It has often been said to me by clients “I can’t control my anger and it hurts the people I love”. Out of control anger is out of control fear or Anxiety. Everyone has some Anxiety. If it weren’t for Anxiety you would forget to look before you crossed the road. If you imagine your Anxiety score as rating between 0 and 100 then 10 would likely be the lowest you would be, unless you’re dead or in a coma. In moderation Anxiety is a good thing as it helps protect us from harm. If you’re crossing the road and a bus is coming towards you, you don’t have to stop and think “what should I do”, chemicals in your brain react in a split second, your “flight/fight/freeze” instinct triggers and you hopefully get out of the way. However, some people who have had a lot of trauma in their past freeze also at additional times of perceived danger.
Our brain is very powerful and always believes it is working in our best interest, but sometimes the processes become a little crazy - not us, the processes in our brain. It has been proven using MRI machines in many research studies that the amygdala, an almond shaped part of the brain towards the back, controls and releases stress chemicals when we have a thought that we may be in some danger, real or imagined (see the end of the book for resources or my website freemindspsychology.com.au).
The fact that our brains haven't evolved much in thousands of years means that the chemical signal for "Help! A lion is chasing me, I'm about to die” is the same as "I just opened a huge bill I didn't budget for, I'm in trouble!". It's just the volume of chemicals that is different. But why do some people cope, and others fall apart? The answer has to do with our past experiences and our coping skills. Our brains have a protective system call a Set Point which works to keep us safe by bringing levels of chemicals that have risen abnormally high back down to the base line. If you think of the range of these chemicals as going from zero to a hundred, no-one is ever zero, baseline is about ten. As stated previously we need some Anxiety.
The trouble for some people is that if they have had traumatic events in their life, and we all have. Traumatic experiences, abusive experiences or abusive interactions are in this book defined as "Any interaction that is less than nurturing". Everyone reacts to situations or interactions differently depending on their past experiences and their beliefs about themselves and the world.
In today's world the trauma or upset which causes elevated levels of stress Hormones doesn't immediately decrease. Depending on the cause it could take weeks or months. This can result in a resetting of the set point, perhaps to 40 or 50, depending on what is happening, and you stay there because the stress has gone on for so long. Research cited by Neuroscientist Dr Sara Lazar, in her TEDx talk on meditation and how it can change brain structure, found that stress enlarges the Amygdala and it stays enlarged unless you do something to reverse it. As time goes on and you experience more stressors, your resting set point has crept up to 90 even though you think you're calm. The web address is in the Resources section.
Once this happens even an upset such as "I can't find my car keys" or “someone’s given me a strange look” is enough to send our stress levels up to 100. 100 for the Amygdala is “panic stations!”, “serious danger!”, “something bad is happening!”. The flight/fight response is activated, and we react by yelling and screaming, crying, shutting down, running away or any number of other extreme responses which later, when we have calmed down, seems like an overreaction. This explains why we can have meltdowns even when we want to be calm and then we beat ourselves up later for reacting the way we did.
If Anxiety extends for too long it can also cause physical problems. A physical result of stress is that it causes blood that is not absolutely necessary to keep our internal organs functioning to be sent to the muscles needed for the flight/fight/freeze response. This has the effect of shutting down the digestive system so that we don’t feel hungry. If we don’t eat for a while or miss too many meals, our brain starts to complain. The brain uses about 80% of the glucose in the body to keep it functioning, so it sends the message “I NEED SUGAR”. We then tend to grab something that turns into sugar in our body quickly such as bread, biscuits or junk food. So, then our brain relaxes for a moment because it’s been fed. But, because these foods are so addictive, we don’t just eat the right amount, we eat the whole packet. As the brain has become overloaded with sugar it tries to compensate by creating extra insulin. The insulin copes so well that we end up feeling like we need more sugar. This can be the start of Insulin Resistance which can be the precursor to Diabetes. I usually suggest to clients that if they find this is happening to them to eat some sort of protein instead of carbohydrate as protein gets absorbed slowly so stops the cycle of sugar spikes and lows.
The good news is there are processes that can change brain chemistry, so we can better cope with stress and Anxiety and rewire our brains.