If a caller upsets you, do you hurl the phone across the room? Do you curse and blast the horn furiously if the driver in front of you takes three seconds to notice the green light? An angry temperament can hurt more than relationships – anger and heart disease may go hand in hand, according to experts.
“You’re talking about people who seem to experience high levels of anger very frequently,” says Laura Kubzansky, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who has studied the role of stress and emotion on cardiovascular disease.
Moderate anger may not be the problem, she says. In fact, expressing one’s anger in reasonable ways can be healthy. “Being able to tell people that you’re angry can be extremely functional,” she says.
But explosive people who throw things or scream at others may be at greater risk, as well as those who harbor suppressed rage, she says. “Either end of the continuum is problematic.”
Gender doesn’t appear to make much difference, she adds. “Once people are chronically angry, men and women seem to be at equally high risk.”
Scientists don’t all agree that anger plays a role in heart disease, she says. But many studies have suggested a significant link. “I think the case is strong,” Kubzansky says.
For example, one large study published in Circulation in 2000 found that among 12,986 middle-aged African-American and white men and women, those who rated high in traits such as anger — but had normal blood pressure — were more prone to coronary artery disease (CAD) or heart attack. In fact, the angriest people faced roughly twice the risk of CAD and almost three times the risk of heart attack compared to subjects with the lowest levels of anger.
Anger may not be the only culprit in heart disease risk. Kubzansky’s own research suggests that other extreme, negative emotions may contribute, too. “Anger is a problem, but so, too, are high levels of anxiety and depression. They tend to co-occur. People who are angry a lot also tend to have other chronic negative emotions as well.
How might hotheads be hurting their hearts?
Scientists speculate that anger may produce direct biological effects on the heart and arteries. Negative emotions, such as anger, quickly activate the “fight-or-flight response.” They also trigger the “stress axis,” Kubzansky says. “That’s a slightly slower response, but it activates a cascade of neurochemicals that are all geared toward helping you in the short run if you’re facing a crisis.”
While these stress responses mobilize us for emergencies, they might cause harm if repeatedly activated. “When they persist over time, they end up being potentially damaging,” she says.
For example, excessive amounts of stress hormones may speed up the process of atherosclerosis, in which fatty plaques build up in arteries, Kubzansky says.
Anger may also disrupt the electrical impulses of the heart and provoke dangerous heart rhythm disturbances.
Other research suggests that stress hormones may lead to higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance linked to atherosclerosis and future heart disease risk. In 2004, Duke University scientists who studied 127 healthy men and women found that those prone to anger, hostility, and depression had two to three times higher CRP levels than their more placid peers.
“CRP levels at this range are associated with inflammation that is likely to eventually increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke,” says researcher Edward Suarez, PhD. The findings were published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
Besides direct biological effects, lifestyle factors also come into play. Angry people may take worse care of themselves. “People who are chronically distressed may not behave in health-promoting ways,” Kubzansky says. “We know that anxious, depressed, angry people are more likely to smoke, less likely to engage in physical activity, have poor nutritional habits and drink to excess.”
Anger — as well as anxiety, depression and other negative emotions — are a part of life, Kubzansky says. They can serve useful purposes. “But if people find that they have them chronically and at high levels and can’t seem to get away from it, I view it like pain. It’s a signal that something needs to change. This is not how it’s supposed to be.”
Anger is intertwined with other problems that may end up harming the heart, says psychologist Wayne Sotile, PhD. “If you mismanage anger, it’s going to compromise your most intimate relationships,” he says. “It’s going to isolate you from others. The likelihood increases that you’ll get depressed, and you’re going to cause problems in your life that increase anxiety and worry.”
Sotile is director of psychological services for the Wake Forest University Healthy Exercise and Lifestyle Programs and a special consultant in behavioral health for the Center for Cardiovascular Health at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C.
Counseling and anger management classes can help the chronically angry to get their deep-seated emotions under control. But you can take more immediate steps, too, experts say.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 2 so far )
“I’m afraid if I ever let go and just really feel it, I’ll blow up the whole world!” That comment is often made by persons along the way on the journey to wholeness. We fear the enormity of repressed emotions caged up inside of us for what seems like centuries now. We fear that we could do harm if we were allowed to just let it rip.
In fact, some do. Anger management classes are operating right this moment all over the Western world, classes that teach us how to “walk away,” “count to ten,” and other like techniques meant to keep us from behaving on our rage. But anger, on all of its levels from mild irritation all the way up to rage is more than behavior. Yet behavior is what we fear. In fact I’ve heard adolescent boys struggling with rage say, “I didn’t get mad—I know because I didn’t throw anything or hit anyone.” They were totally equating anger only with behavior.
