to see ahead and plan the future, which is something that no other animal can do.
The conventional view of how the brain processes information is highly appealing. People love to fantasize that the ability to plan gives them control over the world around them. America was founded on self-reliance, manifest destiny, personal freedom, and independence. These values reinforce the comforting theory that you are in charge of your decisions. This misguided approaches assumes information about the world is transmitted via your eyes, ears and other sensory organs to the thalamus, the brain’s central relay station. In turn, the information is shiped directly to the neocortex (thinking brain). There, the incoming signals are efficiently recognized, sorted and assigned meaning. Finally the information is ferried downstream to the limbic system (emotional brain) and triggers the appropriate visceral response. In this tidy, reassuring scenario, emotion is the dutiful servant of the rational brain. Thought proposes, emotion disposes. Thinking comes first and emotion goes last.
This 3 layer model was enormously helpful in showing that tissue below the thinking brain was not just filler to be neglected. However, most people came away from this model of a 3 layered brain with a hierarchal notion, which made the thinking brain the boss. It had been thought that each layer of the brain operates independently, one at a time. This outdated model implied that the feeling (limbic) brain, being the second layer, man purpose was to connect the thinking brain (neocortex) to the instinct (reptilian) brain. It is this hierarchical view, with the thinking brain on top, that explains why we emphasize the role of of reason and analysis. However, researchers have found that whether a brain structure is on the top or bottom, is visible on the surface or tucked out of sight, has no bearing on how the brain functions. The long held belief that the large cotrex of the human brain is what distinguished humans from other species, implies that your thinking brain (neocortex) is more evolved and the emotional brain, (limibic system) is equal to a lower, more animal instinct (reptilian). This is wrong. Researchers have found that the emotional and logical brain co-evolved and developed together. This is important because by developing together, the neocortex (thinking brain) and limibic systems (emotional brain) are connected, so one system has influenced the other.
You need emotions. You cannot simply turn off your emotions and live as a logical cyborg-like being. You could not exist solely with your rational mind. You would not know how to make decisions about food or music or movies, you would know what events are dangerous or even what to say without emotions. The brain centers involved in emotions are directly connected to the learning system. When they are activated, they automatically start the teaching circuits (chains of nerve cells). This happens when you gain knowledge of something seen as valuable because it carries some emotional weight that is personally relevant. This is why emotional events—your first day of school, the birth of child, a parent’s death—become so engraved in your memories. The brain’s ability to determine value and relevance creates a more flexible and intelligent human, whose behavior is unpredictable and creative.
Neurologists no longer accept that brain functions are isolated and operate individually, where one area is only responsible for one function. The idea of separating thinking and feeling into discrete work stations in the brain, which moves information along a conveyor belt, piecing it together one aspect at a time, has given way to the concept of simultaneous systems. To say the brain has simultaneous systems means that it can process information and emotions from many locations, all at once. Researchers have begun to understand that mental connections are distributed over several areas in the brain. The brain’s use of common structures for different functions is not an accident.
For example, think about how vision works. As soon as you look at any given object, your brain shatters it and simultaneously processes that neat image on your eye, to pick apart the different aspects of what is being seen. This visual information is interpreted in a variety of ways, using a diverse array of mental activity, all working at lightening speed to provide analysis. Each area examines a different facet of your visual experience. The job of analyzing color goes in one direction. The angles and parts that constitute shape go to another area of the brain. The space and distance of the object are processed in a third area. And so on.
So while the neocortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, the jerk that dumped you for a new lover, the amygdala is responsible for the surge of fury that floods your body when you see someone who looks even vaguely like your former mate. And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with your collection of past emotionally charged events. If any key elements are even vaguely similar–the sound of a voice, the expression on a face–your emotional brain instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion.
The discovery of interconnected brain functions means you think and feel all at once. It had been assumed that thoughts and feelings were processed one at a time, all moving in one direction, like car moving in the same direction, going down a one way street. Yet it is now known that your emotion and logic are inter-connected, operating simultaneously. Like traffic going down a two way street, these messengers are being sent in two directions at the same time. In addition, it was once thought that the speed at which these messengers traveled was always constant. Yet, it is now known that you thoughts and feelings can move at different speeds, from very fast to very slow. Again like cars on the expressway, they travel in 2 directions and depending on the amount of traffic traveling, they can move quickly or slowly.
Neuroscientists have discovered that there is a supersonic express route to the brain’s emotional centers. This back alley in your mind appears to be reserved for emotional emergencies and bypasses the neocortex (thinking brain) entirely. This mean that information is routed from the thalamus or the ‘relay station’ directly to the amygdala, a tiny, almond-shaped structure in the limbic system that has recently been identified as the brain’s emotional alarm center. The amygdala scans the information for potential danger: Is this bad? Could it hurt me? If the information registers as dangerous, the amygdala (emotional brain) broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses–from a rapid heart rate to jacked-up blood pressure to tense muscles to the release of the “fight or flight” hormones, like adrenaline. Within milliseconds, you explode with rage or freeze in fear, well before your thinking brain can even grasp what is happening, much less persuade you to take a few deep breaths and maintain your cool.
The impact of your emotional brain’s hair-trigger response is that during a highly toxic argument the body can become flooded by a virtual tidal wave of hormones. These hormones create physical changes, including a quickened heart rate stepped-up sweat production, and tensed-up muscles. The split-second nature of these changes indicates a cranial coup d-etat originating in the emotional brain (amygdala). And like most coups, this one can wreak ugly consequences. For researchers found that these classic bodily signs of intense emotions were highly correlated with specific kinds of behaviors (antagonism, criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stone-walling).
This cranial takeover can occur because your neocortex (thinking brain) is simply out-matched by the competition from your amygdala (emotional brain). This race is not even close because emotion-laden paths are faster the logical signals. So your amygdala causes impulses to zoom down your neurological express route, what has been called the “fast track”, at the same time as the same data is being transported via the customary, well-trodden “local roads”, stopping at the neocortex (thinking brain) and limbic system (emotional brain). But because the shorter emotional pathway in your brain transmits signals twice as fast as the more roundabout route involving the neocortex, the thinking brain simply can’t intervene in time. So, by the time you are analyzing a situation, the damage has been done, you have already called your belated dinner partner an inconsiderate jerk, shrieked at your smart-mouthed child, snapped at your critical coworker or you simply shut down and are left shaking inside. To make matters worse, the emotional information will flood the neocortex (thinking brain), overwhelming your logic and judgment. As a result, your emotion-filled thoughts about the situation feel entirely accurate and justifiable. Whaddya mean, I’m overreacting?
What is going on? Well when emotions are involved in your decision making process there is such a great deal of certainty the brain automatically triggers your fight or flight response. This false alarm happens because the instinctual and feeling brains cannot distinguish what is real from what is imagined. And since the goal is to survive, there is an advantage to react first and think later. That is to say emotions are fast and efficient and logic is slower. Emotions provide you with a mechanism to work around the limitation of reasoning. The conclusion you come up with may not be the best, but they are often better than no conclusion. However since your emotions are often derived from your experiences, they tend to be often more accurate than not.
