The Benefits of Blowing Your Top—Really?
The Benefits of Blowing Your Top was the catchy headline of a July 7, 2010 article in the New York Times which began: “The longing for President Obama to vent some fury at oil executives or bankers may run far deeper than politics. Millions of people live or work with exasperatingly cool customers, who seem to be missing an emotional battery, or perhaps saving their feelings for a special occasion. People who – unlike the mining operators in the gulf – have a blowout preventer that works all too well.”
The article continued: “One reason we’re so attuned to others’ emotions is that, when it’s a real emotion, it tells us something important about what matters to that person,” said James J. Gross, a psychologist at Stanford University. When it’s suppressed or toned down, he added, “people think damn it, you’re not like us, you don’t care about the same things we do.”
The article then explored the impact of over-regulated emotions, the poker face” or the “cold touch,” on social relationships of all kinds, saying the ability to shut off feelings of anger or outrage may strike people as inauthentic or callous. (One of the more interesting findings in this direction was from a study published last year: among almost 300 men and women entering college, those who scored highest on measures of emotional suppression had the hardest time making friends.)
But the article also came to the conclusion, as we did in the June e-newsletter on The Neuroscience of Resilience, that those most socially skilled among us are not the ones who blow their top all the time (under-regulated) or act habitually like cold fish (over-regulated) but who have a flexible repertoire of strategies for managing emotional impulses – the calm, relaxed, engaged equanimity of the “window of tolerance.” This e-newsletter explores one of those strategies – “priming.”
In the article, Maya Tamir, a psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Boston College, commented that President Obama’s composure probably comes so easily because it has repeatedly served him well. “If staying calm and patient and confident is what has worked for you in crisis situations in the past, then subconsciously it may become automatic. And the more automatic it becomes, the less of the actual anger, or panic, you feel.”
May the reflections and exercises in this newsletter on priming the brain to remain calm in a crisis be useful to you and yours.
PRIMING THE BRAIN TO REMAIN CALM IN A CRISIS
“Priming” simply means preparing the brain to feel a certain emotion or a physiological state that could be appropriately adaptive in an anticipated situation, i.e., to feel proud or confident before walking into a meeting with the boss, to rev up the assertiveness when defending yourself in court, to feel poignantly sad when attending a funeral. There are many strategies to manage emotions and physiological states after they arise. Priming is different –it’s pre-emptive, creating an emotional or physiological state that pre-empts fear or anger before they arise. We can especially prime the brain to meet stressful situations by already feeling calm and equilibrialized, before the stress happens.
An excellent example of this kind of priming was reported in the study by James Coan at the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science at the University of Wisconsin where women subjects knew they were going to be administered a slight shock on their ankles. The women subjects left alone in the fMRI scanner reported anxiety before and pain during the test. Women holding the hand of a lab technician registered less anxiety and less pain. Women holding the hand of their husbands registered no anxiety and no pain and, in fact, reported a sense of peacefulness when feeling the touch and support of their husbands.
Phil Shaver discovered similar benefits to priming before stress in a study at UC-Davis where subjects who were instructed to think of a situation where they felt safe and loved before they were shown photographs of disturbing material showed far less stress reaction than subjects in the control group who were not so primed.
As we’ve explored in many of these newsletters, what primes the brain to be less reactive to stress or trauma is a conscious sense of safe connection with a caring other, and what that safe connection is priming in the brain is a healthy vagal tone.
The vagus is a long, multi-branched, and very important bundle of nerves that reacts to alarm signals from the body by activating the “calm and connect” response of our higher brain’s social engagement system (see June newsletter) which will immediately down-regulate the stress response of the amygdala, and by regulating our heart rate, breath rate, and digestive processes in our gut where we experience the bodily sensations of anger and panic.
According to Stephen Porges, professor of psychiatry and director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois-Chicago and developer of the polyvagal theory, it is the social engagement system – the neuroception of safety in the eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice in a friendly other, that strengthen the vagus nerve to adaptively regulate the stress response experienced in the heart, lungs, and gut. The activation of this social engagement system is relational regulation, not cognitive regulation, the higher brain regulating the body’s reactions of fear and anger
Dr. Porges illustrates the breakdown of this system in an example from a pro basketball game – lots of physical and emotional rough and tumble when the stakes are high. If players remain engaged with each other as people, the game proceeds. If one player abruptly walks angrily walks away from another, breaking the regulation of social engagement, a fight can easily break out. It’s the social engagement activating the vagus nerve that regulates the aggression.
Priming the vagus nerve to regulate anxious or angry impulses happens in a positive recursive loop of safe, conscious, compassionate connection. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, in citing Steve Porges research on the vagus nerve, calls the vagus nerve the nerve of compassion.
“When we sigh in soothing fashion, or reassure others in distress with our concerned gaze or oblique eyebrows, the vagus nerve is doing its work, stimulated the muscles of the throat, face and tongue to emit soothing displays of concern and reassurance.”
