Bad Temper = Bad Relationship
Being Hijacked by Your Hormonal Arousal Creates Relationship Problems
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Do you have trouble making sense when you argue? Do you cry, scream, get off the point and generally lose it when you fight with someone you care about? Do you make poor decisions when you are frightened? When you become overly aroused, your common sense becomes hijacked because you are flooded with hormones. Flooding happens in people who become angry or terrorized quickly. Hormones flood in to prepare the person to take care of himself in threatening situations. Adrenalin, cortisol and noradrenalin course through the bloodstream to prepare you for action. Physical signs of flooding are feeling energized, hot, shallow breathing, pounding heart and muscle tension associated with strong feelings of terror, anger, shame, guilt or fear.
One-thirtieth of a second after the flooding of hormones, an overwhelming rush of feelings pours out often leaving you incoherent. If you find yourself “losing it” when you feel threatened and go off the track of what is being discussed or say things you regret when you are in an argument, you are probably flooded. The over-the-top emotions that hijack your clear, centered mind are anger, fear, shame and terror. These strong feelings may have been learned in childhood or earlier in life when you felt out of control when you were traumatized. With determination and practice, you can learn to calm your excessive emotions by being mindful and present in the moment.
How Upset Do You Get? How Irrational Do You Become?
Rate yourself on a particular issue with this arousal scale by Judith Swack who developed the energy psychological therapy system, Healing from the Body Level Up. When you are under the sway of heady emotions-say six or above on this scale, you lose it! Your overly aroused brain starts to distort reality, you misperceive reality and your common sense goes out the window. You have been abducted by your emotions!
10+ I’m numb, frozen. I feel nothing. (This is over-the-top emotion that defensively shuts down.)
10 Discomfort is the worst it can possibly be. I can’t tolerate it. It puts me in a panic.
9 Discomfort is very close to intolerable.
8 Fear is very severe. (Anger usually has a fear lurking underneath it such as a fear of being judged, criticized, shamed, rejection, disappointed or hurt. Try to find what lies under anger.)
7 Fear is severe.
6 Fear is very uncomfortable.
5 Fear is uncomfortable, but I can tolerate it
4 Fear is noticeable and bothersome, but I can deal with it.
3 I feel a slight degree of fear, but I am totally in control.
2 I’m rather calm, quite relaxed, with no fear.
1 I’m perfectly calm-totally relaxed.
So no matter what your emotion, look for the fear that lies underneath it. As a Course in Miracles tells us, “All healing is essentially the release from fear.”
Learning Emotional Intelligence is the Most Important Thing You can Learn
Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and use your feelings to get along well in your life. Emotional intelligence has been found to be far more important that IQ, technical skills or experience in how you succeed in the business world. People who learn and use the skills of emotional intelligence deal better with their stress, anger and anxiety and have happier, more satisfying lives. They get along better with their spouses and with their families.
Feelings are necessary for healthy living. They provide signals that hold information for you. Feelings are meant to be felt, understood, explored and then released. Some people run away from their bad feelings and then the feelings stick around. All feelings are okay to have but it is what you do with them that count. Remember that it is not fair to hurt people (or yourself) with your actions. If you habitually lose your common sense because you are too angry or too frightened to think clearly, you will damage your relationships.
Feelings are for learning. You can learn a lot about yourself and how you act by watching your feelings. You can study your emotions just like you study any other subject giving you a positive life-long investment in yourself. Feelings can be appraised to determine if they are appropriate for the situation. You can learn to read the emotions of other people to know how best to deal with or negotiate with them. You can use your feelings to think ahead and problem solve to plan for a better outcome instead of just reacting. You can watch and see how you express your feelings and how your over-the-top emotions affect other people. Observe how your bad feelings and mood make you read things wrong and misjudge the other person’s intentions. Watch how your bad feelings influence you to act out and make poor decisions you wouldn’t ordinarily make.
One necessary skill of emotional intelligence is handling high emotional and physical arousal when you are upset. Learning to manage your arousal and calm yourself down when the hormones are raging is one of the most important things you can do to create a happy life. Modulating your high arousal is necessary for being in a loving relationship because you can’t accomplish fair fighting and negotiating conflict if your mind is going off the track! Keeping your cool under stressful disagreements is absolutely necessary for problem solving.