Irritation, frustration, anger, rage: these are all forms of anger. And they are feelings first. But when a person’s rage becomes behavior even before thought has a chance to plug in, it is usually because of one of two reasons: 1) it’s been repressed for a long time, and when someone drops the proverbial straw, it explodes; 2) it works for manipulative purposes.
Either way it has something to do with maturity. I said at the end of the last blog that I’d talk about maturity, and so I am. Maturity is the result of having faced and overcome obstacles by gathering deeper and deeper aspects of self. In other words, when faced with a challenge we don’t repeat a rote behavior, or do what someone else taught us to do, or just do what we’ve always done. Rather, we dig deeper into ourselves to create something original as a solution to the problem or to overcome the obstacle. In the process we learn something about ourselves and/or about life in general.
What has come to be called “uncontrollable rage” comes about as a result of not having developed maturity. We can see this clearly in the example of frustration. When some little thing goes wrong, say a key won’t work in a lock, we generally get frustrated. We feel blocked. What we do at this point is going to make a difference as to whether or not we take a step forward in our psychological growth. Of course, we may have to fail a few times before we can figure out how our frustration can be a catalyst for creativity. But ultimately if we can learn to feel the frustration, hold the tension between the feeling and the act, and then push on just a little further, we find that we can create a solution or even something wholly new out of that frustrating moment.
When we continuously fail to step forward in this way, we do not grow emotionally, and thus we do not mature. And so it is that some will learn that rage works to manipulate or scare someone else into overcoming the frustration for them. Or, they learn that unloading their rage just makes them temporarily feel better—in a similar fashion to the way that using substances can make us forget our challenges in a haze of feeling better—so that we no longer feel motivated to solve the problem or become creative in response to a life challenge.
What most people don’t know is that we have a choice. Feeling our feelings and using them for a springboard for creativity is an option that is always available to us, but one which we can decide not to take. And the more frequently we choose to forgo that option, the less likely we are to mature through the process.
This means that the batterer is most likely to be an immature person whose rages are comparable to a toddler or adolescent temper tantrum. And the notion that batterers are just “out of control” is unfounded. The concept of being “out of control” is based in the notion of external locus of control—or the idea that if the external world cannot stop me, then I’m just beyond control. And it belies the fact that we always have a choice.
In fact, when we talk to people who are willing to really be honest about rage, what we learn is that before they behaved out of it, they were aware of other options for expression besides harming someone or breaking something.
On the other hand, rage as a simple feeling can be quite useful for informing us of where we need to place our boundaries, where someone else stops and we begin and vice versa. Holding the tension between the rageful feelings, for example about a previous abuse or betrayal, can inform us of how much we actually do care about our own well-being so that we can solidly declare “never again!” And the rage has just the right amount of energy to allow us to keep our promises to ourselves.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Our brains and bodies are naturally designed to express a range of emotions and
to respond to the emotions of others. The emotions of fear, shame, and anger
serve us in the most dangerous situations we may have to face. The fear and
anger not only energize us to run or fight, but also communicate our emotional
state to those close enough to respond. Our anger lets others know we are
energized to attack and they had better respect that. Fear communicates to
others that there is something dangerous nearby, and they might want to get
ready to run, too. Shame also communicates. It communicate surrender so that our
foe will not continue to attack.
We are also hardwired to express joy, distress, and surprise. The expression of joy communicates our relief at being safe among friends, while distress communicates our need for help and comfort.Surprise seems designed to help us assess the situation when something unexpected happens. It focuses our attention and opens our eyes.
We also come equipped with the ability to recognize these basic emotional states in others. Mirroring structures in the brain help us to respond to others actions and emotions automatically. Very young babies understand the difference between a smile and a frown, a lullaby and a scolding and they respond automatically.
Direct uninhibited emotional response between two people is called intimacy, and babies are natural at it, which is why we often find relationships with babies so rewarding. Babies are not ashamed to show their feelings, whether they are distress, frustration, delight, fear, or shame itself. And when we are with them, we are not ashamed to mimic them with goo goos and gah gahs of baby talk that we would be embarassed to see on video, absent the baby context. We are free to be responsive to a baby’s distress or frustration. We are rewarded by the good feelings of intimacy.
So what goes wrong later?
Somewhere along the line, we learn to try to hide our feelings because our own feelings scare us or we are ashamed of them. Expressing our feelings becomes associated with feeling vulnerablebecause others may make fun of us or try to use our feelings against us. So we work very hard to hide our feelings behind a mask of some kind, and in order to do this we work to suppress the emotions. We can get so good at this that we hide the feelings even from ourselves and feel horrified at the possibility that others could know about our distress, shame, or frustration. Some of us drink, binge, purge, or work long hours in order to numb ourselves and make it easier to suppress the emotions rather than express them. And we lose the freedom and delight of intimacy in a habit of hiding behind our mask. We substitute sex for intimacy and busy routines for friendship.
