I recently had a family in my office, here to see me about behavioral issues with their preteen daughter. They’d had a blow up just recently, and it was a pretty typical scenario. A perfect storm of miscommunication, a change in schedule, and urgent needs. By the end of the situation, both Dad and daughter were angry and yelling.
It’s not always a parent and child interaction though… Many times adults can find themselves getting triggered by a hot button topic, and get emotional very quickly. When we are in these heightened emotional states, it becomes really hard to problem solve, and we spend more time defending our own position or attacking the other than coming to any sort of a solution.
Understanding a bit of what’s going on in the brain during these times of emotional intensity can be helpful in creating a good strategy to compensate for the emotional hijacking and help us get our needs met.
We have three main areas of our brain – the brainstem, midbrain (or limbic brain), and cerebral cortex (or cerebrum). Our brainstem takes care of all of the functions that go on automatically in our bodies without our thinking of it… breathing, heart beat, etc. It is possible for us to consciously change these actions, to a degree, but our brainstem does a great job of keeping things going without outside help.
Our midbrain is where we store and process memories, and experience emotions. (As you probably guessed this is all more complex than I’ll go into here… just the basics!) We can also store emotions in our bodies as well, but that’s not the ideal situation. Experiencing and processing emotions as they occur or soon after is better.
Our cerebral cortex is the topmost part of our brain, and is where conscious action and formal thinking occurs. An especially significant area of the brain is the prefrontal cortex located in the forehead area, where we think about consequences of our actions, think of the future, and make pro-social decisions. It also plays a significant role in our attachments to others.
We want to be able to have our thinking brain, our cerebral cortex, to be online a good part of the time. It’s great to be able to set goals, follow through, and make good choices…
But all human beings sometimes get hijacked by the midbrain – the emotional brain, at times.
We’ve all experienced subtle emotions… these can provide helpful information, but many times these get ignored. If these emotions are clues to something important that needs to be addressed, and they get ignored, they don’t just go away. Sometimes we’re able to push them away, with this nagging feeling of something unresolved… and sometimes they get bigger and badder until they demand our attention.
When our emotions are more subtle, our cerebral cortexes are still accessible. But when we get really emotional, our emotional brains take over, and all action is directed by the emotions.
Children and adults experience this. And when we do, it takes some time to cool off – time to let the emotional brain calm down and the thinking brain get a chance to put in its two cents’ worth.
Many times, when we’re in the midst of an argument, we want resolution. We want to be validated, understood, heard… we want to get our way. However, if the other person is in an emotional state (which is likely, as they will probably have picked up on our emotions!) they will also be wanting the same things – to be validated from their standpoint, to be understood, to get their way.
If you find yourself in this situation, the best thing you can do to get the resolution you want, is to take some time to cool off, time to get your thinking brain back online.
Yes, you heard me right – sometimes we need to take a time out.
Here are a few tips for setting yourself up for a successful time out:
- In your close relationships, have a discussion ahead of time, letting the other person know what you are planning on doing when the situation arises. Remind them you are taking time to cool off so you can think rationally and come back and discuss things in an appropriate way, avoiding saying something you’ll later regret. Hopefully the person you care about will understand your purpose and will agree to practice with you.
- Time outs should have a specific ending. 45 minutes is a good option, although you may find you need longer or shorter for necessity’s sake. Avoid going more than a day without coming back to find resolution to the issue.
- During the time out, you will want to avoid getting stuck in thoughts about the situation. Doing this is a normal human response to a desire to solve a problem… but more often will escalate our emotions and make things worse.
- Some reflection can be helpful, but may be better done in writing. After you’ve written your position though, spend some time writing the other person’s position. If you find yourself getting more angry and defensive you will want to stop and try something different.
- Another option if the reflection turns into being stuck or escalating, is to get active. Physical activity, or an activity that forces you to focus on something else (a conversation with someone else on a completely different topic, some household activities that require your attention).
- If activity is not an option, try focused breathing. Because you’re human, your attention will wander to your thoughts (solve the problem! solve the problem!). Just notice that when it happens, and bring your attention back to your breath. This can be very effective at helping a person calm down and get their cerebral cortex back online.
- Come back and talk when the time is up. This will build trust in your relationship and increase the effectiveness of future time outs.
After you’ve had a chance to get your thinking brain back online, you’ll be in a much better position to have a discussion with a better outcome. Sometimes I call this second try at a discussion a “do-over.” Allowing each other to have do-overs can be a helpful relationship tool… as long as we are requesting a do-over for ourselves, not the other person.
The only person we have full control over is ourselves, so it’s important to be aware of our own emotional state, when we need a time out, and realize that a request for a do-over is just that… a request. We need to allow the other person in the relationship the chance to have accountability for themselves, including setting their own limits and boundaries with do-overs.
Managing our own emotions is not easy – whether we’re 12 or 52! – but it is possible to become better at it with awareness, choice, and intention.
Some of my first therapist-in-training as a student was with a group for perpetrators of domestic violence. I really enjoyed these groups, and hopefully the clients did too.
All of us have been angry at times, so the information shared in these groups was something most of us could relate to.
One of the things we taught in this class was that anger was not a “primary emotion”. Meaning there is typically another emotion underlying the anger (i.e. embarrassment, fear, anxiety, jealousy, etc.) I say “typically” for a reason. In class we taught that there was ALWAYS something underlying the anger, and it was our job to figure out what was the underlying emotion and then deal with that. This is still very valuable information, but I also felt that it was a little too absolute. I had been angry plenty in my life. I don’t know why I’d been angry so often at this point in my life (I’ve found over time that it has decreased significantly). I have a distinct memory of driving down a particular road – at that time there were no other cars on the road. I hadn’t been thinking of anything specific, and didn’t have anything major going on in my life – but I noticed that I just felt angry. As I recognized the feeling, it was followed by a question, “WHY???” I didn’t have an answer.
I offer clients the option of working session by session, or working in a program format. I prefer to work in a program format, to organize and maximize my efforts to serve you best, but I go by client preferences in this regard.
My goal is to help you develop some good habits that you can keep going after your therapy experience, and that you will leave feeling confident in your ability to calm yourself!
Everyone has their own complex story of anger. During your initial phone consultation we’ll look at your history and I’ll give you some tools you can use right away to deal with anger. As we spend time together in therapy we will fine tune assignments and tailor methods to best suit your personal needs to overcome your challenges. If you are looking for help in overcoming anger, please Schedule an Appointment with me today.