When a situation is perceived as an emotional emergency, the emotional brain (amygdala) lights up the entire body and the neocortex is suddenly seized. Many clinicians, including myself, have spent countless sessions trying to get fuming couples to engage in some kind of well-established communication techniques, such as “active listening,” only to watch the whole thing fly apart. For example, one partner says something seemingly reasonable like, “I feel that the kids don’t get enough of your attention”, which is perceived by the other as a poison arrow to the heart. “Screw that!” the listener shrieks, whereupon the partner flings back with “This is just so typical, isn’t it, you’re too narcissistic to even listen to me, always have been, what’s the damn use?” And in those moments, when the room is vibrating with fury and I feel more like a rookie referee at a mud-wrestling match than an insightful, educated professional, because my techniques are useless.
Perhaps counselors have hesitated to seriously confront the core tenets of this new, affective neuroscience because if they did, they might find out that they are heading down a hazardous road. For if your very brain circuits are primed to favor your most volatile emotions over reason, counselors may need to call into question the tilt toward models that rely on rational thought to engender change. As economic pressures spur clients to move increasingly toward ever briefer, more cognitive-oriented models, counselors may unwittingly be investing enormous energy in approaches that are, to a large extent, at odds with the brain’s most fundamental functions.
So where does the bad-news tale of emotional mayhem leave you? The trajectory of divorce originates with frequent, nasty arguments that eventually cause both partners to develop a hypersensitivity to each other. In this state, you react to your spouse automatically, like an animal conditioned to fear a shock whenever it sees the color red. This helps to explain those moments in my office, like when Susan and James were honestly struggling to think and behave differently, but simply can’t make the shift. I watched James trying to listen empathetically to his wife, but when Susan let him know that she is sick and tired of his behavior, bam! Before you can say “reframe that thought,” the emotional brain (amygdala) is sounding its sirens and suddenly he’s yelling that she’s the slob, not him, in fact, she’s let herself go big-time and is goddam fat! And as he’s shouting all this, his face is turning the color of boiled lobster, his heart is practically leaping out of his chest and he is sweating gallons.
In my experience, a sense of safety is the linchpin of change. For only when an individual no longer feels threatened by his or her partner, subjected to the terrifying prospect of abandonment–will the emotional brain (amygdala) shut off it internal alarm system. So, unlike therapeutic models that zero in immediately on changing thinking or behavior I don’t ask clients to change how they think about, or behave until they feel safe enough to interact in an honest way.
This is not to suggest that cognitive and behavioral strategies are insignificant in effective therapy. In my clinical work, the thinking brain (cortex) is an absolutely central player. The key difference between my approach and other models is that rather than using the thinking brain to try to dominate the emotional brain, I put it to work, helping the ancient amygdala to gradually relax its defense. To do anything less is to paddle against the instinctive stream.
As I sat with James and Susan in my office, I well knew that “helping the emotional brain to relax” was the last thing they had in mind. What was clear, however, was that each partner was far too stuck in his or her respective emotional path, Susan in rage, James in fear. Before any change could occur, each partner would need to honestly explore the feelings that had so violently seized them. Therefore, I responded, as I customarily do when couples encounter extremely “hot” emotional states, by calling a temporary time out. This allowed me to conduct some one-on-one emotional exploration.
Leaving Susan, I asked James to join me in a room down the hall. There, I suggested that if he was willing to explore his emotional experience a bit, he might be able to learn to respond to Susan in a way that helped her to treat him with understanding and support in return. He agreed to try, warning me, however, that emotions aren’t his “thing.” Like many men I work with, James had done a good job of numbing his body to the telltale, physiological signs of an emotional hijacking–the knotted muscles, the racing heart, the queasy stomach–and consequently, during his fights with Susan, he often had trouble knowing what he felt at all. His lifelong stance, he admitted, was to keep a “stiff upper lip” in the face of trouble. He saw no other options.
“Who taught you that?” I inquired. After a few moments of silence, he began to talk of his junior high football coach, whom he remembered as single-minded on forcing him and his teammates to perform endless calisthenics until their bodies screamed for relief. The coach would then march up to the player with the most tortured expression and get right in his face and shout: “What do you feel?” On cue, the player would yell back: “Nothing, sir!” to the loud cheers of his teammates. On one broiling afternoon on the football field, James heard those rousing cheers for himself, and he recalled how curiously proud he felt of his stoic denial for his own body’s inner turmoil. Shaking his head, he admitted: “I guess I learned the lesson well.” I assured him that it would be possible and necessary, to recognize his feelings.
I explained that the body was the voice of emotions, eloquently communicating critical information about your current emotional state. Tightened muscles and a sick sensation in the gut, for example, typically accompany fear, while rage is characterized by an increased heartbeat and body temperature. Learning to readily identify the “emergency” signals sent by the emotional brain via your bodily state is the first, crucial step. Studies suggest that the moment you become aware of your internal state, you activate the thinking brain (neocortex), which in turn, can begin to restrain your emotional response. I suggested to James that the next time he and Susan begin arguing, he simply try to notice any changes happening in his body.
At the next session, Susan and James came or rather sulked into my office. Susan was furious at James for forgetting to buy her flowers for their anniversary. James, already withdrawn, slumped sullenly into the corner of the sofa. As soon as I got the gist of their current conflict, James and I took off again for a private one on one. Before I had even closed the door, James reported that he was feeling an uncomfortable tightness both in his stomach and lower jaw, sensations he had noticed several times over the past week whenever Susan had become angry with him. At my suggestion, he checked his pulse rate and was stunned to find it had soared to 85 beats per minute, in contrast to his usual, resting rate of 68 beats per minute. In fact, this is to be expected. The dramatic jump in your heart rate during an intense emotion, closely mirrors that of animals in the “freeze” state after they sense danger from a predator in the wild and their fear systems have been stimulated.
James clenched-jaw, stone-walling response to Susan’s fury, had a distinctly frozen quality, which was not unlike a full-fledged fear response to an animal being hunted. I encouraged him to notice how his reactions seemed to kick in automatically, all at once, as if a part of him just took over. He replied that he had already noticed this happening a few days earlier, when Susan was ragging at him about the state of their finances. “I actually tried to respond to her, you know, say something sympathetic about the bad day I knew she’d had”. “But somewhere inside, I’d just gone cold.” I left James for the time being and walked two doors down the hall, to begin helping Susan to understand her rage response, with a particular throbbing sensation behind her temples, like as a desperate, love-hungry little kid who was frantically trying to get attention. The next step would be to help them with these inner experiences and consult about the possibility of letting down their respective guards.