Underneath the masks, the busy routines, and the defensive habits, we are still hardwired to express our emotions and respond to others, still hardwired for intimacy if we can let go of the habits we have developed to protect ourselves. We can escape the trap of these new defensive habits, but we often have to have help to overcome the fear and shame that keep us stuck behind our masks.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
I like to define assertiveness as the art of asking for what you want in a way that makes it easy for the other person to give it to you. If you think of it as a skill that can be learned by anyone, and can be learned easily by children at an early age when they are learning all kinds of communications skills, I can explain how it is preferable to the other ways of getting what you want.
Parents can teach assertive asking in two simple ways:
The next most important thing in assertiveness is timing, which requires some empathy for the other person so that your request can be heard. Children shouldn’t have to be too sensitive to their parents’ needs, though they often are acutely aware and can be quite naturally empathic. Parents can help the child develop this skill by coaching them: “I can’t read you a story right now, because I am fixing dinner, but if you remind me after dinner, I would be happy to.”
A master asked his disciples: ‘Why do we shout in anger? Why do people shout at each other when they are upset?’
The disciples thought for a while, and one of them said ‘Because we lose our calm, we shout for that.’ ‘But, why to shout when the other person is just next to you? ‘Isn’t it possible to speak to him or her with a soft voice? Why do you shout at a person when you’re angry?’ The disciples gave him some other answers but none satisfied the master.
Finally he explained: ‘When two people are angry at each other, their hearts distance a lot. To cover that distance they must shout to be able to hear each other. The angrier they are, the stronger they will have to shout to hear each other through that great distance.’
Then the master asked: ‘What happens when two people fall in love? They don’t shout at each other but talk softly, why? Because their hearts are very close. The distance between them is very small…’
And he concluded: ‘When they love each other even more, what happens? ‘They do not speak, only whisper and they get even closer to each other in their love.
‘Finally they even need not whisper, they only look at each other and that’s all. That is how close two people are when they love each other.’Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
So what is anger?
Simply put, anger is an emotion. In fact, anger is just an emotion – it is neither right nor wrong to feel it. Unresolved anger can lead to serious physical and mental health problems such as heart disease, stroke, depression and anxiety.
What is the purpose of Anger?
The purpose of anger is to alert us to danger and in doing so produce the flight or fight response. In other words, anger is meant to protect us from harm. All of the physical effects you experience when you are angry are there to tell you that something is wrong. It can motivate us to make positive changes in our community or advocate for others. For example, Martin Luther King was motivated by outrage over racial prejudice (some of which he experienced first hand) to start a civil rights movement in America. With this in mind, you can see that anger, in and of itself, is not negative.
It is, however, a complex emotion. Anger is usually considered a secondary emotion. When we get behind our anger, we discover that there is always a primary emotion such as fear, sadness or frustration at root of it. Understanding the emotions behind the anger is one way of expressing anger appropriately, but we will discuss this later.
Where does anger come from?
Anger is usually caused by some kind of perceived or actual injustice, selfish or thoughtless act, hurtful remark, etc. But this is not where anger comes from. Anger comes from inside of you. It is a natural response to dissatisfaction with your environment.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
Human empathy depends on the ability to share the emotions of others—to “feel” what other people feel. It is regarded by many people as the foundation of moral behavior. But to some, the concept seems rather airy-fairy. What does it mean to say “I feel your pain”? Isn’t that just a fanciful flight of the imagination?
Well, not really. For one thing, it turns out nonhuman animals—-even rodents-—show evidence of empathy. For another, it appears that empathy has a neurological basis.
The same brain regions that process our first-hand experiences of pain are also activated when we observe other people in pain. Moreover, when we observe the emotional signals of others, we recruit brain regions associated with theory of mind, the mechanism that permits us to take the perspective of another person. This theory of mind mechanism-—along with the ability to keep our own emotional reactions under control-—may be of crucial importance for showing empathic concern, or sympathy.
A person who lacked theory of mind or the ability to self-regulate emotions might focus solely on her own emotional reactions to another person’s plight. She might respond aversively to the victim, or–absorbed by her own emotional agitation–she might even become aggressive. Empathy, then, involves a package of abilities. Here’s a quick guide to the biology of empathy, including information about the development of empathy in children.
In one experiment, 15 rhesus monkeys were trained to get food by pulling chains. Monkeys quickly learned that one chain delivered twice as much food than the other. But then the rules changed. If a monkey pulled the chain associated with the bigger reward, another “bystander” monkey received an electric shock. After seeing their conspecific get a shock, 10 of the monkeys switched their preferences to the chain associated with the lesser food reward. Two other monkeys stopped pulling either chain—preferring to starve rather than see another monkey in pain.