Why People React Differently to Events
People are wired differently and it is due to their different types of central nervous system. The temperament research shows that whether you become highly aroused or not in times of stress also depends on the make up of your central nervous system. People differ in their emotional reactions because they have different types of central nervous systems and hormonal reactions to events. Additionally, some people get over negative feelings faster than others. Sensitive people seem to have quicker and stronger emotional reactions than others who are more stoic and don’t react strongly to events. Some people can let things go more easily; others hold on to grudges longer.
The second reason people are different is the amount of stress, abuse, trauma and neglect they experienced as a child. Children who come from highly stressful families become overwhelmed and don’t have the opportunity to learn how to regulate their emotions. Parents whose lives are constantly in crisis don’t have the resources to teach the child how to calm down and they don’t model self-regulation to their children.
Children from dysfunctional families typically have had higher emotional and hormonal arousal during childhood. They learn to either vent the feelings out while feeling justified in doing so because it gives them a temporary release or they shut the feelings down turning them into depression or physical illness. Others react by turning to addictive behavior. Without the skills to regulate their feelings, people from dysfunctional homes often pass strife and not taking care of excessive emotions on to their children or to their partner.
A traumatic experience is one where something so bad happened that was so overwhelming that the person did not have the mental resources to understand and process it and then release it. Trauma gets stuck in the mind and body in fragments of sensory information. Terrifying visual images, auditory words and sounds are jumbled as fragments that don’t line up in a linear fashion. Traumas usually have loss or violence associated with them. Traumatized children have high arousal emotional patterns. Trauma and the resulting arousal can result in the person developing physical symptoms of illness, destructive behavior, personality disorders, character issues, addictions, phobias and continuing problems in relationships.
One early trauma pattern is feeling unresolved disappointment and other unbearable emotions. Children who experience hurt and deep disappointment early in life often feel strong emotions they cannot handle. Children who feel left out when a new baby is born or who are ignored when a parent turns to a new interest have great disappointment. Parental fighting and/or dealing with the parent’s divorce also create loss and disappointment. They feel a sinking feeling that they dislike and try to shut down by holding their breath. They learn to get angry instead to squelch the great feeling of disappointment. Later they learn that anger can become a substitute emotion when they feel guilty or ashamed — a habit that can continue throughout life.
Learn and Use Self Soothing Techniques to Maximize the Best You Can Be
Feelings and arousal patterns are energies that can be moved and transformed. Ignoring or stuffing your feelings is “out” according to current psychological research. Ranting and venting your feelings on others is out! Talking when you are overly upset can re-trigger you and is not helpful according to current brain research. What is “in” is to learn to self-soothe so that you, not your excessive emotions, are in charge! Self soothing techniques are things you do-activities, exercises and habits-to calm yourself when you are stressed or caught in unruly emotions.
Most psychological techniques work because they apply a psychological concept called Reciprocal Inhibition which means that two emotions cannot occupy the same space at the same time. You cannot feel hatred and happy at the same time. When you impose a positive emotion over a negative one, one must fall out and it usually is the negative one! Relaxation and feelings of love and good self esteem help dissolve fear and anxiety. Relaxation rules! Positive experiences turn on the pleasure centers in the brain and reduce areas that sense pain.
You can learn to work with your emotions to bring about changes in your brain! The brain is elastic and can be programmed with stress management techniques. When you are angry and add feelings of being empowered and joyful, fear, depression or anger can lessen. What a good deal-tune into the positive emotions to help counteract the negative ones!
Learn all the techniques that decrease arousal and then choose the ones that work the best for you. If one technique doesn’t help for your particular problem of the moment, try a different one. Do something-don’t just be at the mercy of your aroused brain and central nervous system. You can learn to modulate your own emotions so that they do not hijack your common sense and cause others to distance from you. Practice makes perfect when dealing with difficult emotions.
If your strong feelings don’t go away after you learn and USE these techniques, then it is time for you to get a trained professional to help you learn to modulate your emotions by getting to the root of them. When things in your life do not make sense, get a counselor or therapist who can help you sort it out. Life is too short to be confused, anxious, depressed or angry much of the time. Or to be caught in senseless arguments with loved ones. You deserve to have a happy life and if you can’t figure how to be happy on your own, get help!