At this point, those familiar with therapy may well be raising their collective eyebrows, thinking: This is couples work? My response is that while I do a lot of individual work with intimate partners, I am definitely doing couples therapy. In my experience, the hijacking of the emotional brain is so powered that for many couples, learning to regulate brain states is all but impossible in each other’s presence. Some are simply unable to calm down long enough to do the kind of quiet, deeply focused work that is necessary to allow an emotion to pass. Particularly early in therapy, each partner is far more likely to chronically trigger the other’s hyper aroused emotional brain than help to soothe it. This pattern may lead many couples to prematurely quit therapy, convinced that theirs is a “hopeless case.” Consequently, my customary modus operandi is to do a lot of individual work during the first several sessions, until each partner develops enough skill in managing their emotions to rejoin his or her partner. At that point, couples begin to practice making these shifts in “real time,” in the midst of authentic interactions.
Over the next several sessions, I continued helping Susan and James learn to become mindful of their unconscious automatic emotional reactions. The catch, of course, is that nobody wants to go first. By being more aware of the conditions that allow the brain to sufficiently relax its defenses, I hope to support my clients in making this leap out of defense and into understanding. To that end, I spent several sessions coaching James through conversations with his stonewalling “defender,” in an effort to help him feel safe enough to let down his guard. Progress was gradual and awkward. Then, toward the end of one particularly slow-moving session, I brought up how James’s typical response of sullen stonewalling to Susan had not managed to blunt her fury. He nodded, admitting that, in fact, his icy withdrawal seemed to aggravate his wife even more. I asked James: “what have you got to lose by trying something new, like reaching out to Susan?” This was a delicate moment, I was asking James to engage his thinking brain (neocortex) to entertain a new thought. With his hand on his stomach, James closed his eyes and focused his attention within. Perhaps 15 seconds passed before he opened his eyes and looked at me. “It’s okay,” he softly said. “You’re sure it’s okay?” I asked, pointing in the direction of his stomach. “Yeah, he’s okay,” nodded James. He looked relaxed and younger, somehow less defeated. He told me that in that moment he had acknowledged that shutting down had only gotten him a amplify dose of Susan’s rage, the terrifying experience of all out attack that had activated his defense system in the first place. If there were a better way to stave off these assaults, his guts told him, it would stand aside and open up to change. “I’m ready,” James said quietly.
Susan and I had been making steady progress in feeling safe enough to let her guard down and expose her intense yearning for love that hid behind her fury. Then one evening, Susan and James walked into my office in utter silence. They had had a vicious argument two days before and had barely spoken to each other since. The issue at hand was James’ relationship with his younger brother, Sam, and his sister-in-law, Claire, who lived only a few streets away from them. Susan had long felt resentful toward Sam, whom she felt took advantage of James’s helpful nature, but even more hostile toward Claire, a stunningly beautiful local fashion model. James denied feeling attracted to Claire. Susan did not believe him because one night she had seen James flipping through the pages of Claire’s modeling portfolio, which included some nude pictures. Susan was now furious because, on the first day of a recent, heavy snow-storm, James had called to say he was stopping to help Sam and Claire dig out their driveway before coming home to help Susan shovel so she could then go out to an evening yoga class. An hour later, when Susan walked the half-mile to her in-laws’ house to drag her husband home, she was infuriated to find James and Claire working in the driveway and laughing together, with Sam nowhere in sight. That evening Susan never made it to her yoga class, instead, she fumed hard and long at James, accusing him of caring more about his brother’s long legged, exotic-looking wife than about her.
As the session began, Susan warned that this was a horribly painful issue for her. As she began to recount the incident, she was breathing so hard and fast that I thought she might start hyperventilating. “James,” she managed between jagged breaths, “do you have any clue what you’re like when you get within sniffing distance of Claire?” I quickly looked at James, who had turned his gaze downward and was sitting frozen. I feared he was shifting into a full-scale shutdown. But after a long moment he looked up again at his wife. “Susan,” he began softly, “I don’t give a damn about Claire.” When Susan hooted bitterly at this, James shook his head in frustration. But he didn’t fold. “When Sam called me to help out, I just didn’t think,” he went on. “I should have.” When Susan turned away in disgust, James looked suddenly desperate. “Look, Susan,” he said pleadingly, “when you get mad at me like this, it’s awful.” She looked back at him, clearly surprised. “It makes me feel sick inside,” he admitted to her. “I feel kind of lost.” As Susan continued gazing at him, he touched her arm. “But whatever I did, I’m sorry I hurt you.”
At this, Susan’s face began to bend. “You did hurt me, James,” she cried out. Tears spilling down her cheeks, she jumped up and fled the room. For a moment, James looked stunned and disoriented, a tearful Susan was not what he had expected. Then he, too, abruptly rushed out into the hallway, where his wife was weeping. “God, Susan, I really didn’t know what a big deal this was to you,” I could hear him say. “Will you help me understand?” As she continued to sob, I stepped out into the hall in time to witness James enveloping his wife in a bear hug and whispering into her hair, “It’s you I want.”
It was a moment of great tenderness, an honest exchange of vulnerability and open-hearted understanding. Yet ultimately, the melting moment of bonding that I had just witnessed was not what made me feel optimistic about James’ and Susan’s future. For I knew that such jolting shots of connectedness, however real and deep, would inevitable fade and stinging misunderstandings would arise again. What encouraged me most was that in the midst of this highly charged interaction, James had demonstrated the ability to shift from a reaction of fearful withdrawal to a warmly empathetic state that, in turn, allowed Susan to shift from her own state of fury to one of sorrowful hurt. I knew that if they were to construct an intimate bond that could truly endure, they would need to continue the difficult and delicate work they had begun. Little by little, they were changing their brains and teaching themselves to trust.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
If you find yourself more concerned about highly publicized dangers that grab your immediate attention such as terrorist attacks, while forgetting about the more mundane threats such as global warming, you’re not alone. And you can’t help it because it’s human nature. That’s because people tend to view their immediate emotions, such as their perceptions of threats or risks, as more intense and important than their previous emotions.
In one part of the study focusing on terrorist threats, researchers presented two scenarios to people in a college laboratory depicting warnings about traveling abroad to two countries. Participants were then asked to report which country seemed to have greater terrorist threats. Many of them reported that the country they last read about was more dangerous. What these findings show is that when people learn about risks, they will respond more strongly to what is right in front of them. Whatever the perceived threat of the moment is, will ‘crowd out’ concern about other threats, even if those other threats are actually more dangerous or more likely to occur. Because we are so emotionally influenced when it comes to assessing and reacting to threats, we may ignore very dangerous threats that happen not to be very emotionally arousing.
Human emotions stem from a very old system in the brain. When it comes to reacting to threats, real or exaggerated, it goes against the grain of thousands of years of evolution to just turn off that emotional reaction. It’s not something most people can do. And that’s a problem, because people’s emotions are fundamental to their judgments and decisions in everyday life. One of the things we know about how emotional reactions work is that they are not very objective, so people can get outraged or become fearful of what might actually be a relatively minor threat. One worry is some people are aware of these kinds of effects and can use them to manipulate our actions in ways that we may prefer to avoid.