Mice, too, respond to the display of pain by their companions. Researchers at McGill University put pairs of mice together and injected one or both of them with a substance that induces mild stomach ache. Mice reacted to the pain by wriggling and stretching their legs. But the intensity of the reaction depended on social cues. Mice wriggled and stretched more when their companions were also in pain. Moreover, mice exposed to the sight of a suffering cage mate were quicker to back away from an unpleasant heat source—suggesting that witnessing their companion’s discomfort made mice more sensitive to their own pain.
So there is nothing particularly human about finding the painful experiences of others unpleasant. But why is “second-hand” pain unpleasant or upsetting?
New research by neuroscientist Jean Decety suggests a fascinating neurological link between our own, first-hand experience of pain and our perception of pain in other people. When typically developing kids (aged 7 to 12 years) were presented with images of people getting hurt, the kids experienced more activity in the same neural circuits that process first-hand experiences of pain. This automatic response–termed “mirroring”—has also been documented in adults. The phenomenon may reflect the activation of mirror neurons, nerve cells that fire both when a person performs an action and he sees that action being performed by others. To date, researchers have identified specific neurons involved in the mirroring of hand movements. No one yet has isolated specific mirror neurons for pain or emotion.
Mirror neurons may explain how we can experience “second-hand” pain or emotion. But to respond with empathic concern, we need other information, too. We need to understand the perspectives of other people. We also need to overcome our own negative reactions to the display of another person’s pain or distress.
Brain-imaging research seems to confirm this link between theory of mind and empathy. For instance, when people have been asked to evaluate the emotional facial expressions of others, they showed activation in the brain regions associated with theory of mind tasks. And theory of mind is probably important in other ways. For instance, Jean Decety and his colleagues have investigated how the brain distinguishes between the victims of accidents and victims of aggression.
To better understand how theory of mind contributes to the perception of “second hand” pain, Decety’s team showed kids two sets of images. One set depicted people experiencing painful accidents. The other set showed people who were being victimized by aggressors. In both scenarios, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) revealed that merely looking at images activated brain regions associated with the first-hand experience of pain. But when kids watched images of one person deliberately inflicting pain on another person, additional brain regions (in the orbital medial frontal cortex and the paracingulate cortex) were activated.
Brain imaging research and studies of brain-damaged patients suggest that these regions are associated with social interaction, emotional self-control, and moral reasoning. Were the additional brain regions activated because the kids were engaged in social and moral thinking? It seems very plausible.
The activation wasn’t caused by the mere presence of multiple people in the images, because researchers controlled for that. And, when kids were debriefed at the end of the experiment, most of them commented on the unfairness with which the victims had been treated.
The study mentioned above measured the responses of normally-developing kids. What about kids who show a cruel streak? Decety’s group conducted a similar fMRI study on teenage boys with conduct disorder, or CD.
This disorder is a serious psychiatric condition linked with behaviors like physical aggression, manipulative lying, sexual assault, cruelty to animals, vandalism, and bullying. It’s also a precursor to antisocial personality disorder in adulthood (Lahey et al 2005). Researchers screened boys (aged 16-18) for CD, and showed them the same types of images of accidents and assaults mentioned above.
The results were very interesting. I feel your pain…and it makes me lash out
In some respects, the boys with CD responded like boys in the control group. In particular, the mirror neuron system for pain was activated in both groups.
But there were dramatic differences.
First, the boys with conduct disorder experienced less activation in brain regions associated with self-regulation, theory of mind, and moral reasoning.
Second, the boys with CD actually exhibited a stronger “mirror” response to accidentally-caused pain.
And, unlike controls, the boys with conduct disorder experienced strong, bilateral activation in the amygdala and striatum.
What does this mean? It’s not clear. The amygdala processes emotion. And the striatum is activated by strong stimuli—both pleasurable and aversive. So there are at least two possibilities.
The aggressive boys might have gotten a pleasurable “kick” out of viewing the pain of others.
But given that their own pain centers were strongly activated, it’s also possible that observing second-hand pain triggered negative emotions—emotions that make the boys behave more aggressively. As Decety and his colleagues point out, negative emotions—particularly in people with poor emotional control—can cause agitation and outbursts of aggression (Berkowitz 2003). This effect may be magnified in kids who have trouble distinguishing their own first-hand pain from the pain of others.
Decety and colleagues speculate that boys with conduct disorder may experience high levels of agitation or distress when they experience second-hand pain. When this distress is combined with poor self-regulation of emotion, they lash out. But whether second-hand pain makes aggressive kids feel good or irritable, one thing seems pretty certain:
The brains of boys with conduct disorder responded more intensely to images of other people experiencing pain. And this intensity was linked with the boys’ aggressive tendencies. The more strongly a boy’s brain responded to second-hand pain, the more highly he scored on measures of daring and sadism.