Don’t be a slave to your overwhelming feelings. You have the potential for change due to the elastic nature of your brain which changes and grows when you learn new things. You can buffer yourself against poor self esteem by taking charge of how you react to what happens to you. Learn the different ways of working with your unhappy emotions. Become a collector of tools and techniques to calm yourself! It may take a lot of practicing these different techniques for you to recover from the strong grip of your bad feelings. You can train your own mind by doing these exercise that reduce high arousal.
What Works? Ways to Work with Your Uncomfortable Emotions
Stop the Psychological Defense of Projective Identification
Projection is the defense of getting upset when others do things you do not like in yourself. What you hate about yourself, you can’t stand in another person. Projective Identification is trying to unload your own bad feelings off on the person you are upset with. A common Projective Identification is called “blaming the victim.” Instead of taking responsibility for one’s own arousal pattern, the frustration and anger are projected on outward-“I’m not bad, you are bad for upsetting me.” It may get the other person to leave you alone temporarily, but you will end up with more guilt and more of a sense of “badness.” Read my article When Shame Becomes Rage on the Angries Out web site for more information.
To Cut Down on the Number and Intensity of Arguments, Agree to Disagree on Some Topics
John Gottman, the major researcher on conflict in couples, says that most arguments between couples cannot be resolved. Some topics will never be agreed upon, so you just have to agree to disagree. Make a list of topics that will never be solved between you and your partner and stop talking about them! Any topic that involves blaming the other or arguing who is the worst (or best) will always end up with tempers flaring. One couple had tremendous fights over whose relatives were the meanest-could something this emotional ever be settled? Another couple had an ongoing argument over who was more selfish. Unresolved issues of the past will typically stay unresolved unless you get into counseling. Stick to problems that can be solved! Post your “don’t go there” list on the fridge and agree not to fight about these issues.
To Avoid Acting like a Jerk, Take a Time Out
Both people in an argument must agree before hand to take a Time Out to cool down whenever either one gets flooded and says things he or she does not mean. Make a contract to separate physically until you both are in a calmer state of mind. Make the time out sign given in football to signal that you are about to “lose it” and need to take a breather. It may take ten minutes or twenty-four hours for each of you to do some of the techniques listed below to bring yourself down to a low-arousal state.
When you are flooded in the argument, say so, and then state that you need to take a break for the good of the relationship to get yourself under control. The contract between you both must be to do what is best for the relationship, not get your own irrational needs met under the influence of hormonal flooding (which usually makes you act like a jerk!). You are not leaving and to avoid the topic-you need to excuse yourself so that you do not say anything that makes things worse (and that you do not really mean.) Then find a way to gracefully excuse yourself and get away quick such as “I need to leave before I say something we both will regret.” If this is an issue that might be solved, agree to meet again to talk when you both are calmer. It’s not fair to use this Time Out procedure just to avoid problem solving.
Make this Time Out contract before the next fight-don’t try to establish it when you both are hot headed. For Time Out to work, the other partner must agree that a break is necessary so that aggression does not escalate. He or she must then take care of his or her own upset feelings using the techniques listed below and avoid following the person leaving to “make one more point” or “trying to get closure on the problem.” If you feel anxious, fearful or angry, you are responsible for taking care of your own emotions. Calming your own high arousal should be your goal here no matter what your partner does or does not do!
The Cool-Yourself-Down Techniques
The Emotional Freedom Technique
Acupressure by tapping or rubbing your body is a form of self massage that feels good. Tapping briskly on your body when you are upset gets your energy moving and helps you relax. The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) combines acupressure with counteracting negative thoughts, owning the problem and forgiving yourself. EFT helps calm down the fight or flight response by balancing your brain hemispheres. It helps desensitize triggers that make you angry or frightened and helps release strong emotions and negative thoughts. Read more at the Emotional Freedom Technique website.
Your brain activity and body rhythms are monitored through a computerized feedback program so that you learn to breathe deeply and calm arousal. Heart Math™ and The Journey to the Wild Divine™ are two examples of computer biofeedback programs you can purchase to use at home.