Your brain is remarkably capable of making strong associations between paired cues (e.g., the growl of a tiger and threat). These associations involve the integration of multiple sensations (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell) and brain processing. Under ideal conditions, this capacity for association allows the brain to rapidly identify threat-associated sensory information. This allows you to act rapidly and promote long term survival. Learning the association between the growl of a vicious looking pit bull and danger should only take one experience. After that the experience of a growl is generalized to imply danger. Yet, the remarkable capacity of the brain to take a specific event and generalize, particularly with regard to threatening stimuli, makes humans vulnerable to false generalizations. This is explains why you get anxious without any obvious cause.
When observing a situation, the unconscious mind uses a little evidence to confirm a pre-existing theory. Let’s say, walking to work you smell smoke and hear a siren in the distance. Instantly, you picture a building on fire. However, contrary to the memorable information you have acquired on fire prevention, there is no fire. The smell of smoke is from a barbecue, and the siren is from a traffic cop. Here are two unrelated events that have been unconsciously associated and explained away by a pre-existing generalization.
Generalizations provide explanations for how things work and relate to one another. You seek explanations for everything. The brain then takes these explanations and makes generalizations to offer organization for how the world works. Generalizations are useful, they allows you to focus your attention on other things. Imagine eating a meal. Other than when to begin, the process of eating is automatic. No thought is required for raising a sandwich to your mouth. All of the actions are habits and operate on established patterns. The solution to the problem, of how to eat is made unconsciously, on autopilot. There are both physical and mental autopilots. Your mind does not have to think about how to eat, but it can if you want it to. In a similar way, if permitted to do so, the mind will analyze and interpret the world around you based on an autopilot-like setting. Imagine seeing someone in a white lab coat running across a road. They are headed towards two cars that are stopped by the roadside. People are milling around. You assume that someone is hurt. The person in the white coat is probably a doctor and there has been an accident. With just a few clues, you are able to paint a mental picture of what is happening.
Generalizations cause you to believe in the conclusion that your mind jumped to, based on a few scraps of information. For example, the newspaper reports an increase in drug-related crimes in your community. In a separate report, you read that immigrants have been arrested. Using mental shortcuts, your mind relates the two stories and comes to a conclusion that you believe is logical. Without any real evidence, you start to believe that crime and immigration are related. Over time you pay special attention to any news reports that appear to support your position and gradually become ever more convinced. To your mind, it is more important to have an explanation than to have an explanation that is accurate. So, reality and imagination get blurred and the boundary between the two is lost. A generalization implies, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Therefore, you assume your negative possibilities reflect reality.
A lecturer told me once: a million white swans cannot prove all swans are white. All it takes is one black swan to disprove that statement. This is how generalization works. Here you focus on the exception, the one black swan out of the million and uses it to prove the statement: “All swans are black.” So this style of emotional thinking implies if you fail at one thing, you will fail in everything else, so why try? Doesn’t this sound absurd? Hardly, I have a friend who once saw himself as a failure in life when he realized he didn’t fix a leaking faucet properly. He was a wealthy businessman, a loving father, a caring son, a thoughtful friend and a responsible person. But he felt since he couldn’t fix some as simple a leaking faucet he had failed and was a failure. He became his actions. He based his worth as a person on a single incident and piece of evidence. For example, I had a client who had a romantic rejection. He became consumed wth the the thought that, “Girls just don’t like me. I’ll always be alone.” Yet we all do this to some degree. If something bad happens to you once, you will then see it as a possibility of something that can happen again. ‘Always’ and ‘never’ are cues that this style of thinking is being utilized. These words make broad, sweeping assumptions that can lead to a restricted life, as you avoid future failures based on the single incident or event. When you make a false generalization, you are really trying to predict the future. You are trying to “head it off at the pass,” to prevent disaster before it occurs, but you are not living in reality. You are not in control. You are living in fear of impending disaster in the future. This is one of the main sources of anxiety in our lives. It is very stressful indeed.
I recently saw a client who was a loving mother, but experienced terrible anxiety related to the welfare of her children. She would be driving home from the store, while her kids, who were quite young, were safely at home with the babysitter. As she drove, some of the thoughts that would run through her head would be, “I wonder how things are going at home … that babysitter is a good one … she seems to always take such good care of the kids … I wonder if she is okay right now … I wonder if the kids are okay right now … sometimes that babysitter isn’t completely responsible … I’ll bet that babysitter has taken my kids outside to play in the park … that babysitter has probably taken the kids for a walk and left them alone far from my home … That awful babysitter has left my kids on their own and they don’t know how to get back home … my kids are in danger! … somebody is going to kidnap my kids and do very bad things to them … this kidnapper is going to hurt my kids very badly … and it is all my fault because I’m a terrible mother!!!”
By this time my client was having a panic attack. Her hands would ferociously clutch the steering wheel, her heartbeat would soar, and her thoughts would race madly about all the possible horrible things that were happening to her kids. She would drive home barely able to control herself for fear of what has become of her kids. She was literally driving herself crazy because of her worry filled thoughts about her kids. Of course, when she arrives home, her kids would be fine. They were happily playing with the babysitter and enjoying a pleasant afternoon in the backyard of their home. This loving mother had allowed her fearful thoughts to completely control her, to the point where she was doing major damage to her physical and emotional well-being. She was flooding her body with stress hormones and internally creating, a full-fledged stress response very much like what she would need if she were being chased by a big grizzly bear and had to protect her children from attack. Yet, as she was driving home, she could do absolutely nothing about what was happening with her kids and the babysitter. She had no control. She could not predict nor prevent any part of what was happening there. Meanwhile, her worrisome thoughts were completely immobilizing her and preventing her from enjoying some time to herself.
Whenever you worry about something, you are not really focusing on the event itself, but on the potentially painful, dangerous, or uncomfortable outcomes that may be associated with that event. Anxiety, worry or fear happens when you are letting thoughts about things that may or may not happen preoccupy your mind, rather then letting your thoughts focus on what is happening right here and now. These feelings are a way to plan and prepare you for a possible threat to your happiness. However, worry is not the same thing as planning. Planning occurs when you bring future moments into the present so you can apply appropriate control on those future events. When you plan, you are using your present moments in a useful way to appropriately prepare you for a future event or experience. When you worry, you focus on the possible painful outcomes that you associate with some future event. You are letting your present moment be filled with what “might” happen (and usually doesn’t).
Humans cannot predict the future, but we try. We are hardwired to plan. Humans planned for the cold winter months and were able to survive by saving food. Yet, humans are not fortune tellers that can predict the future. Nor can any human flap their arms and fly. We are just good at planning. We do not have the ability to predict the weather, how can we assume we can accurately know what will happen next in life. We like to think we know, but we don’t. Emotional thinking is deceptive. Emotional thinking is very certain and gives extraordinary confidence to your conclusions, even if they seem like a long shot. This is why I don’t play the lottery or gamble. Playing the lotto is a great example of how human try to predict the future. People go to the store and purchase their chance at millions of dollars, thinking that the numbers they selected are the right ones. No one would pay for a ticket if they thought they were wrong. People assume that buy getting a lotto ticket there is a chance, no matter how remote that things may turn out their way. But very few of us are fortunate enough to win the lotto.