Animal studies and brain scan research might make us wonder if feeling empathy is a purely automatic process. But, as noted above, empathy is really a package of abilities, and there is evidence that empathy and empathic concern can be shaped by experience.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
From the moment news broke of another shooting, the question reverberated: why? As the tragedies continue, our collective national frustration has boiled over: Aurora, Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech … Why does this keep happening? Why can’t someone explain?
In the 80 interminable hours it took to get a glimpse at the suspect, a second question emerged: what was a look at James Holmes going to reveal?
When he walked into court Monday morning, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy. Which was weirder, the dazed expression he wore most of the 11 minutes of the hearing, or the sudden bursts of wild eyes, matching his ridiculous orange hair?
The obvious explanation, which many viewers and commentators embraced, was that he was out of his mind or, medically speaking, undergoing some sort of psychotic break. But a minority view pushed back, and hard: the hair, the eyes, the sensational getup for the attack were a little too cute: a cold-blooded killer, playing crazy.
You will never understand this man if you leap to either of these conclusions. Do not look for a unified theory of mass murder, a single coherent drive. It doesn’t exist. Examining all the mass murderers together yields a hopeless mass of contradictions.
Forensic psychiatrists are not baffled by these tragedies. One drive will never explain them. Instead, experts have sorted them into types, which bring the crimes into remarkably clear relief. These researchers find that aside from terrorism, most of these mass murders are committed by criminals who fall into three groups: psychopaths, the delusionally insane, and the suicidally depressed. Look through these lenses, accept the differences, and some of our worst recent tragedies make more sense: Seung-Hui Cho, who shot up Virginia Tech, was delusionally insane; Dylan Klebold, at Columbine, was deeply depressed; and Eric Harris, his co-conspirator, was the psychopath.
Occasionally, there are combinations, or rare exceptions, involving brain tumors or substance abuse. The substance danger has made a resurgence with the abuse of bath salts, recently implicated in many violent crimes.
Mass murderers do share a few common traits. The best meta-study on the subject is an exhaustive report by the Secret Service in 2002, which studied all school shooters for a 26-year period. In this cohort, all the shooters were male, 81 percent warned someone overtly that they were going to do it, and a staggering 98 percent had recently experienced what they considered a significant failure or loss.
Despite this last fact, the ubiquitous question “what made him snap?” leads us astray. The Secret Service found that 93 percent planned the attack in advance. Hardly spontaneous combustion. A long, slow, chilling spiral down. Early evidence in the Aurora case suggests it fits this pattern. James Holmes apparently spent months acquiring the guns and ammunition he used, and it’s likely his descent began much earlier. What set him off down that path?
Psychopaths are the easiest to explain. They seem to be born with no capacity for empathy, a complete disregard for the suffering of others. The sadistic psychopath, a rarity, makes a cold-blooded calculation to enjoy the pain he inflicts. Killing meant nothing to Eric Harris at Columbine—humans were as disposable as fungus in a petri dish. “Just all nature, chemistry, and math,” he wrote.
Harris was witty, charming, and endearing—like most psychopaths—but he artfully masked his hate. “I hate the f–king world,” his journal begins, a year before the attack. Hate roars from every page, but it is contempt that really comes through. “You know what I hate?” he posted on his website. “People who mispronounce words, like ‘acrost,’ and ‘pacific’ for ‘specific.’ You know what I hate? The WB network!!!! Oh Jesus, Mary Mother of God Almighty, I hate that channel with all my heart and soul.” What an ordeal for him to tolerate all us inferior beings.
Harris’s burning desire was a command performance to show us how powerful he really was: “I have a goal to destroy as much as possible,” he wrote in his journal. “I want to burn the world. KILL MANKIND. no one should survive. ”
For those bandying about terms like “evil,” “bad seed,” or “born bad,” this is who you have in mind. Sadistic psychopaths are callous, vicious creatures, probably born that way, with cruelty to animals and a fascination with fire typically showing up by grade school. There is no known effective treatment or cure. It is what the otherwise eloquent Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was describing when he went briefly astray and called the Aurora killer “delusional,” “diabolical,” and “demonic.”
Can we spot these killers? Of the three types of mass killers, psychopaths leave the fewest warning signs. They are master manipulators who delight in deceit. People see them as kind, trustworthy, and endearing. But it is an elaborate ruse. Harris bragged that he deserved an Oscar for duping his parents.
Families who met with Wayne and Kathy Harris told me the Harrises realized in retrospect their boy was a psychopath, but were oblivious to that danger at the time. They knew he had anger issues, and legal run-ins; they were punishing him sternly, restricting his freedom (the surest way to infuriate a psychopath). They thought if he could find an interest or vocation in which to immerse himself, his idle hands would be out of the devil’s playground. How were they to know he was flexing his creative muscles, staging an elaborate death ritual?