When you are scared, you probably contract your body and hold your breath to try to squish the feelings in order to keep from feeling bad. Pulling your body in tight and stopping your breath keeps you from getting good oxygen to deal with whatever upsets you. Whenever you are scared or angry, use your breath to make yourself strong and powerful! Your breath is your best friend! It will always be with you when you want to calm yourself down. Make your breath go down deep into your body as far as you can. Deep breathing which goes down past the rib cage into the belly helps you feel relaxed as it bring good, life-affirming oxygen into your body. Breathing helps calm the fight, flight or freeze reaction that you can go into when stressed. Deep breathing helps bring you back to where you can think more clearly and reason! Prana Breathing is helpful in connecting the right and left side of the brain by alternating holding the right nostril while breathing gently out the left one, then holding the left nostril shut while breathing out the right nostril and vice versa which calms the brain and central nervous system.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a technique for releasing old trauma and negative beliefs. This tool helps release stressful and uncomfortable emotions stored away in the body and mind. EMDR is helpful in releasing uncomfortable memories of being criticized, embarrassed and shamed by others as well as being unmotivated or stuck on certain emotionally stressful issues. Through the eyes shifting back and forth while focusing on a problem, feeling or inner body states, old repressed feelings come to the surface and are released. You will need to find a therapist who practices EMDR.
Your powerful imagination can make pictures in your mind to release unhappy experiences and bad feelings. Your subconscious mind does not know the difference between real and pretend. Sometimes you can trick it by using your imagination to make pictures in your mind to change the feeling. You can use visual symbols and rituals to release your anger, fear, sadness and other uncomfortable feelings. One common image for calming arousal is to picture yourself in a calm, quiet place in nature or a safe setting while breathing deeply.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness is keeping your attention on what is happening in the moment. You just watch how you inhale and exhale and observe the thoughts as they come and go. You calm yourself by focusing on your breath until the negative emotion leaves. Just watch the events and emotions as they come up instead of reacting to them. The focus shifts to just being the neutral observer of all events, feelings and thoughts. Meditation helps you learn to be more mindful. Stop knee-jerk reactions. Keep your mind in neutral!
Talk Your Feelings Out
Two heads can be better than one when figuring tricky things out if you have the ability to take feedback. Talking about your feelings with a safe person who can help you get a new perspective. A safe person is someone who can listen to you and take your feelings seriously and will keep your private information confidential. They can help you problem solve and figure out what to do with your problem. If you become incensed or terrified while talking or it doesn’t help solve your problems, then you may need to get a mental-health professional. All forms of therapy are not created equal and do not get equal results. If you’ve been in therapy for years or done therapy years ago, you probably have not learned the newer techniques that decrease arousal. Highly trained professionals can teach you many of these innovative techniques and others as well.
The Tapas Acupressure Technique
The Tapas Acupressure Technique (TAT) is a simple method that helps people get in touch with and release information about what is bothering them by holding certain points on the forehead and back of the neck with their fingers. You hold bladder and governing vessel acu-points at the base of the skull and near the eyebrows while focusing on an issue. With this technique, the front and back of the brain are connected and brain rhythms become more balanced as you go through steps to release your issue. To find out more, go to the TATLife website.
Cognitive Behavioral Psychology Approaches
Worries and intrusive thoughts, as well as self-angering ideas, can get a hold on your mind making you miserable. The Cognitive Behavioral techniques require you to address your ways of thinking that upset you. They help correct errors in thinking which lead your mind astray.
Self Talk statements give you a new way of looking at things to help you break into negative thoughts and errors in thinking. You can learn to be your own cheerleader and coach when you tell yourself positive words about how you want to be. See yourself becoming how you want to be. Chill Out words show you how to talk yourself down when you are upset. Remind yourself to breathe and keep your cool. Talk to yourself to become strong and resilient. Tell yourself, “I can deal with this.”
Catching and breaking into negative thoughts is a series of ideas called Thought Stoppage. You can learn to interrupt your thoughts and get back to your more positive mind and change your mood. Yelling “Stop!” or “Negative thought get out of here!” puts you in charge of your mind. Distract yourself and tell yourself “I’m not going there” gives you more control of your mind. Adding a gesture such as shrugging your shoulders or pretending to push the thought away gives added emphasis. Stop giving negative thoughts free rent in your brain!
Understand the Layers of Emotions
Sometimes feelings stack up and hide underneath each other, making it hard to understand what is going on. You can break a big feeling such as anger down to see what other emotions might be lurking underneath. There is no set pattern. Hurt and sadness might be hiding under anger. Anger might be hiding under fear and confusion. Sadness might be hiding under feelings of loss and fear. Find the emotion that is on top and work on releasing it, then ask yourself what other feelings you might have. As you address each separate emotion, the whole stack of feelings might start to shift. Keep digging until you come up with an original childhood memory that represents the bottom emotion. Then do The Emotional Freedom Technique, Eye Movement or The Tapas Acupressure Technique on how you felt as a child.