The old cliché is true, that if stands in the middle of life . How might your life have unfolded differently? What if your parents never met? Perhaps you should have studied harder in school, or asked out so-and-so when you had the chance. Such thoughts of what might have been seem to be a common part of everyday thinking, sometimes irresistibly drawing your attention. Many of my clients struggle with what is known as counterfactual thinking, but you and I know it as a “what if?” approach to life. Your thoughts may almost seem programmed to focus on events that have never even occurred. Very often I hear, “If I had only gotten this job I’d be happier,” “if I had asked this woman out on a date life would be better,” or “if had I not gotten into that car accident I’d be in a much better spot.” People focus on how they would of liked thing to be rather then how they are. They assume that “if only this had or had not occurred” they would be happier, or at least have a greater sense of satisfaction in their lives.
Some of us will get the things we want, and others won’t. The more interesting question is: Why do people who get what they want rarely end up as happy as they expected, while people who fail to achieve dreams rarely end up as unhappy as they feared? Why do you systematically fail to predict how happy and unhappy you will be? Why do you do this? Well its simple, predicting the future is inherently difficult. But even when you know what is going to happen, you base your estimates of your future happiness, on the person you are today. But you fail to appreciate, not only that you will be different tomorrow. That the very things you seek will change who you are. When you make choices to avoid risks that may bring you sorrow or desperately seek some symbol of success, you fail to appreciate how quickly you will absorb such pleasurable events and move on.
People make mistakes when they try to predict what will make them happy in the future, which has been called “emotional estimates.” Anyone who has ever said “I think I’d prefer chocolate to vanilla” or “I’d rather be a lawyer than a banjo player” has made an emotional estimates and tried to predict what would make them happy. And anyone who has made an emotional estimate has found out that sometimes they are wrong. Its pretty amazing how poorly people predicted the emotional consequences of future events, both large and small. Should I get married? Have a family? Pursue a career as musician or teacher? Go out to dinner or stay home and watch a made-for-television movie? Decisions such as these, virtually all of life’s big decisions are based on predictions about how the different options will make you feel in the future.
Foreseeing the future is one of the most appealing of all powers. Who has not dreamed of making millions by predicting which new offering on Wall Street will be the next Microsoft and whether the Red Sox or Phillies will win the World Series? Seeing into the future would bring many advantages other than fattening your wallet, such as eliminating all decision making angst. Rather than worrying about whether you are best suited for a career as a lawyer or an interior designer, whether you should marry Sam or Harry, or whether you should buy your neighbor’s 1992 Volvo, you could simply glance into your crystal ball and see how these various options would pan out. They want to know the future price of Microsoft stock so that they can make money, which they believe will increase their happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of the most fundamental of all human motives, and if people had crystal balls in good working order, they would peer into them most often to try to achieve that goal.
People do not have crystal balls, of course (at least not accurate ones) and thus must prognosticate as best they can, based on what they know in the present and what they have learned in the past. There is a great deal of research on how people make predictions about the future. Until recently, virtually all research on prediction has focused on people’s ability to anticipate the occurrence of future external events (e.g., “will the price of Microsoft stock go up or down?”) or their own behavior (e.g., “am I likely to get divorced in the next 10 years?”). But, a crucial form of prediction has been overlooked, namely people’s ability to forecast their own feelings. What people really want to know about the future, is what their level of happiness and well-being will be.
Human beings possess a unique ability to engage in emotional time travel, mentally fast forwarding through time to envision how much they will love their spouse five years later or how much they will enjoy a hot fudge sundae next Thursday. Emotional time travel is not without its pitfalls, however, as recent research has documented. At the most obvious level, people may make inaccurate predictions about how they will feel in a situation because the situation unfolds differently than they expect. For example, if a vacationer imagines a week of swimming and surfing in Australia and arrives to find the beaches swarming with man-eating sharks and deadly jellyfish, her actual emotional experiences during the vacation are likely to diverge sharply from her original expectations. Yet, even if the situation people experience objectively matches the situation they imagined, people face a fundamentally different psychological situation when they experience an event than when they imagine it. The failure to recognize this basic point begets a wide variety of affective forecasting errors.
Modern people take the ability to imagine the future for granted, but it turns out that this is one of our species’ most recently acquired abilities—no more than three million years old. The part of our brain that enables us to think about the future is one of nature’s newest inventions, so it isn’t surprising that when we try to use this new ability to imagine our futures, we make some rookie errors. Experiencing an event is fundamentally different from imagining it because once an event occurs people are generally motivated to make the best of it. Upon finding herself sharing a beach with sharks and jellyfish, for example, our traveler might find pleasure in the opportunity to observe exotic wildlife in their natural habitat, though she probably would not have foreseen her own ability to reconstrue the situation in this way. Indeed, people are extremely adept at reconstrual, rationalization, and other mental transformations that take the sting out of unwanted events, but they are often blind to these tools of the unconscious. As a result of this blindness, they often overestimate how miserable they will feel when faced with misfortune, as well as how long they will feel that way.
Whether positive or negative, imagining an event is very different from experiencing it because people tend to imagine a specific event in isolation, whereas events are rarely experienced in a vacuum. For example, in imagining how happy he will feel on the day his first child is born, an expectant father is likely to focus on the miraculous arrival of his new baby, while forgetting that the taste of hospital food, the chatter of relatives, and the songs playing in the waiting room will serve as the background, at least temporarily distracting him from the main event. Thus, because people have a narrow, isolated focus, without regard to background distractions, they tend to overestimate their emotional reactions to both positive and negative events.
Suppose, for example, that a person is suffering from a cold when trying to decide whether to accept an invitation to a party the following month, and her current negative feelings taint her assessment of how she will feel at the party. This has been referred to as projection bias, defined as the tendency for people to “underappreciate the effects of changes in their states, and hence falsely project their current preferences . . . onto their future preferences” people attempt to come up with an unbiased estimate of what their affective state will be in the future, but their assessment is contaminated by unique influences on their current affective state.
