Ever walked out of a heated interaction with someone and said to yourself, "Wow, who was I back there?!"
I know I have. Hulk mode: ON!
Here's the thing we often don't understand about these kind of outbursts that catch us, the ones having them, by surprise:
Anger is a physiological response.
The after-effects can sometimes leave us feeling alienated from others, ourselves and feeling generally disempowered in our personal and professional relationships.
We can sometimes wonder what is wrong with us…
I have good news - there is nothing wrong with you. Our emotional states are controlled by the nervous system. One of the nervous system's main tasks is to regulate the internal environment of the organism, bringing it back to a state of balance. It carries out this process by responding to the environment, both internal and external.
Our conscious awareness over this process is generally quite limited, especially where strong emotions are concerned. We just experience an emotion (i.e. a physiological experience) and are then we moved to say/do/be something at a particular point in time. We don’t generally follow that energy back in advance and identify the true causal factor(s) in the moment to think about whether we are reacting appropriately.
Actually, doing that would completely undermine the magnificence of the emotional process, which allows us to respond to our environments efficiently. Anger is a really normal and essential emotion to be able to have access to.
Anger is not wrong.
The issue arises when our wiring gets a bit mixed up, causing us to be overstimulated by the cocktail of stress hormones, namely adrenaline and cortisol, triggered by our nervous system. Life might present a threat that the objective person might put at 2/10, but perhaps the nervous system mounts a response appropriate for a threat of 8/10. This overreaction prevents us from being able to modulate our response according to what is happening in front of us. Sometimes we can end up hurting people we care deeply about, and that feels really rough.
So why does this happen for some of us, at some time or another?
Sometimes we’re actually responding to past events that have not been fully processed on the emotional, nervous system level. Even things that happened years, or decades ago. Often we don’t even know what these events are, because they are held deep inside at a subconscious level. There may be other factors like lack of sleep, alcohol or drug use, general stress, poor diet, or lack of/too much exercise that also impact our sensitivity in the moment.
So, what can you do to shift it and take back a sense of control?
Firstly, as always, meet your experience with compassion and self-acceptance. As I said, there is nothing wrong with you, and there is nothing wrong with anger in and of itself.
If you find it hard to express your emotions in a healthy way and recognise yourself falling into frequent shame cycles around how you behave under stress, then you have a great opportunity, and some might even say a responsibility, to learn how to regulate your nervous system. And, it can happen much faster than you might think.
Self-awareness is one thing, and for some it's enough, especially where lifestyle factors play a big role. Yet it's also really important to acknowledge that due to our unique internal programming through our early and significant life experiences, some people really do not have the ability to intervene in their response when they pass a certain window of tolerance. The physiological experience is simply too strong to mindset your way out of. As such, you need to start with the experience that lives in the body. This can be done on your own to some extent, though this is an incredibly nuanced and complex topic, so your best bet to shift things is to get some support from a suitably qualified professional.
Of all the work I do with my clients, building body-based emotional literacy and co-regulating with them is probably the most important part. It's the foundation of everything else.
To help you gain some better understanding of your own nervous system at home, I’d like to share with you a resource I created.
The following handout helps you map your own body to determine whether your nervous system might be under some strain. I call this ‘Arousal awareness’.
If you recognise yourself in some of the symptoms mentioned here, there are some small things you can do at home to help you start to regulate your nervous system. Some of my favourite down-regulation exercises include walking barefoot on the grass or walking in nature, taking a shower, listening to music, and laying on my back on the floor for a few minutes. Another surprisingly effective one is flossing your teeth. Try being mad and flossing your teeth at the same time - I’d like to hear from you if you make it through your whole mouth before you experience a shift in mood, because I sure can’t!
I’ve said a lot in this email, so if you feel like it’s too much to take in, let it go and flag this to come back to again another day. If you have any questions on anything I’ve shared, which is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mind-body connection and somatic work, I am always enthusiastic to receive your reply.
We are all magnificent and flawed people, here having a human experience.
It is my mission to help you understand yourself better so that you can live a more empowered, meaningful life, regardless of whatever flaws you might perceive in yourself. Understanding often precedes compassion, and that’s how I’d like to invite you to meet yourself whenever you’re in the energy of self enquiry. Actually, I’d like you to meet yourself there always, and I am also a realist!
Here’s to learning to regulate ourselves, and also to learning to co-regulate so we can live more fully, together. I know regulated Anne is much more in balance, considerate and kinder than the she-hulk who tends to come out when she’s not taking good care of herself and making sure her nervous system is happy. Time for you to experiment with this idea too?
Thank you for your time and attention here. I value it immensely.
Happy Wellness Wednesday.
What will you do for your wellness today... perhaps try out some of these down-regulation ideas?