Anger Turned Inward

It may surprise a good number of people who know me that I anger easily, because I don’t show it. Some time ago, when I was very young, I learned the wrong lesson about anger. I thought it wasn’t okay to display my anger. With no outlet, it turned inward and fueled my adolescent depression.

It find it hard to get angry at other people. I can generally put any individual out of my mind so they no longer bother me, but the anger remains and festers. Add onto the anger a heaping dollup of shame, and the depressive mix is ready to bake, rise, and consume me.

Anger is one of the oddest human emotions. It feels as if your burning from the inside, and every person reading has had at least one angry episode where you could barely string more than a few thoughts together. Strange that we would evolve an emotional mechanism that decreases rational responses. One would think anger would be the first emotion to go via natural selection, and yet it persists. Why?

I used to read Animorphs as a child. A series where teenagers earn the ability to morph into any animal that they touch. I would fantasize about being able to transform into a tiger or an eagle. Powerful, fast, with sharp claws. Then I’d think it probably was good that I did not have tusks or talons because I might use them to lethal effect while in a rage.

I think we get so angry as a counterpoint to how un-lethal we can be toward one another. It takes a good amount of effort to substantially injure another human. Compared to most animals we lack the means to lash out physically without hurting our own bodies. Absent seriously sharp claws or teeth, we are left with cutting words and a burning fire in our chest.

Depressives turn anger against themselves. We rage against the person we hate the most. It is strange being so angry at me when I’ve known myself the longest and I can never escape myself. As if I had a conjoined twin that was a total dick to me all the time. I’ve hurled insults against myself, and beat myself down with every hurtful invective that you can imagine. The Buddha is credited with stating:

“Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

The depressive drinks a double dose of poison with every episode. It’s draining physically as the body has to wage a double battle against anger and sadness. If I’ve learned anything in my times in treatment it is to allow anger to burn away in the moment, and not to hold onto it, lest it consumes me.

We Move Too Fast For Our Brains

From an evolutionary perspective, it is always better to perceive a foreign stimulus as dangerous unless proven otherwise. Following this rule is cautious, and the slow way is often the safest way.

Imagine how disorienting it would be for one of our prehistoric ancestors to be placed in a car, a train, or worse, an airplane. In the car, s/he would suddenly find herself moving as fast if not faster than a gazelle. In a train, the landscape would whip by with such speed as to frighten her/him into shock. In a plane, looking out the window to 30,000 feet of nothingness; our poor ancestor might just die of fright,

We live with godlike technology, but we have stone age brains with pituitary glands sized for a life on the African prairie. Not for life traveling above the clouds,

Is it any wonder why some of us experience acute anxiety while traveling faster than our own two feet, or atop an animal’s four? I’ve had panic attacks in cars, trains, and planes. Here’s what has worked for me:

  • If driving, pull over and stop the car. Turn the warning lights on and put on some calming music. Panic attacks do not last long, like a flame extinguishing due to lack of oxygen, when the offending stimulus is removed, the panic attack will burn out faster.

  • If a passenger in a car, move your attention to what is inside the car only. Read the safety warning on the visor shade. Marvel at the Glade air freshener stuck to an air vent. Become curious about the contours of the dashboard. You may want to close your eyes, resist this, a panic attack is due to too much external stimuli, but if you remove sight your body is still moving faster than your brain can notice and the fear will remain. Instead, try to notice all the mundane items in your immediate environment. By focusing your attention on the internal environment of the car, you’ll smother any remaining panic.

  • If traveling by train, take care to watch the train start moving from your seat. Let your brain follow the increase in speed by watching the landscape blur as the train picks up speed. Visualize yourself running next to the train. You are conning your brain so it believes it is going that quickly on its own. Do this for a few minutes and then turn to another distraction: a book, a movie, or music. If you feel panic increasing, repeat the exercise,

  • If in an airplane, you have two things going for you. You’re moving faster than you can intuitively process and you are higher than your brain has evolved for. You may think these are disadvantages; they could be, and for the same reasons you can take advantage of them to reduce panic. First, do not get a window seat. Aim for an isle. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the internal layout of the plane. Note your closest emergency exit. Now, strike up conversation with someone, anyone. This will distract you brain and put it in socializing mode. As social beings, we are most at ease when connected to other humans. One of the quickest way to get out of any potential anxiety inducing situation is to speak to other humans. If frightened about speaking to strangers, call a family member or friend. It’s a simple, but terrifically effective hack to get your brain out of a pre-panic state.

  • Across all mode of travel, as soon as you sit down and buckle up, perform three rounds of circle breathing. Inhale for a count of 4, hold fill for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, hold empty for a count of 4, repeat. If you cannot manage that, lessen the counts but try to exhale for longer than you inhale. This engages your parasympathetic nervous system. It is your rest and digest system, which turns on when you are relaxed. Panic has a much harder time attaching to a relaxed mind. Stack the deck by circle breathing before any situation you feel may induce a sense of panic.

You may have noticed some overlap in the techniques described. Being human is messy, what works in one situation may work in all or none of the others, and it’s a matter of trial and error to find what works best for you. Give these a go the next time you travel, and let me know how your trip was.

Impulse Control

“As for impulsiveness, a volume could be written about the disastrous consequences of this symptom. It has ruined many a business, many a marriage, and many a life.”

- Karl Menninger

Before I turned twenty-five I had:

  • Committed early to college to play lacrosse

  • Blew all of my money skydiving

  • Changed my major multiple times

  • Enlisted in the Marine Corps

  • Moved into an apartment without steady income

  • Attempted suicide three times

I was impulsive, and I was young. My prefrontal cortex was still developing.

In fact, some research indicates that, “the frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying ‘executive functions’ such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life” (Johnson, Blum, & Giedd).

Kids, I get to call them that now that I’m thirty, do not have the mental hardware to deeply consider anything beyond their immediate future.

Many adults look at the behavior of adolescents with bemused concern. Surprised at what we consider silly behavior, we ask: “don’t they think about the consequences?” They do! Just not like adults with fully developed frontal lobes.

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Kids, for the most part, have a dial-up connection to their impulse control center. Adults have a 4G connection. It is no wonder that young people will think through a decision, experience slow loading times, and decide to do what they want.

The lack of impulse control may be why we see that, “suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in the world for those aged 15-24 years.”

15-24. Ages where a young person goes through at least three different learning environments, experiences vast changes to their bodies, simultaneously juggles youth and adult personas, and, as if to add more to their plate, every adult asks what they plan to do with the rest of their life.

Add in the potential for bullying, social isolation, poverty, physical and sexual abuse, mediocre parenting, poor parenting, or no parenting, and you can see that kids, despite our adult objections to the contrary, do not have it easy. To say otherwise demeans them, and calls into question the validity of our own growing pains.

Are you worried about your child, but do not know where to start? The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has an excellent list of resources that will help: https://afsp.org/campaigns/talk-about-mental-health-awareness-month/teens-and-suicide-what-parents-should-know/