Researchers found that when people shop for food to be consumed later, they are influenced by their current state of hunger. Shoppers who have not eaten for several hours think, “Surely I will want several bags of corn chips and a couple of cartons of ice cream next week,” failing to adjust for the fact that they will often be full during the week and not experiencing the same cravings. Just as people who shop when hungry purchase too many junk foods, people who shop when they are full may purchase too few, underestimating how much they will want a bag of corn chips when watching television late the next night. In addition to failing to anticipate unique influences on their emotional reactions to an event, people often fail to anticipate the extent to which unrelated events will influence their thoughts and emotions. The pleasures and pains, joys and sufferings, which people actually experience, often fall short of what they had anticipated
When people think about how they will feel when a future event occurs, they first must bring to mind a representation of that event. If people have experienced the event many times before (e.g., commuting to work), they can form such a representation effortlessly by recalling a prototype or exemplar of it. When people think about events that they have not experienced before, such as the birth of a child, getting married, or attending a party at the house of a new acquaintance, they need to construct a representation of what the event is likely to entail. people mistakenly imagine the event. When asked how she will feel at the birth of her first child, a woman might imagine a trouble-free, natural delivery followed by a quiet period of intimate bonding with the baby. What happens instead is 24 hours of painful labor, a Cesarean-section, and intrusive visits from in-laws armed with video cameras.
In anticipating a coming event we have it alone in mind, and make no consideration of other occurrences When considering how their emotional lives will be influenced by a future occurrence, such as the outcome of an election or sporting event, people tend to think of their lives in a vacuum, focusing on that occurrence alone (“I’ll be thrilled for days if Finkleberry wins the election”). Events do not occur in a vacuum of course, but in the rich context of many other events in people’s lives. By neglecting to consider how much these other events will capture their attention and influence their emotions, people mistakenly estimate the impact of the event.
There are a number of concepts used to explain these peculiar findings. The problem frequently highlighted is we have a tendency to underestimate the extent to which other events will influence our thoughts and feelings in the future. For example, we set the alarm for 5 a.m. as you slide into bed at midnight with the intention of an early-morning run. On what are you basis do you make this choice of what time to get up, on your present optimistic feelings that night of course. This is certainly not how you’re feeling 5 hours later in the darkness before dawn. The consequence? You hit snooze, roll over and change your behavior to correspond with reality, your still tired. I am not thinking about how I usually feel at 5 a.m. on any given day – tired! And, when I’m tired, I’m not particularly happy. I’m basing my feelings about running tomorrow on my feelings at the moment I’m making the choice to get up early. However, at 5 a.m. when I awake to the alarm tired and unhappy to be so tired, the temptation is to give in to feel good. That is, I will now take the more preferable action, preferable because I anticipate I’ll feel better, and that is to sleep. Short term gain, but long-term consequences for my health goals.
So this raises the question of whether these mistaken estimations are functional in some way. It does not seem functional to under/overestimate the intensity and duration of one’s negative emotional reactions. This can be especially painful when you cannot do anything to influence the outcome, which only exaggerates unnecessary worry and anger. Of course people need to prepare for uncontrollable negative events by looking for another job or working hard on applications to other colleges, but it does not seem beneficial to exaggerate how badly one will feel if an uncontrollable event happens.
It is easy to imagine how overestimating the intensity and duration of negative outcomes can serve as motivation for people to work hard in the present to prevent these outcomes from occurring in the future. Exaggerating the intensity and duration of reactions to positive events can also serve as a motivator, leading people to work harder to obtain these outcomes. Further, there is utility in anticipating positive events, and people find substantial enjoyment exaggerating the pleasure they will experience in the future (e.g., “the concert will be a real peak experience”). Yet, sometimes people have no control over future outcomes, such as the possibility that the large corporation that is about to go bankrupt or that the college that turns you down.
So, exaggerating the impact of events, such as a job promotion might serve to increase people’s motivation to work toward it. But why should people work hard toward something that will not bring as much gratification as they think? Wouldn’t it be to people’s advantage to have a better idea of the intensity and duration of the pleasure that they would derive from different events? Consider people who are thinking of buying expensive items such as a television set or new car. Part of the decision involves a forecast of their happiness. People are willing to pay more for an item if they think it will cause lasting intense pleasure, than if they think it will make them happy for only an hour or a day. If people overestimate how much pleasure a television set or new car will bring, they are paying more for these items, than they should.
Clearly, if people misunderstand how a situation will influence their behavior, their predictions about how they will feel in these situations, will be incorrect. For example, women were asked to predict how they would react if they were asked sexually harassing questions during a job interview and compared these predictions to the actual reactions of women who really were asked the sexually harassing questions during an interview. The forecasters’ predictions were surprisingly at odds with the experiences of the women who participated in the real interview, in part because they imagined a different situation than the one faced by the experiencers. The forecasters imagined a situation in which it would be easy to confront the interviewer and where their primary emotional reaction would be anger. In the real interview the women were suddenly faced by a confusing and surprising interaction in which their primary emotional reaction was fear. Sixty-eight percent of forecasters said they would refuse to answer at least one of the three questions, whereas every experiencer answered every question. Twenty-eight percent of the forecasters said that they would confront the interviewer or leave; none of the experiencers did so. The researchers noted that women are often unfairly blamed for failing to confront harassment, precisely because of this kind of error. People imagine a situation in which it is easy to confront a harasser, failing to appreciate that the situation will be a more complex one in which they experience intimidation, confusion, and fear.
Clearly, errors in predicting what will make you happy interfere with the pursuit of your happiness. People often seek out things that will not increase their happiness or fervently avoid things that will not decrease their happiness. Interestingly, people may fall into these traps even when they consciously recognize what matters for their happiness, leading them to pursue goals whose fruition may produce little happiness.
Affective forecasting errors have important implications for both physical and mental health. People may delay getting tested for serious health problems in part because they anticipate lasting misery if the test reveals unwanted results. Yet, such dire forecasts may be inaccurate. Similarly, people seem to overestimate how unhappy they would be while undergoing treatment for a serious disorder, suggesting that people may sometimes resist medical treatment because they fail to recognize how readily they will adapt to it.
Beyond interfering with one’s own health and happiness, affective forecasting errors have important interpersonal consequences. When faced with the challenge of understanding how another person feels in a given situation, people typically begin by predicting how they themselves would feel in the situation and then adjust for differences between themselves and others. Therefore, to the extent that people mispredict their own feelings, they may also misunderstand others’ feelings and their corresponding behaviors. If people fail to understand others’ emotions, then the behaviors corresponding to these unpredicted emotions are likely to seem inappropriate and may be viewed as evidence of undesirable personality traits.
People tend to make extreme exaggerated predictions about their emotional responses to an upcoming event because they neglect consideration of the circumstances. Therefore, simply asking people to think about these background events and activities can reduce the extremity of their forecasts. For example, college football fans made more restrained predictions about how they would feel in the days following a win or loss by their team, when they first described the other activities they would be engaged in during that time.
Your predictions may be improved not only by drawing your attention to background events, but also by drawing your attention to features of the anticipated event or outcome, which you may typically overlook. This is necessary because of the isolations effect. The isolation effect occurs when people are faced with a set of options, and they typically isolate certain features that make each option different, while neglecting the features that are shared or similar in all the options. For example, in looking at colleges, students may focus on a few features that differentiate the colleges (e.g., location) while paying little attention to their many shared features (e.g., size, extracurriculars). Asking people to think about features that are similar or shared across outcomes can lead them to place more attention on such features, which are equally important for actual happiness.