Those who saw Holmes’s bizarre courtroom behavior as a calculated ploy to appear insane are describing a psychopath, also called a “sociopath” by clinicians. Psychopaths are not crazy in the sense that they don’t know what they are doing. They are hyperrational—they just don’t care about our pain. Psychopaths are remarkably like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, if you strip away the costume and theatrics. But psychopathic killers have one Achilles’ heel: they revel in glory and like to brag. Look for clues as James Holmes’s history comes to light.
While psychopaths kill for their own amusement, severe psychotics—a very different category of sufferers—are driven to slaughter to extinguish their torment.
Their agony is typically apparent to everyone. The official report on the Virginia Tech killings documented Seung-Hui Cho’s steady disintegration, beginning in third grade and reaching homicidal ideation by eighth. It listed a dozen pages of “aberrant behavior,” from “pathological shyness and isolation” to stalking women in the dorm. Cho wrote weird, angry plays for creative-writing class, which he refused to discuss. He sat silently, spurning eye contact, with his ball cap pulled down to shield his eyes.
Since the tragedy, Cho was widely diagnosed as psychotic—the clinical term for a broad spectrum of deep mental illnesses including schizophrenia and paranoia. Psychotic killers are, most commonly, suffering from schizophrenia, a disease marked by delusions, hallucinations, and loss of emotion, speech, or motivation. Schizophrenia seems genetically predetermined but generally lies dormant until the late teens or early 20s. Alleged Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner, 22, and Reagan would-be assassin John Hinckley, 25, were both diagnosed as schizophrenics.
Severe psychotics like Cho are delusional, way out of touch with reality. And yet most who suffer from these mental illnesses, even some severely, pose no threat to anyone but themselves. So how does a mentally ill man like Cho make that awful journey to the trigger of a gun? Slowly. Days or months of planning are preceded by years of mental unraveling. As the disease sets in, the victim is typically perplexed and then distraught by the alarming thoughts ricocheting around his brain. Occasional flutters build to a chorus of angry chatter. “Schizophrenic delusions are usually grandiose and persecutory,” noted psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg explains. “There can be terror as a teen or young adult feels he is losing his mind.” Cho was a red-flag assembly line. Everyone around him could see. Cho even checked himself in for a psych evaluation.
What we fail to grasp about killers descending into this kind of illness is the fear. Picture yourself waking up this morning, coherent enough to see that yesterday you were off your rocker. Likewise, three days ago. And two days last week. In and out, but drifting deeper into what you see quite clearly as the crazy pit. Could you get help? That would require confessing. Too dangerous. If you shared what you were up to yesterday, you’d land in a padded cell, electrodes attached to your head, medications administered to obliterate your personality. No way.
Most schizophrenics survive the internal terror, but for future killers, the delusion can be a coping mechanism: I’m not losing my grasp, you people are just out to get me. Arm yourself. Oh God. Which way to point it? Me? Them? For most mass murderers, it will end up being both.
“Do you know what it feels to be spit on your face and to have trash shoved down your throat?” Cho railed in his manifesto before killing at Virginia Tech. “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul, and torched my conscience. You thought it was one pathetic boy’s life you were extinguishing. Thanks to you, I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people.” Cho found a way to help everyone. He would be the hero of this tragedy.
“There was pleasure in planning such a grand demonstration of ‘justice,’” wrote Roger Depue, former chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, in the official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel. “His thought processes were so distorted that he began arguing to himself that his evil plan was actually doing good.”
These tortured minds can lurch momentarily from one extreme to the next, an exhausting ride. Ochberg explains that the flat affect tends to be rather constant, while the bizarre impulses and behavior tend to come and go in bursts. It can puzzle the untrained observer. Psychiatrists who consider Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, psychotic, would not have been surprised to see him looking catatonic for most of his court appearance, with fits of crazy eyes. It’s unclear whether Holmes is schizophrenic, but his behavior would fit neatly with the profile if he is.
The third type of killer is the hardest to fathom. Depression, for mass murder? We’ve all tasted depression, or some version of it, so we think. But it’s not even close.
Dylan Klebold, before his rampage at Columbine, felt his soul dying. Hopeless. Helpless. Unrelenting despair. He documented it in a private journal for two years. He also left telling school essays and notorious videotapes. The wealth of information provides one of the most enlightening portraits of the depressive descent to a killing spree.
“Such a sad, desolate, lonely unsalvageable i feel I am,” Klebold confided to his journal. “not fair, NOT FAIR!!! I wanted happiness!! I never got it!!! Let’s sum up my life. the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
Other days, Klebold’s spirit soared. He dreamed of a blissful world, with himself vaguely superhuman, “this tranciever of the everything.” It’s glorious. Tranquil. Radiating with love. Klebold fills entire pages with elaborate hearts. “OH MY GOD,” he gushes between suicidal gasps, “I am almost sure I am in love. Hehehe.”
