We’ve had some early fall thunder storms recently. It reminds me of how anger feels. There can be a brilliant flash, booming that shakes the rafters, and then calm. That’s similar to how natural anger flashes in a balanced nervous system when we need a burst of energy to act immediately.
But fight/flight reactions are also roused from energies stored in the nervous system, frozen in time, from past accumulated stress or trauma.
It can look like repeated thunder storms of irritation, when there are few clouds on the horizon. The nervous system defaults to anger with little external provocation as it attempts to replay unresolved ordeals in order to finally complete them, and feel safe again, as animals do in the wild.
With accumulated stress however, the cues come from the inside us even though the mind finds convincing evidence that others are to blame. Bullying is a good example of this type of projection.
You may have experienced this type of disconnected anger when highly charged words erupt like a volcano. Something triggered a little storm-ball of energy inside waiting patiently to fight against an unseen, even un-remembered danger.
It can feel like you are fighting an invisible enemy.
Fight or flight physiology includes the reactions listed below. They show up whether you are escaping from a grizzly bear, or sitting in a tense business meeting. If you lived this way, it is easy to see how this could make daily life a little challenging:
- Blood pressure and heart rate increase, blood sugars and fats dump into the blood stream to supply quick energy.
- Increased muscle tension provides extra strength and speed
- Cool, pale skin: Blood flow to the surface of the body reroutes to your arms, legs, brain, eyes and ears to aid self-protection. Less blood flow at the skin reduces bleeding.
- Sweating: Prevents over-heating due to the increased activation in muscles and cells.
- Dilated pupils: let more light in and improve sight.
- Digestion slows down or stops to re-route energy for self defense
- Dry mouth: saliva and stomach activity decrease as blood flow reroutes to arms, legs and brain
- Blood clotting factors increase to staunch bleeding in the event of an injury
- Vision narrows to eliminate unneeded information to sharpen focus on the tiger’s actions, or on an escape route. Also known as tunnel vision.
- Some species of cold-blooded animals change color swiftly, to camouflage themselves when in the fight/flight state
Though we may be having a heated conversation with a spouse, sitting in a tense business meeting or stuck in heavy traffic, these reflexes kick in. There’s no tiger in the room, but our nervous system acts as if there might as well be.
The fight/flight system was designed to create a burst of energy, like a thunder clap. A cheetah chases a wildebeest in a supercharged 45 second high speed chase. But in modern life, the fight/flight system can flare up for long periods of time during family stress, constant work deadlines, or pressures of school.
When we are unable to protect ourselves, the tremendous energy generated by our nervous system stays fixed in neuro-muscular patterns. The thunder never discharges. Its stored power super charges muscles, pumped up and ready to protect us. You may have seen people walking around as if they are ready to punch someone or have an intense startle response that erupts when surprised by a loud noise.
When hyper arousal lasts for hours or even years it, can harm the body and accelerate physical disease. The steady presence of stress hormones can lead to irritable bowel, panic attacks, even inflammatory disease like arthritis. Many people suffer with racing hearts, muscle tension, headaches or upset stomachs. We can also feel challenging emotions like anxiety, depression, hopelessness, frustration, fear or anger. It’s difficult to concentrate on school or work responsibilities.
Without knowing it, we live in a culture where this chronically stressful state seems normal.
Women and men’s bodies respond to stress or danger differently. Men respond with a fight response, while women’s bodies default to a flight response, turn toward others for help, or attempt to defuse the situation with the “tend and befriend” response.
A temporary fight or flight response can sharpen our cognitive ability, helping us be decisive and action oriented. But it can also make us over-reactive and touchy when it’s dialed up.
As stressors continue to warp the nervous system, the chronic fight/flight pattern of sympathetic activation takes root. We start to perceive everything as dangerous: neighbors become enemies, co-workers become threats, the driver in the car ahead of us is an idiot, the “other” political party is evil.
Even family members can turn on each other when people are in perpetual hyper alertness. The raised eyebrow, the innuendo in an email, two people talking, even the weather can be a sign that catastrophe awaits us. Our distorted thinking can make us feel like airport security personnel profiling everyone for danger.
Life can begin to feel like a series of obstacles to overcome. Even relaxation can feel risky. Burnout looms, consequences stop us in our tracks, but lucky these warning signs provide the motivation to step back and re-evaluate our priorities.
Becoming aware of the physiology of anger and the fight/flight state can lay the foundation for profound healing.
The Woman Who Made Friends with Her Thunder.
A woman came in for help after being written up on the job for one too many angry outbursts at work. She was smart, caring, and hard working. Her vision for the department energized her.
She would become disappointed and irritable with co-workers who did not share her passion and her temper would flare. She promised herself she would control her temper, but she only became stiff and tense, as she lost her confidence.
We started working together inventorying the situations that triggered her outbursts. Starting with the smallest trigger with the mildest reaction, she tracked what was happening inside with her body.
She gradually learned that the she could identify a slight tension in the back of her neck long before the anger showed up. While in the office with me, she observed with compassionate curiosity as that impulse kindled, increased in intensity like a wave rising up in anger inside her, and then receded. She was left with a small but perceptible feeling of lightness in her chest.
As she worked with more challenging triggers each visit, she developed a sense of mastery and confidence. The defensiveness dissolved as she learned to observe the body’s message that something was wrong without reacting, screaming, or punishing or even throwing things.
She started to observe her breath rather than telling her body how to breathe. She inquired about what kind of breath would give her pleasure and let the body “breathe her.” As anger loosened its grip, she noticed that her body would gradually take deeper breaths. She would yawn; her stomach would start to gurgle as the “rest and digest” part of her nervous system turned back on.
She would naturally look around, just like animals in the wild do when they have safely escaped, processed the experience and go back to living as if nothing had happened.
She found her thinking slowed down, she got more done, and even started sleeping more restfully. People started chatting with her again.
She made friends with her anger. Listened to its message and patiently witnessed its rhythms and was rewarded with more energy and clarity.
The Good News: It’s Biology not Psychology
The good news is that these fight/flight states are the result of biology. They are genetically hard wired to help us survive in a dangerous world. Now most of the dangers we face are stress based, emotional dilemmas which trigger this innate survival programming. But we can’t run for our lives, or strike down the hyena. We have to sit and be good, control ourselves and act like nothing is happening.
We can use that same biology to release these patterns, naturally and without drugs just as the client did to reclaim her power and efficacy.
Our Organic Intelligence is designed to return us to a state of relaxed readiness, where empathy connects us to each other and our world.
With a balanced, resilient nervous system, we can enjoy the flash and drama of a good thunder storm too!
If you’d like some effective support with anger patterns, give us a call. We know how to help and enjoy helping women and men heal and reclaim their healthy thunder.