The true power of the mind is always available. It is the hidden resource that can provide lifesaving insights to people in danger, calming realizations to people in despair, career saving insights to people in fear of failure, world changing ideas to people who are inventors or discoverers. What does it take produce quality thinking? First, it requires you to accept that it is without a doubt in the capacity of all humanity to think clearly, intuitively, in a wise and responsive way, learning about life from moment to moment.
The most compelling evidence of this is any conversation with any child; young children consistently and quite unaffectedly think this way. We make light of it with books and programs like “Kids Say the Darndest Things”, Art Linkletter’s popular feature of the 1950’s and ‘60’s. But such compilations provide significant proof that it is universally intrinsic to humanity to generate original ideas on the basis of nothing. And when one listens carefully to children, one hears the consistent tendency towards generalization towards seeing patterns and meaning more profound than the facts or literal words at hand.
Second, it takes the recognition that it is a direction. Thinking about your thinking excludes the natural flow of ideas because it darkens the windows of “I wonder…” with the detritus of “I already know…” While a person is in the state of already knowing, curiosity is held at bay. Questions that would occur naturally in a state of wonder have no place in that other realm and do not come to mind. For example, if I am listening to a political speech and my mind is fully occupied with cataloging that with which I agree, that with which I disagree and that which I consider stupid so I can keep score, I will not hear “new” ideas. Someone sitting next to me listening to see what can be learned and understood from the speaker might have an insight about the solution to a political problem that transcends the speaker’s ideas, but was born of the interaction between psychological readiness to learn and ideas being expressed. I would walk away with my disgust of politics reaffirmed by experience; the other person would walk away with a great idea and a sense of hopefulness that transcended politics.
Third, it takes the faith that, regardless of how discouraged or habitually overwrought a person might be, looking in that direction will dissolve the thinking that fed the feelings of negativity and stress. As soon as the mind is at rest, the flow of responsive, common sense thinking resumes and will continue unabated until it is once more interrupted by a deliberately orchestrated change in mental direction. The ability to generalize is nothing more than the ability to sustain faith in the flow of ideas long enough for wisdom to deepen. The habit of “pouncing on” and doing something with the first good idea that comes to mind is a lack of patience and a lack of experience with allowing ideas to evolve, to blossom to their own fullness.
Quality thinking involves the ability to see beyond details and differences to generalized meaning, looking to understand the source and nature of thought itself. It is as helpful to a stressed out homeless drug abuser as it is to a pumped up, arrogant business person as it is to a worried single mother as it is to an hallucinating psychotic. Rather than emphasizing differences and details, quality thinking points all people toward their hardwired capacity to think anew, to glean an understanding of life itself, forming and reforming through the flow of intelligent thought in a calm and unfettered mind.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
What is a pachyderm? Well, “pachy” means “thick,” and “derm” means “skin.” The three most famous pachyderms are the elephant, rhinoceros, and the hippopotamus. Their skin serves them well, preventing them from being bitten. These insects are promoting their own survival; they are not personally going after any particular pachyderm. Now this is the question, are you thick-skinned? Are you being bitten by other people’s words? If you are thick-skinned, you don’t notice or get upset when people criticize you. To have thick skin means you do not take other’s actions personally, as a reflection of your worth as a human. Here are a few tips to developing a thick skin:
Don’t take things personally. Sometimes you may need to reframe a person’s bad behavior by remembering that it’s not about you.
Don’t let others get to you. Refuse to get overly responsive to the negative feelings and provocations of others. Adopt strategies that regulate emotional arousal; otherwise negativity hijacks the thinking brain. Try simple deep breathing or declare time out. Remember that everyone gets rejected sometimes. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a few times to get it right. Successful people are rejected over and over, but never stop trying. When you’re rejected or something doesn’t go your way, propose a new solution. Often, the person declining your offer is not rejecting you. He may even want to hear another idea. Successful individuals come back from rejection with new proposals. They’re creative at coming up with additional ways of looking at things and solving problems. Don’t hesitate to un-stick sticky situations. If you’re discussing an issue and the conversation is going off track, stop it and restart it on the right track. You could say: “This isn’t going productively. Let’s reshoot this scene from the beginning” or “Can we take it from the top?”
Don’t be self-focused. If you do focus on yourself, you’ll likely dwell on your shortcomings. Instead, think about your goals and what steps you need to get there.
Stop the self-talk. Counter self-defeating self-talk with truth talk: “You can be your own worst enemy, so give yourself a break.”
Don’t worry about looking stupid. If you are asked a question and you don’t know the answer, you can simply say, “I need to think about that and get back to you later.”
Learn to be patient. Don’t be impulsive or react to a situation without giving yourself time to cool off.
Don’t be quick to blame. Recognize that other people have their ups and downs.
Think about others. Enter social interactions with this thought of making the experience itself enjoyable. Ask yourself, “What can I do to feel more comfortable?”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Younger people, those with children and less-educated individuals are more likely to experience anger, according to new UofT research that examines one of the most common negative emotions in society.
Drawing upon national survey data of more than 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older, Professor Scott Schieman from the Sociology Department at the University of Toronto has published new findings about the experience of anger. In a chapter in the forthcoming International Handbook of Anger, to be released in January 2010, Schieman documents the basic social patterns and contexts of anger. His main findings include:
- Younger people experience more frequent anger than older adults. This is mainly due to the fact that younger people are more likely to feel time pressures, economic hardship, and interpersonal conflict in the workplace (three core stressors that elevate anger levels);
- Feeling rushed for time is the strongest predictor of anger, especially the “low-grade” forms like feeling annoyed;
- Having children in the household is associated with angry feelings and behaviour (i.e., yelling) and these patterns are stronger among women compared to men;
- Compared to people with fewer years of education, the well-educated are less likely to experience anger, and when they do, they are more likely to act proactively (e.g., trying to change the situation or talking it over);
- Individuals who experience more financial strain tend to report higher levels of anger. This relationship is much stronger among women and younger adults.
“The sociological analysis of anger can shed light on the ways that the conditions of society influence emotional inequality,” says Schieman. “Why do some people seem to experience more anger than others? And what does this say about social inequality and its impact in our everyday lives?”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Popular musician Billy Joel sings a song titled Angry Young Man that tells the story of a young man who’s “never been able to learn from his mistakes, so he can’t understand why his heart always breaks,” and is thus destined to “go to the grave as an angry old man.“
A recent study at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine suggests that Mr. Joel—although obviously not a doctor—was close to the truth about heart woes when he penned Angry Young Man. The study, which tracked 1,337 male medical students for 36 years following medical school, found that students who became angry quickly under stress were three times more likely to develop premature heart disease and five times more likely to have an early heart attack. Angry young men, it appears, turn into angry old men with heart problems.
So why does this happen? Is there a correlation between anger and heart disease?