The despair returns. His writing grows erratic, fevered all-caps: “F–KIN DUM-ASS SHITHEAD…F–K!” He grows quiet, returns to his tidy penmanship to close out the entry: “No emotions. not caring. Yet another stage in this shit life. Suicide.”
A startling wake-up call came three years after Columbine. The Secret Service found that 78 percent of shooters had a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts. Sixty-one percent had a documented history of extreme depression or desperation.
The difficulty is not in recognizing a problem, but its severity. An angry, moping teenage boy? That describes much of the high-school population. Dylan’s mother, Sue Klebold, wrote movingly about her experience in an essay for O Magazine in 2009: “I believed that if I loved someone as deeply as I loved him, I would know if he were in trouble.” She saw only sadness. “He did not speak of death, give away possessions, or say that the world would be better off without him.” Sue Klebold used the piece as a plea to other moms to take what appears like recurring sadness seriously. Good advice. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force estimates that 6 percent of American adolescents—2 million kids—suffer clinical depression. Most go undiagnosed.
With one quick skim of Klebold’s journal, suicide is easy to understand. But why take others with you? Murder instead of suicide comes down to whom you blame. Through much of his journal, Klebold blames himself (he talks about suicide on the very first page). Sometimes God. But slowly, gradually, he focuses the blame outward.
Most vengeful depressives blame their girlfriend, boss, or schoolmates. Some just aim to kill those targets. But the eventual mass murderer sees it differently: it wasn’t one or two mean people who drove him down, it was all of us. Society was brutal, the whole teeming world is mean. We all need to understand what we did to him; we all need to pay. “In 26.5 hours ill be dead, & in happiness,” Klebold finally wrote. “The little zombie human fags will know their errors & be forever suffering & mournful. HAHAHA.”
Two months before Columbine, he wrote a chilling short story for a creative-writing class—after Harris had already assembled the guns and some of the explosives. The story involved a single killer very much like Harris shooting down random “preps” in cold blood, with many of the same atmospherics planned for Columbine. The first-person narrator, apparently a stand-in for Klebold, is just an observer. He watches the gunman intently, and in the final moments, gets a good look and sees right into him. “I not only saw in his face, but also felt emanating from him power, complacence, closure, and godliness.” Sounds pretty appealing. Especially compared to “the most miserable existence in the history of time.”
These seem strikingly similar to Cho’s rants, but Klebold understood what he was doing. Cho had lost the ability to discern reality from fantasy. In his reality, he was helping the world. Klebold knew he wasn’t. He was just getting even.
Most mass murderers intend to die in the act. And most do. James Holmes was an exception, meaning a trial, a psychological evaluation, and answers about why it happened this time.
If Holmes is a psychopath, he probably had a ball Friday. He would have been gleeful through the months from conception to planning and attack. If he’s not a psychopath, he may have spent months or years descending into his own private hell. But which hell? Insanity or suicidal depression? Anyone who claims they can answer these questions this early is ignorant or irresponsible. But we will learn.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Shortly after settling into his seat on a Manhattan commuter train one morning, Richard Laermer heard a familiar sound. A man across the aisle was tapping on his smartphone. Clickclickclick. Clickclickclickclick—for 45 minutes.
Fellow passengers rolled their eyes, sighed heavily and craned their necks to glare. Mr. Laermer, a 51-year-old Ridgefield, Conn., business-book writer, tried to bury his head in a book. But there was no escape from the annoying sound, and finally he decided to speak up. “Excuse me, would you please turn off the clicks?” he said.
The man’s response? “It was like I’d kicked him or scalded him with coffee,” Mr. Laermer recalls. He jumped up and shouted, “Is this what it’s now come to? People want you to type more gently?” He ranted for several minutes and ended with, “Who do you think you are? Do you really think you can tell me what to do?”
“Yes, that’s exactly right,” answered Mr. Laermer, who had remained quiet during the tirade. “Please turn the clicks off.” People nearby began clapping, and the angry man sat down, red faced and turned his phone off.
Why do adults throw tantrums over seemingly trivial provocations? Sure, the decline of common courtesy is appalling, and some people aren’t as nice as others. But times are stressful enough for us all. Shouldn’t we have learned by now that indulging in a fit of yelling, whether at a customer-service rep or a spouse, never helps?
Researchers at Duke University, in a yet-to-be-published study, looked for explanations of why people melt down over small things. Their findings suggest we are reacting to a perceived violation of an unwritten yet fundamental rule. It’s the old, childhood wail: “It’s not fair!”
Researchers call these unwritten laws of behavior “social exchange rules.” We’re not supposed to be rude or inconsiderate; we are supposed to be polite, fair, honest and caring. Don’t cut in line. Drive safely. Clean up after yourself.
“We can’t have successful interactions in relationships, mutually beneficial to both people involved, if one person violates these rules,” says Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke and lead author of the study. “And we can’t have a beneficial society if we can’t trust each other not to lie, not to be unethical, not to watch out for our general well-being.”
