Contained Burn or Out of Control?

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I was hunting in the eye drop section of my local Ride-Aid recently when I heard a voice from the prescription counter bellowing, “You’re telling me I’ve got to drive all the way back to f-bombing Huntington Beach to get the prescription!? You can’t just call someone over there at the office? That’s it!  I’ll never come in here again.”

The diatribe continued for a few more minutes, as other shoppers trained their attention on the pharmacy. The embarrassed wife crept behind her angry husband, and surely wished to become invisible.

Because the words came from a large-ish man,  the thundering outburst lurked right at the edge of physical assault. I think some customers wondered if he’d throw something or even sock the offending pharmacist. I was glad to see him finally exit, and made a note to self to temporarily stay away from Huntington Beach.

I thought I’d just witnessed someone, totally unlike myself and other civilized people, who went off in front of a couple dozen strangers because he didn’t get what he wanted. But thinking about it later, I realized that, although the fellow obviously had an unchecked rage attack, the mechanisms for his outburst weren’t too different from the daily excursions we all make into the world of ANGRY, whether it’s to the region of mildly miffed or the territory of seriously seething.

Events which trigger an anger response do so via the “old brain” and completely bypass the “new brain,” known as the cerebral cortex, the thinking and word-forming part of the brain. The old brain is larger, wily and powerful, and was of great use in keeping us safe when we were in danger of being overpowered by animals during our stint as hunter-gatherers. It’s responsible for a chemical connection to the body via, among other things, its activation of the adrenal glands (fight or flight hormones) which respond by putting the body in a state of arousal.

Healthy individuals keep themselves in check by taking a moment to pause and let the thinking brain catch up and make sense of the incident which excited the limbic system. Maybe the driver who just cut you off did so intentionally, in which case an angry gesture could be an appropriate response. But if you slow yourself down (hard to do after a strong hit of adrenalin) you buy a few moments to conjecture that the other driver probably made a mistake and didn’t see you, or maybe was new to driving, which would mean you should just smile and keep going on your way.

It is this ability to create a “space” between stimulus and response which allows the cerebral cortex to form a word narrative about what occurs in the environment.

This gives credibility to my grandmother’s injunction to “count to ten” when I got angry. Ten is just the right number of seconds to allow the cerebral cortex some time to catch up and create the narrative change which can take us from anger to peace.

Countless things happen each day whose meanings can be distorted in a way which sends us reeling with rage. Even laughable grievances, like someone’s leaving the toilet seat up will, change after the “thinking brain” is given time to go from “He’s so thoughtless and doesn’t care what I think” to “His mind was elsewhere and that seat thing had nothing to do with me.”

Whether it’s the airline giving you the middle seat when you plainly asked for aisle or being transferred to customer service in a faraway country, you exercise control over the connection between your “old brain” and the furious fire it can ignite in your body.

Count to ten, ask yourself, “How important is it?” and take a long, deep breath.

Ruth Wimsatt is a clinical psychologist practicing in Newport Beach. She can be reached at (949) 222-3285 or [email protected].

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