“I see the role of anger in a variety of physical symptoms and disease processes, including heart disease,” says Jerry Kiffer, M.A., psychology assistant in the Department of Psychiatry and Psychology and manager of the Psychological Testing Center at The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Patients are referred to Kiffer and his colleagues when their anger levels are observed by other people (a doctor or spouse), or the patients themselves recognizes that their anger or stress level is high. Kiffer says that men are more likely to act out their anger when they’re stressed. This may be due to cultural factors (i.e., “boys will be boys”) and their tendency to want to fix or change circumstances. Unfortunately, many men don’t recognize this connection between stress and anger until they have a wakeup call—such as a heart attack.
But how can anger lead to a heart attack? “When you’re angry, your body reacts as though it is under attack,” says Kiffer. “It’s all systems go as you get a rush of adrenaline and your body revs up preparing to defend itself.
“But in today’s world, you can’t go out and attack someone every time you get angry, so your body has all of this pent-up energy and stress. It’s equivalent to sitting at a red light with your foot on the brake and the gas pedal floored. Your tires start spinning and your car is all revved up with no place to go. The same thing happens in your body when you get angry and don’t have an outlet for your anger, only the problem is what’s spinning and burning is inside your nervous system.”
Kiffer further notes that when you get angry, your body releases cholesterol and an array of chemicals called catecholamines into your blood stream. People who are hostile or angry have advanced levels of catecholamines in their systems, and research has shown that these chemicals actually speed the development of fatty deposits in the heart and carotid arteries.
“If you’re mad at the world and you have a family history of heart disease, you’re loading the bullets in the gun and pulling the trigger at an early age without realizing it,” says Kiffer. “People with a strong family history need to recognize that anger can be a strong risk factor. In fact, some research has shown that anger can be just as much of a risk factor for heart disease as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.”
So does this mean that the young man (or woman) with the classic “Type A” personality is destined to die of a heart attack. Not necessarily. That’s because the old notion of a “Type A” personality was someone who was angry, outspoken and always on the go. Kiffer notes that it’s okay to be busy and always on the go, but anger, hostility and a cynical attitude aren’t good for your heart health.
Kiffer points out that psychologists now consider “Type A” people to be “hot reactors.” “If you’re a ‘hot reactor,’ that means it doesn’t take much for people to push your buttons, and you react fiercely and quickly.”
But even “hot reactors” can learn to manage their anger. “The popular belief is that if you’re angry you need to get those feelings out and get them off your chest,” points out Kiffer. “But if you express your anger, it can snowball. If you get in a gripe session and other people confirm your anger, your anger level could actually increase because other people confirm your feelings and you feel like you have a right to be angry. Now you are self-riotously angry.”
Yet holding anger in does nothing to relieve stress. In fact, Kiffer likens it to shaking a 2-liter bottle of pop with the cap on. Sooner or later the pop bottle will explode, and so will you—probably in the form of a heart attack or some other ailment.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Think about this the next time someone cuts you off in traffic or in a grocery store line: Anger can bring on a heart attack or stroke.
That’s the conclusion of several studies at Harvard Medical School and elsewhere. One study of 1,305 men with an average age of 62 revealed that the angriest men were three times more likely to develop heart disease than the most placid ones.
Angry older men, as stereotypes go, are most vulnerable. But excessive ire can take a toll at any age. Researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine tracked 1,055 medical students for 36 years. Compared with cooler heads, the hotheads were six times more likely to suffer heart attacks by age 55 and three times more likely to develop any form of heart or blood vessel disease.
The conclusion is clear: Anger is bad for you at any age. “Among young adults, it’s a predictor of premature heart disease later in life,” says Harvey Simon, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Most anger research has focused on men, so whether the same risk applies to women remains unknown. One study, published in 1995, found that, during two hours after an angry outburst, a individual’s risk of having a heart attack was more than twice that of someone who had not lost their cool. Out of 1,623 people in that study, 501 were women.
“Almost all the anger research I’m familiar with has focused on men,” notes Simon. “However, based on a 2006 study of road rage, I would guess that women are less prone to severe anger and thus to its deleterious effects, which include heart attack, stroke, and even impaired lung function.”
A Harvard study, published in August, concluded that men who showed high hostility at the start of the eight-year investigation exhibited significantly poorer lung function at the end of it. “This research shows that hostility is associated with poorer [lung] function and more rapid rates of decline among older men,” notes Rosalind Wright, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Strokes of anger
Over the years, then, anger increases a man’s and, probably less so, a woman’s chances of heart disease. But, what about a single burst of rage, the guy who cuts in front of you just before the exit ramp? The answer apparently is “yes.” In the Harvard study of 1,623 patients, which included 501 women, intensive anger more than doubled their risk of heart attack if the emotion occurred in the two hours previous to the heart attack.
In an evaluation of 200 stroke patients in Israel, researchers linked a bout of intense anger to a 14-fold increase in risk of stroke within two hours of the emotional incident.
Results from a study published this year found that of more than 2,500 patients treated in emergency rooms in Missouri hospitals, about 500 of them were torn by anger just before the injury. The greater the anger, the higher the risk, researchers concluded.
Anger comes in many doses: annoyance, irritability, frustration, vexation, resentment, animosity, ire, indignation, wrath, and rage, for example. Most people know when they’re mad. If not, someone is bound to tell them so, sooner or later.
Psychologists have developed a scale that rates anger levels. It’s a true-or-false test that presents statements like: “At times I feel like smashing things.” “I easily become impatient with people,” “I’ve been so angry at times that I’ve hurt someone in a physical fight.”
Once you decide how irate you are, you need to decide what to do about it. For a start you can see your family doctor about the wisdom of taking an aspirin a day. Harvard researchers recently found that a single low-dose (81 mg) pill can reduce anger-caused heart attacks by 40 percent. In other words, a daily aspirin may cut the risk of breaking an angry heart by almost half.
How to be cool
Simon adds more advice in the September issue of Harvard Men’s Health Watch, which he edits. “Try to identify the things that bother you most and do your best to change them,” he suggests. “Learn to recognize warning signs of building tension, such as a racing pulse, fast breathing, or a jumpy, restless feeling. When you recognize such signals, take steps to relieve the tension. Often something as simple as a walk can cool things down.”
Don’t boil in silence. Talk out your feelings with your spouse, partner, or a good friend. If that doesn’t work, write down your feelings. Try to explain to yourself why you are so irritated or vexed.
Simon also suggests learning to meditate, or experimenting with deep breathing exercises. Also, you can, with practice, change behaviors that light your fuse. Here are some examples: Don’t always try to have the last word. Try not to raise your voice. Don’t curse. Wait a few seconds when you feel on outburst coming on then try to express yourself calmly. Don’t grimace or clench your teeth. Practice smiling.
If all such efforts fail, angry people can seek professional help. A 2002 study reported that stress management classes can protect men from anger-induced heart problems, and individual counseling may be even better.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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