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Getting Control of Anger and other Emotions

After discovering a partner's affair, the strong emotions often take over and dictate our actions—even when we try to control them. This can feel overwhelming and lead to feeling there's no way to either understand or change this pattern. However, it is possible to understand why it's so hard to get control of our emotions—which, in turn, may help make it possible to actually succeed in getting control of them.

So I thought it might be helpful to share some information from a very long article I recently read in a magazine for people in the "helping professions" that explains why we have this internal struggle between our emotions and our thinking brain. While most of it is quite technical and biologically-based, it does offer some insight into why you may feel "out of control"—and, more important, what you can do to deal with those feelings, instead of just giving in to them.

Here are some key ideas—based on excerpts from the article:

"The Emotional Imperative" by Brent Atkinson, Ph.D.

Understanding Strong Emotions

"Neuroscientists…recently discovered a brain pathway that acts as a supersonic express route to the brain's emotional centers. This neural back alley (which appears to be reserved for emotional emergencies) bypasses the neocortex entirely, routing information from the thalamus directly to the "amygdala," a tiny structure in the limbic system that has been identified as the brain's emotional alarm center. The amygdala scans the information for potential danger: 'Is this bad? Could it hurt me?'

"Neuroscientists believe that in most instances, the amygdala makes its snap judgments based on being the repository of emotional memory. Stress seems to increase the functioning of the amygdala, kicking it into overdrive, thereby facilitating extremely potent learned fear. If the information registers as dangerous, the amygdala broadcasts a distress signal to the entire brain, which, in turn, triggers a cascade of physiological responses—from a speeded-up heart rate to jacked-up blood pressure to mobilized muscles to release of the 'fight or flight' hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline.

"If the amygdala's original purpose was to act as our emergency alert system, leaping into action in response to life-or-death threats facing our ancestors, it is apt to activate with particular vigor in our intimate partnerships, which are so thoroughly tangled in primal need. Frequent, nasty arguments eventually cause both partners to develop a kind of bioemotional hypersensitivity to each other. In this state, you react to your spouse like an animal conditioned to fear a shock whenever it sees the color red.

"The amygdala-triggered emotional information overwhelms logic and judgment. As a result, your emotion-flooded thoughts about the situation are apt to feel entirely accurate and justifiable. Understanding this neural takeover isn't just some kind of intellectual exercise; people can use this understanding to arm ourselves against future cranial abductions. So we need to move from a connection-breaking circuit, such as fear or anger, to one that promotes emotional intimacy.

What You Can Do About The Emotions

"The left prefrontal lobes, the wedge of neocortex located just behind the forehead, play a critical role in moderating emotional reactivity. While this sector of the brain may not keep the amygdala from spazzing out in the first place, it is able to reduce the longevity and intensity of neural hijackings and thereby limit the fallout.

"It's necessary to learn to recognize the feelings that accompany the emotional state. Tightened muscles and a sick sensation in the gut, for example, typically accompany fear, while rage is characterized by an upsurge in aggressive energy and increased body temperature. Learning to readily identify an 'emergency' brain state via its characteristic physiological signals is the first, crucial step—because brain studies suggest that the moment you become aware of your internal state, you activate the prefrontal lobes, which in turn, can begin to moderate your response. So it's important to try to notice any changes happening in the body and intensely focus on the bodily changes rather than on the thoughts that trigger them.

"The next step is to support the effort of the 'thinking brain' to consult with the inner defenders of the 'emotional brain' about the possibility of letting down its guard. Since the hair-trigger defense system of the emotional brain is such that for many couples, learning to regulate brain states is all but impossible in each other's presence, it may be necessary to be alone in order to calm down long enough to do the kind of quiet, deeply focused work that is necessary to allow an emotional system to shift.

"Even in the midst of a highly-charged emotional reaction, it's possible to shift from a fearful withdrawal or a rage-filled action to an empathetic state. Little by little, the brain moves more toward 'comforting,' thereby reducing the power of the 'disturbing' emotions.

"All this talk of neural circuitry and the amygdala may seem distastefully cold for a phenomenon as warm-blooded as emotion. But while our rational brains are potent, indispensable human equipment, they can only guide us to safety if we acknowledge the primeval survival responses that still lurk in the neural wiring of ALL mammals, including the proudly cerebral human."

(end of excerpts from Brent Atkinson's article)

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