It's happened to all of us: You're driving home from work, someone cuts you off and you become enraged and go after the other driver. Or, a friend, family member or even a pet dies and you can't get your balance back. Depression overwhelms you for months. Maybe you experienced a trauma -- a natural disaster, abuse or domestic violence, or a near-fatal crash -- and the numbness you felt afterward has evolved into post-traumatic stress disorder.
Extreme emotions, along with the destructive behavior that follows, can sweep over a person any time. This is a good thing -- strong emotional reactions are essential for survival. They trigger healthy defense reactions, like preparing us for fight-or-flight, slowing down the body so that the mind can recover from an emotional blow, or putting you on full alert so that you are not traumatized again.
As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, I have been treating and researching such emotions for almost 30 years. For a long time, I was baffled by them. It was a patient who admitted, "Doc, sometimes I'm afraid I'm going to lose control and hit my son. What do I do?" who made me determined to learn more. I began searching for a neurological explanation to people's behavior and out-of-control emotions. I wanted answers to such questions as:
- Why does anger trip into rage and even violence in one person but not another?
- Why are some people overcome by fear even through there is no apparent danger?
- How does depression become so overpowering that it shuts down a life?
- When do an abuse victim's healthy fears morph into PTSD?
- What are the emotions that turn someone into a predator or stalker?
The answers came from two sources -- patients with a wide range of emotional problems and findings through my career as a neuroscience researcher, along with those of other researchers. My patients taught me about how extreme emotions and behavior can derail a life and research provided insights into how the brain processes emotions. It turns out that there is an area deep in the brain that functions like a switch for emotions and behavior. My new book, Untangling the Mind, explains how this switch works and gives people insights and ideas for learning how to control it.
Called the "periaqueductal gray" or PAG, the switch can be flipped on at the right time or wrong time. It's arranged into four clusters of neurons, each organizing a particular emotion and behavior. I think of these clusters as buttons. An anger button triggers aggressive or fighting behavior. A fear button sets off flight behavior, as with panic or great anxiety. The depression button launches a severe form of bleakness I call "shutdown." And the fourth button suppresses a person's emotion, which produces the kind of behavior seen in a predator, like stalking.
Of course, the critical question is what flips the switch. The answer, I found, is embedded in our neurological survival network. The PAG is connected to the amygdala as well as cortical structures, which are in charge of survival responses. Essentially, one of the buttons is pushed when a person feels threatened. The threat may be physical, like from a would-be mugger, or psychological, like the challenge to a person's self-image.
Reacting to a legitimate threat, whether it's by fighting back or running away, is a sensible response. In some circumstances, however, a person sees a threat where there is none or misreads a situation. This person's PAG responds as if survival is being threatened. Its buttons are pushed, sparking strong emotions and extreme behavior to deal with the challenge. Worse yet, it may stay on alert long after the threat is gone. For some reason, the brain goes into survival mode and remains there.
Much of my treatment is aimed at helping patients learn how to override their brain's survival reactions and seize control of their emotions. I explain to people what they can do to control how their PAG reacts. So does a person get a grip over powerful emotions? I emphasize that a person needs to take personal responsibility for emotional behavior and not just blame the brain. I also offer these practical suggestions:
- Recognize what sensory stimuli make you feel under attack and get away from it. Do certain sights, sounds, or even smells make you feel like you must protect yourself?
- Assess whether you're reacting to a genuine threat to your physical or psychological well-being or to a fictitious threat. Keep in mind that threats come in all shapes and sizes -- not just from a mugger, but also from internal emotional or physical reactions and from your environment.
- When you feel threatened or afraid, realize that your brain's survival machinery reacts automatically. This sparks instant emotions and behavior -- so fast that you may be unaware of why you're feeling or reacting the way you do.
- Talk to a spouse, friend or colleague about what sets you off. Verbalizing your reaction and feelings is enormously helpful in defusing explosive emotions.
- If fear is a constant element in your emotions, examine it closely. Make a list of your fears and think about how to handle each. Confrontation? Avoidance? Repeated exposure so it loses its power? Understand that you may not be able to defuse a fear and need to learn to live with it.
- If you are overreacting, you can slow down your brain's survival response by pausing to think. Ways of pausing include making lists, plans, talking to someone and taking a deep breath, which helps reset your nervous system. (In this way, you impose cortical control over your amygdala, which directs survival responses.)
- Watch your alcohol intake. Ditto for caffeine or other stimulants. These make it harder to control your emotions.
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