Figure Out How You Cope When You Feel Threatened
A famous saying is “It’s not what happened to you but how you coped with it that is important.” Under your deepest feeling you might find a decision of how you decided to keep yourself safe after a highly upsetting experience. Bad things happen in life. The important thing is not always what happens to you, but how you deal with it. Learning to deal with your overwhelming feelings is part of how you cope in life. Now that you are learning about the correct use of your emotions, you can learn better ways to deal with them.
When you were small, you probably tried to figure out how to keep yourself safe and keep the bad experience from happening again. You learned how to cope with threat to keep safe. You might have decided to stop risking or stop speaking out. Or you might have decided to get angry so others would back off or to get your own way. You may have tried to shrink down inside yourself and stop breathing to try to be invisible and safe. Or you may have learned to give up when things get tough. Your unhealthy defenses affect your life in many ways!
The type of coping you figured out as a child may have helped you survive back then, but now that you are older, you can learn better ways to take care of yourself. Stay present in the moment and calm your wildly swinging emotions by taking deep breaths. Taking deep breaths gives you some time to figure out what to do. You can learn better strategies than collapsing in fear, not speaking out, intellectualizing, denying what you can’t deal with or exploding in anger when you feel threatened.
Write About Your Feelings
Writing about your feelings of what happened to upset you helps get them out of your head and down on paper or on your computer. The research shows that writing about their feelings and their problems helps people feel better. Most feelings lose their potency when they are exposed to the light of day!
- To get to the feeling level, briefly describe the experience and keep writing about your feelings: “I feel….. Then I felt…. And then I felt…. Underneath that feeling, I felt….”
- To get a release from the feelings of the past, write about an earlier experience: “That reminds me of a time long ago when I felt…. And I felt…. And I felt….
- Write about the decisions you made and how your feelings about the event affected you: And I decided that I was…. Or I was not …. And then I changed …..
Consider getting a special journal so that you can write about the things that make you feel uncomfortable or upset. Or open a file on your computer to capture your surges of arousal and disruptive feelings. Keep notes about the techniques that make you feel better. Some people find that by writing and then stopping to use EFT until they feel calmer. Writing, tapping and breathing is a powerful approach for emotional release.
It’s a Tough World Out There. Make it Less Tough on Yourself!
Stop and ponder on these two questions: Who would you be now if you had learned emotional intelligence and how to handle destructive feelings when you were young? How would your life be different if you had learned to read other people and their agendas early in life? It is never too late to learn Emotional Intelligence to deal with the stressors you face! Gather all the newer psychological tools you can to help you deal with the daily grind that faces you.
Use these self-soothing approaches and use them several times a day as you go through life. With sufficient practice and determination, you can learn to modulate your emotions. You can learn to smooth them out and cope with them in age appropriate ways. If you practice observing and managing your arousal even just once a day, you will become a better person for it! It’s not enough to know these techniques-you have to do them continually to make them an instinctive habit instead of going into the arousal and stupid behavior! Practice makes permanent!
A Course in Miracles reminds us to ask ourself what our purpose in whenever we get in a disruptive situation. When you caught in high emotional arousal, which is a state of suffering, stop and think, “What do I really want here? What is my purpose?” The world is presenting itself in a form of a disturbance of some sort-perhaps a person or a situation that seems threatening. Hormonal and emotional arousal comes up. That is normal. We then have a choice to move through that aroused emotional state of consciousness and learn something and grow from it. The ultimate purpose is to gain peace. As the Course says, “I can see peace instead of this.” Peace is our final purpose in all situations.
Learning to deal effectively with your feelings is a life-long process. Using these techniques daily to reduce the arousal that comes up instantly when you are upset helps you grow emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. You can use them to become the best person you can be. You are as mature as you are able to take responsibility for our own thoughts, feelings and behavior! As I ask myself, “What better thing do I have to do with my life than do what it takes to become the best person that I can be?”
The systematic training of the mind, the cultivation of happiness, the genuine inner transformation by deliberately selecting and focusing on positive mental states and challenging negative mental states, is possible because of the structure and function of the brain. But the wiring of our brains is not static, not irrevocably fixed. Our brains are also adaptable.
– Howard Cutler and Richard Davidson – The Art of Happiness