Healthy Mindful Living - Centered Moment
Mindfully Working with an Angry Brain
By Lindsay Leimbach
Do I have an angry brain? At times I sure do, I have a brain that will blow up like a volcano. I do not have an angry brain all the time, just some of the time. It can happen when my teenage boys forget to do the chores, even when I have left a reminder note on the kitchen table. Or when my cell phone bill is twice as high as usual and no one can explain how it happened. You know the irritating life stuff that we all face.
Anger is a normal response of the brain when a situation appears threatening. It is a primary emotion that is well established at birth. Yes, it is actually a good thing. It is our internal radar that screams “life threatening situation! Be prepared to fight, defend, and conquer”. It serves all animals well in protecting their lives, families, and territory. However, the issue is that this emotion can be triggered over chores not being completed or a phone bill. I do not need the flight/ fight response to be activated to conquer my teenage children or the cell phone service representative.
Actually I have found that I make things worse when trying to solve an issue with an angry brain. I evaluate incoming information incorrectly, I cannot truly understand another’s point of view, I over react, and often say something off topic that just escalates the anger. I also have found that my angry brain is contagious. It seems that when I let it leak out, others catch it and it multiplies. Then I don’t just have one angry brain but an epidemic of angry brains on my hands. The epidemic creates misery for everyone. I have chosen to make sure that the epidemic of angry brains will not start with me. I know anger is a normal emotion that I will continue to have. I am okay with this. Through Mindful Living I have learned how to work with my angry brain instead of fighting it. I am able to listen to the warning signs that my brain is telling me, and still not feel like a need to fight and conquer my family or the service representative.
Mindful Living has made me aware that stuff happens, good stuff and bad stuff. Things are always happening. It is what life’s about. Things change every moment. I have realized that if I want to be a positive influence on my own life, I need to start living my life in the present moment. To notice what is happening in my own thinking, moment by moment. I used to be frantic in my thinking. I was completely caught up in worry of past or anxiety of the future. I was not even aware that I was becoming angry until my volcano blew. Those around me were often as shocked as I was to the amount of anger that possessed me. I have learned through Mindful Awareness of my feelings and thoughts what causes and promotes my anger: mostly when I am over tired, stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed. I have learned there are other common causes that promote anger: physical or emotional trauma, chemical or biological issues with the brain, alcohol and drug abuse, and learned behaviors through families and cultures.
I now realize that I have some well-established habits that I slide right into when I get angry. I am trained to a response just like Pavlov’s dog that starts to salivate when he hears the dinner bell. For example, when I feel my family is taking me for granted, then the angry bell rings. I am not salivating, I am fuming. This negative reaction does nothing to make the situation better, and I never feel better. My fuming actually makes things worse. I found that “what you think about you bring about”. As I feel angry and taken for granted, I am connecting neurons in my mind by thinking to myself “I am angry”, “no one cares”, “I am forgotten”. The pathways become deeper in my thinking and are reinforced by strong emotion. Then my brain looks for outside events that support these negative pathways. I find myself on the “poor me” angry loop that I cannot jump off. The good news is that I have learned the brain has neuroplasticity. In short, the brain is always changing: neural networks are building and reinforced with what you think about and other neural networks are falling apart when they are not being used. I now realize I can be the master builder of my own brain!
Mindfulness has taught me that I can jump off the loop of past angry behaviors and responses anytime I choose through awareness in the present moment. It sounds easy. It is easy to say, but it takes practice, practice, practice to execute. Mindful Living is not one skill. Rather, it is a way of being. It requires numerous skills and techniques to live mindfully. These aids help you stay in the present moment without judgment. Two Mindful Living tools that have worked for me when dealing with my angry brain are:
Event Happens + Being Aware of Thinking +Skillful Response = Positive Outcome
Events happen, I am not surprised. Some of these events bring forth the emotion of anger. That is okay. I am listening to myself; I can sit with my anger. I know that feeling the anger won’t hurt me and in time I always calm down. I know that when I calm down, I can clearly judge how angry I am. I often rate my anger on a scale 1 to 10. This gives my brain some objectivity about how intensely I should react to the event. Now that I am calmer, I am ready to make a skillful response. My response is what I want the world to know and hear. I might be doing a skillfully planned battle cry as a response or maybe I need to skillfully just let it go and know stuff happens. Whatever I choose, I recognize that I am reinforcing my outlook on the situation in my mind and in the minds of others. I will mindfully implement a skillful plan of action to achieve a positive outcome. I am ending any angry brain epidemics that could have started from me.
When I am aware that anger is arising, I breathe in for the count of 4, breathe out for the count of 4, and do this for 4 times. Breathing should not be a big surprise. We instinctually tell others that are upset “catch your breath, breath, breath, breath”. Breathing at a slower rate calms the body and the brain down. The brain is able to shift out of a flight/flight response and have greater impulse control and planning ability. Being aware of what you’re thinking and feeling cannot happen if you feel your head is going to explode. Breathing slower and more deliberately will decrease your blood pressure and clear your tunnel vision. With a calmer state of mind you can achieve, “Event Happens + Being Aware of Thinking + Skillful Response = Positive Outcome”.