Do me a favor – take a few deep breaths, get as calm as you possibly can. Get a sense of how hard your heart is beating and any other body sensations you can identify. Got it?
Now I want you to think about a time you’ve been extremely angry or frightened. Remember the circumstances, the sights, the sounds, the smells. Close your eyes – picture everything you can about this experience.
Did your heart rate change? Are you sweating? Are your lips pursed? Fists clenched? Do you have a desire to escape? Are there words you’d like to throw around? If you notice no change during this visualization, can you at least remember what it might have been like during the actual experience?
I just finished reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Here he’s quoting a scientist who studied what happens to us when we are angry or frightened:
“’At 175 [beats per minute], we begin to see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing …. The forebrain shuts down, and the mid-brain—the part of your brain that is the same as your dog’s …. – reaches up and hijacks the forebrain. Have you ever tried to have a discussion with an angry or frightened human being? You can’t do it …. You might as well try to argue with your dog.’”Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (based on a study by Dave Grossman, the author of “On Killing”)
I almost feel like I don’t need to write any more. This quote, this study, liberated me. I’m not saying it liberated me to say or react any way the mood strikes. I am not, after all, my dog. But I do feel liberated that my reactions and my seeming irrationality are normal – scientifically proven. (I can’t wait for my husband to read this one.)
If I begin to pay attention to what my body is telling me – intentionally listen to my own self – then I can immediately put into action strategies to lower the blood pressure or the heart rate. I can deep breathe, I can leave the environment for a bit, I can pace or take a walk.
And, if I don’t recognize my body’s messages and therefore react like a dog, then I can forgive myself. I can acknowledge the truth of the situation – and once calm, I can revisit, revise, repair.
I can also share this research with the people in my life with whom I’m likely to engage in conflict – my husband, my children, my dearest friends. We can help each other.
Just as you pictured yourself angry or frightened, now take a few seconds to picture someone you are close to when they are angry. Can you see the physical evidence that their forebrain has been hijacked? Did the face turn red? Do you see a bit of foam at the mouth? Nose flaring?
When someone is on the verge of 175 heartbeats per minutes, there is evidence – we can see the person tense or start to sweat or maybe even shake. My daughter used to say that I turn blue. She was probably more right than she realized.
As soon as we see those physical responses, we know to back off and help that person strategize ways to calm down (or, at the very least, we know to wait and not try to argue with a dog). If we’re parents, we can help our children “see” their bodies responses and strategize ways to relax. I can only imagine how much better my life would have been if I’d learned this lesson earlier!
Another way this has liberated me is that I can be more forgiving. When someone “attacks” me – I can remind myself that they are in the “dog” brain.
I highly recommend Blink to anyone – Gladwell distills fascinating information in a way that is accessible to anyone.
In April 2012 I had a mental breakdown. The real thing. I have about 36 hours that I don’t remember....