I can lose my temper as fast as anyone when a car cuts suddenly in front of me on the freeway; my fear-startle response triggers a hostile rage response from the same part of my brain – the ever-vigilant-to-threat-and-danger amygdala. That’s our neurobiology and, for better or worse, it’s not likely it will ever be otherwise.
But driving home from a friend’s memorial service last month, reflecting in a much deeper way about life and death, I no longer wanted my automatic reactivity of anger to so cloud my own responsiveness, even for the moment or two (or ten) it sometimes took me to calm down again.
I began singing a little ditty to myself, “Sing your way home; you have time. Knowing you have time, you calm down.” Singing worked fairly well and fairly quickly. Traffic was thick and snarly the entire 30-minute drive home, so I chose to sing the ditty all the way home, partly as a pre-emptive measure, partly to imprint it in my neural circuitry.
Four days later, more snarly traffic, I remembered to sing the ditty immediately, and it again worked immediately. At first I thought singing to antidote road rage was simply using anything other than the road rage to break the automaticity of my brain’s biological habit of its response to fear with anger. Then I thought perhaps my singing was skillful distraction – my brain not going in a wise direction, choose to send it in another direction. Or skillful reconditioning – juxtaposing a strong negative with a stronger positive – rewiring the brain to use a positive resource to rewire my response to a negative event.
But when I casually mentioned my discovery of singing as a tool to antidote the road rage in a conversation with my friend Deb Dana, an expert in how the vagus nerve regulates our responses to signals of safety or danger, I learned that music specifically can reliably down-regulate the super-fast fear/anger response to perceived danger; all I have to do is remember to sing.
I researched online a bit: the vagus nerve, which I already knew modulates the activation and de-activation of our autonomic nervous system, calming us down when we get over-revved up, and the power of music, now well-documented, to shift our physiological-emotional-mental states. Behold and lo, among many, many other things, the vagus nerve connects auditory processing in the higher brain with the parasympathetic regulation of our heart and breath rate. My own singing is one of the most effective ways the human brain has ever evolved to manage road rage or any other over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
I now sing all the time, sometimes for the sheer joy and enjoyment of it, sometimes to pre-resource myself so that when something startling like a spider or a car back-firing or opening a notice from the IRS comes along, my body-brain is already in a calmer state to cope with it. And in traffic. I don’t even have to sing words that consciously make sense; singing any little la la la is enough for my brain to regulate itself back to equilibrium. Then, sometimes, I break worth with an exuberant Hallelujah!