The feelings that linger after an angry outburst usually make the person who exploded feel worse. David Katz, 38, founder of a social-network start-up in Toronto, was walking a friend’s elderly Shih Tzu recently when a well-dressed man, typing on his BlackBerry, nearly stepped on the dog.
Mr. Katz knocked the phone out of the man’s hand and told him to watch where he was going. The two men swore at each other. The man with the BlackBerry said, “What’s your problem? It’s just a dog.” Mr. Katz threw the man against a parked van and said if he saw him again, they would “have issues.”
“I’m not proud of how I handled the situation,” Mr. Katz says. He does often see the man in his neighborhood, and they each look at the ground without acknowledging the other. “It’s really awkward,” he says.
I am ashamed to admit that I once became so worked up, after a long time on the phone with a help desk trying to get my laptop unlocked, that I began to bleat over and over, “This is unacceptable!” The kind and exceedingly patient woman on the phone with me said, “Madam, please, can you breathe? May you take a glass of water?”
Dr. Leary at Duke decided to study people’s overreactions to inconsequential events several years ago, after he witnessed the Pickle Incident. He was at a fast-food restaurant and saw a man in a business suit march up to the counter, throw his hamburger down and yell: “Why is there a pickle on my sandwich?” Loudly, he said he would have the counter clerk fired because she was “too stupid” to work there. The clerk looked as if she would cry. Another employee handed the customer a new hamburger, and he left.
The scene made Dr. Leary think there must be something critically important about unwritten social rules if we feel so deeply violated that we need to let the world know when someone breaks one. “It’s not the pickle,” says Dr. Leary. “It’s that you are doing something that makes me not trust you, that you may harm or disadvantage me because you are not playing by the rules.”
Often both parties perceive they have been wronged. Michelle Tennant, 43, chief creative officer for a Saluda, N.C., publicity firm, was waiting at a “Line Forms Here” sign at a Barnes & Noble when a clerk signaled for her to step forward. Right then, a woman who had been waiting four registers away snapped, “Hey! The line forms here!” Ms. Tennant pointed out the sign. The woman, with a young daughter in tow, bellowed, “That’s right. I was standing in the wrong place and so what? Now I’m checking out. Get over it!” Ms. Tennant moved to the next register, where she and the clerk rolled their eyes about the other woman’s behavior. Meanwhile, the woman kept yelling, “Get OVER it! I’m checking out before you!”
Experts advise people who are prone to outbursts to recognize the behavior, then learn to be “personal scientists,” identify “triggers” and work on changing their response. Hate slow drivers? Leave for work earlier, so you’ll be less rushed. Or practice anger management. Breathe and count to 10. Think of something pleasant. Remind yourself that tantrums aren’t worth it and if you have one you will probably feel worse. “You can’t avoid the noxious stimuli of life,” says Stephen C. Josephson, a clinical psychologist and faculty member at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. “You need to not respond to every provocation.”
In the Duke study, Dr. Leary asked 200 people in romantic relationships to think of something their partner does that is annoying or upsetting but fairly inconsequential. Then he asked them to rate the degree to which the behavior affected their lives—involving money, job or overall happiness—and the degree to which it seemed unfair, rude, selfish, disrespectful or otherwise violated social-exchange rules.
He found that, regardless of gender or personality, everyone could name something that drove them over the edge, although people who were more “rule-bound” tended to be more upset. Social-exchange rule violations had a 30% greater effect on the magnitude of a person’s anger than the amount of tangible harm the person felt had been done, he concluded. In an earlier study, he found a third of the time, people who overreacted to a small annoyance said it was the last straw in a string of events.
Jonathan Yarmis was pulling into a shopping mall one afternoon, and he cut off a guy driving a dual-cab pickup truck. Mr. Yarmis pulled into his parking spot, and the truck came to a stop right behind his car. “Never a good sign,” says Mr. Yarmis, 57, a technology-industry analyst in Stamford, Conn.
The irate driver, a large man, yelled, “What do you think you are, a race car driver?” Mr. Yarmis, who has driven in several amateur auto races, replied: “Yes, as a matter of fact, I am.” The man seemed taken aback but replied, “Well, you’re still an a—,” to which Mr. Yarmis replied: “You’re right about that, too.”
“He laughed, I laughed—and we actually had lunch together,” says. Mr. Yarmis. “My treat.”
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Swings are like life, they have their ups and downs, their backs and forth’s, some times they twist out of balance, they may not always be smooth as we hope, there is not always stable foot when we touch the ground, there are many factors that are beyond our control, like the length of the ropes, the strength of the breeze, or the pressure applied by the pusher, the more we swing, the better we become and easier it is to manage, but swings have a habit of settling down, losing their upward motion and centering themselves even if we do nothing at all.
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