To switch gears a little, I would like to revisit managing stress, anxiety and anger. Over the years, I’ve written various posts about this topic. If there is one thing that anyone who works in wellness can tell you, it is that chronic stress is one of the biggest challenges modern humans face.
Emotions can run high this time of year, as we approach the upcoming festivities with varying degrees of anticipation or trepidation. Normal everyday stress is compounded by additional feelings this time of year that can create anger or anxiety for many people. It seems appropriate to do some proactive thinking about how to avoid those holiday meltdowns.
Anger is an emotion we all experience from time-to-time. Like the stress response, anger is also initiated by the amygdala. This structure is designed to trigger immediate physical reactions, long before any information reaches the cortex and good judgment takes hold. This is important to understand because it is why we often have irrational outbursts when we become angry.
When the amygdala is triggered by an upsetting event, neurotransmitters immediately trigger the release of catecholamines, which boost our energy levels but deplete our body of sugars. This is why some people shake when they are angry, or frightened. Soon after a cascade of reactions in the body trigger the release of hormones such as adrenalin and noradrenalin, prep our body for confrontation.
It is very similar to the stress response in that we are supercharged for action. Muscles tighten and tense. Our heart rate and respiration quicken. We might grind our teeth or clench our fists. Chemicals in our body, which cause blood to clot more quickly, kick in. A study done in 2004 showed that people who are habitually angry have a “10 percent greater risk of developing a heart flutter called atrial fibrillation” and are more likely to experience strokes. (1)
Anger affects mental functioning, as well. When we are in this highly charged state, memory becomes impaired. This is why it can be quite difficult to remember the things you say when you are truly angry. This adrenalin can stay with us for days. It can hinder our ability to concentrate and it shortens our fuse. We might notice that we start picking fights over things that would not normally upset us.
It can be difficult to distinguish between the stress response and the anger response. A significant difference is that instead of increasing alertness and awareness of our surroundings, anger may cause us to focus our attention on that which has made us angry-whether a person or a situation. Therefore, if you find your brain fixating on one person or situation, it is likely that generalized stress is not the culprit.
It is even more difficult to distinguish between anger and fear. Fear has a very similar physiological profile as anger. Some people even become aggressive in the face of fear which leads to anger being considered a possible symptom of anxiety. One way to differentiate fear from anger is by paying attention to the electrical conductivity of your body. People who are angry tend become hot and flushed, while people who are afraid are more likely to feel cold and look pale.
Thankfully, we don’t have to engage in too much deep introspection to be able to begin to address the physiological effects of these states of being. There are practices that we can incorporate into our daily life which reduce stress and feelings of anxiety or anger. There is still time to incorporate some of them into your daily regimen, before the holiday overwhelm strikes.
Most Americans breathe improperly from the chest, which can limit the amount of oxygen we take in and may trigger the sympathetic nervous system. Breathing deeply from your abdomen is important to your health because it promotes optimal oxygen exchange. This in turn promotes relaxation and releases tension in the body. The diaphragm also serves a secondary role in helping to promote lymphatic circulation. It is a good to try to break yourself of the habit of breaking from your chest. If you find that difficult, even 15-20 minutes of daily focused abdominal breathing has benefits. It is especially useful to use this practice to calm down in a moment of overwhelm.
Remember to take time to relax. There is so much truly lovely holiday music out there. Pipe calming soothing sounds throughout your day. Take long candlelit baths. Have a hot herbal footsoak. Do Sudoku. Whatever you find relaxing, take time to do it.
Daily exercise helps to alleviate stress and work off nervous energy. Walking is especially good for this if you can take the time to walk away from a situation in which you are angry. There are additional benefits to walking in nature. In recent years a great deal of study has been devoted to the effects of green spaces on human well-being, leading one group of researchers to coin the term “Vitamin G” in reference to time spent in green places. Spending time in nature, gardening or forest bathing, has shown to mitigate the effects of stress. Japanese researchers studying the traditional practice of forest bathing or Shinrin-yoku concluded “forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity.” (2) Swiss researchers found that gardening leads to decreases in cortisol which “promote neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress.” (3)
Traditional Meditation involves cultivating stillness in the body and concentrating the mind on one thought. This website has some good tips for beginners. I admit that I personally do not resonate with traditional mediation practices, as I tend to have difficulties being still. I do find guided meditation useful at bedtime.
When I was taking a class on anxiety with Sarah Van Hoy a couple of years ago, class discussion turned to the fact that meditation can occur while moving. Yoga can be a very meditative practice. Tai Chi, Aikido and Qigong are all examples of ancient martial arts, which involve breath work, intention and flowing movements. There are also guided meditations specifically designed for use while walking.
Drumming as Meditation
The repetitive nature of the drum beat leads to a synchronous pattern of neural firing in the auditory pathway, which is perceived in the brain. Scientific studies have verified the physiological and psychological effects of this perception. In one study, researchers measured alpha waves by means of EEG to study response to tempo and mode of music concluded, “tempo was found to modulate the emotional ratings with faster tempi being more associated with emotions of anger and happiness as opposed to slow tempi, which induced stronger feelings of sadness and serenity.” (4) Another recent study successfully used alpha wave fluctuations to measure mood states. (5) Alpha waves are a brain wave which range from 8-12 c.p.s and are indicative of a state of “relaxed wakefulness” and are typical of the type of brain waves present during meditation. (6)
1) New York Times, “National Briefing: Science and Health: The Lethal Effects of Anger,” New York Times, March 2, 2004. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/02/us/national-briefing-science-and-health-the-lethal-effects-of-anger.html
2) Groenewegen, et al., “Vitamin G: effects of green space on health, well-being and social safety” BMC Public Health, 6 (2006): 10.1186/1471-2458-6-149.
3) Agnes Van Den Berg, “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress,” Journal of Health Psychology 16(2011): 3.
4) K. Trochidis, and E. Bigand, “Investigation of the effect of mode and tempo on emotional responses to music using EEG power asymmetry.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013): 146.
5) Chen, X., Takahashi, I., et al. “Psychological responses to sound stimuli evaluated by alpha wave fluctuations.” Journal of Psychophysiology, 27(2013):129.
6) R McClellan. The Healing Forces of Music: History Theory and Practice. (Lincoln: Excel. 2000), 910.