I met some remarkable people working as a therapist in a hospital psychiatric ward. One of the most memorable was a Vietnam veteran who flew into rages. He’d lost his lower left leg in battle. But the war or being severely injured were not what made him rageful. He had always raged, even as a child. His father raged as well.
His wife was the main target of his rages. He would become uncontrollably angry at the smallest of things like forgetting where she left her keys, or spilling a beverage . . . until he learned the “1/4 second secret” to controlling unwanted anger.
To understand the 1/4 of a second secret you need to understand the fight or flight reaction.
We have an ever vigilant watchdog, a small almond shaped organ in our midbrain called the amygdala (amygdala from the Greek word for almond) that looks out for us 24/7 and alerts us to any POSSIBLE threat.
When our brain receives a threat-cue, sounds, sights, smells, touches or even our imagination, our brain wants FAST action. No waiting around for a sign of safety, no thinking things through just FLEE or stay and FIGHT (there is also a “freeze” response but that’s another post).
Our amygdala floods the cells in our body with neurochemical signals to increase blood pressure, raise heart rate, send blood away from major organs to your muscles, constrict capillaries near the skin, increase breathing, and tamper down anything that isn’t crucial to fight or flee for survival.
Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t discriminate between real threats, imagined threats, conditioned or potential threats. That’s why things that are, in reality, not threatening can become threat-cues.
Luckily, many people tend to go with flight more easily than fight. But for those whose brain directs them to fight here’s the “1/4 second secret” that stopped the vet’s rages:
The thinking part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, can STOP the fight or flight response. We have 1/4 of a second to interrupt the signal from the threatening stimuli (sounds, sights, smells, touches or our imagination). In that 1/4 split second tell the amygdala “Stop” or “I’m safe” and take a deep breath.
If we don’t “catch it” in 1/4 of a second a neurochemical cascade will flood our cells. Once the cells are flooded it takes 15 – 20 minutes for the neurochemicals to metabolize out of our body (provided no new information saying the threat continues to exist is received).
This is what the vet learned to do:
- First, he identified the triggers that sent him into a rage.
- Second, when he anticipated a trigger he used his pre-frontal cortex to say “stop” to the amygdala.
- Third, if he failed to anticipate the trigger and felt the stress response building he would take a 20 minute walk to speed up metabolizing out the stress response.