Dr. Keltner studied people with healthy vagal tone in his laboratory for almost a year, finding these “vagal superstars” consistently showed higher levels of social energy, a richer network of friendships and social contacts, more optimism and agreeableness than subjects with lower vagal tone. They were more responsive in their caretaking behavior, more sympathetic and helpful to those in need, and showed more propensity for altruism and transformational experiences of the sacred.
Dr. Keltner acknowledges there are many vagal superstars he’ll never be able to study in his laboratory, identifying among them Walt Whitman, Charles Darwin…and Barack Obama. May the practices offered below help prime our brains to become vagal superstars, calm in crisis, too.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
If there is love, there is hope to have real families, real brotherhood, real equanimity, real peace. If the love within your mind is lost, if you continue to see other beings as enemies, then no matter how much knowledge or education you have, no matter how much material progress is made, only suffering and confusion will ensue.
– HH the Dalai Lama
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Happy the man who can endure the highest and the lowest fortune. He, who has endured such vicissitudes with equanimity, has deprived misfortune of its power.
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I’m no longer afraid of storms, for I’ve learned to sail my ship.
– Louisa May Alcott
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There often seems to be a playfulness to wise people, as if either their equanimity has as its source this playfulness or the playfulness flows from the equanimity; and they can persuade other people who are in a state of agitation to calm down and manage a smile.
– Edward Hoagland
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[I have no way of knowing what priming might have led to the wisdom of this poem, but it’s the gold standard about keeping calm in crisis:]
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
– Rudyard Kipling
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
This teaching story from the Buddhist tradition has always struck me as the epitome of how priming prepares a practitioner to maintain calm in a crisis. A master monk is meditating in a temple with other monks. Suddenly a fierce bandit storms into the temple, threatening to kill everybody. The other monks flee but the master monk remains, calmly meditating. Enraged, the bandit shouts, “Don’t you understand? I could run you through with my sword and not bat an eye!” The monk replies, “Don’t you understand? I could be run through by your sword and not bat an eye.”
However metaphorical, the story illustrates how priming can regulate our reactivity, even in the most extreme of situations. How do we embody this equanimity in our own crises?
My friend Eve shared with me this true story of a friend of hers in college who managed to maintain her cool while being raped. In the moment the friend knew what was about to happen and realized she might die, she decided she wanted to face fully what was about to happen; she didn’t want to dissociate and pretend this wasn’t happening. She asked her assailant to look her in the eye, to stay in contact with her, to engage with her as a human being. Miraculously she survived the rape, her assailant left without harming her further, and because she had remained calm in the crisis, she was later able to accurately identify the man in a line-up.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Priming the Brain to Remain Calm in A Crisis
1. Wake up to benevolence and condition the day
a. It’s great if we can wake up in the morning cuddling a sweetie, or immediately hug our children or a beloved pet, blissfully resting in a sense of sweet connection before meeting the challenges of the day. According to Dacher Keltner, the vagus nerve is directly connected to oxytocin receptors. “As the vagus nerve fires, stimulating affiliative vocalizations and calmer cardiovascular physiology, presumable it triggers the release of oxytocin, sending signals of warmth, trust and devotion throughout the brain and boy and, ultimately, to other people.” We know that oxytocin is the brain’s primary down-regulator of the stress hormone cortisol, so beginning the day with a sense of loving care and connection is a fantastic priming of our brain’s buffers against stress, whether manifest as anger or fear.
b. The mornings that sweet send-off is not available, it can still be an excellent practice to not get out of bed until you can evoke within yourself a sense of loving connection in the past, or even in fantasy about the future, that evokes a sense of ease, safety, well-being. That make take a few breaths, or a few minutes; sometimes it can take 30 minutes or more. But it’s worth “priming” the brain to meet the challenges of the day from a place of calm, relaxed engagement. (I.e., starting the day in our window of tolerance, no matter what happens after.)
2. Priming Loving Connection
a. Yvonne Rand, beloved meditation teacher, tells the story of how she and her husband, Bill Sterling, begin each day. As they are about to leave for their various duties, they say out loud to each other, “We will die. We do not know when or how. I love you.” They recognize the inevitable fragility of their lives and consciously anchor in their love to prime their brains to eventually meet even the deepest challenge of a lifetime.
As you begin your day, consciously acknowledge the loving connections that sustain you, even evoking the felt sense of loving connections with people who are not present with you as you fix your breakfast and check your e-mail, but can be present, and resourcing, in your heart and mind.
3. Circle of Resources
I’ve told the story in this newsletter before about priming my brain to feel calm as I underwent lasik eye surgery by calling to mind all the friends and family I knew were wishing me well that morning. Research shows people do better in all kinds of surgery when they prime their brains to be calm by remembering friends or listening to music that calms and soothes. Research has shown cancer patients live longer and with a better quality of life when they are primed and supported by the care and compassion of a support group.
Since it’s a good practice in general anyway, be sure you steadily cultivate a virtual circle of support to call on in your imagination when you know you’re facing a challenging situation – a medical procedure or a legal procedure or confronting a difficult person or group. Priming the brain in this way will make it more likely the resourcing will be there to call on even when an accident or catastrophe suddenly takes you by surprise.
4. Priming for specific events
The New York Times article presented research which shows people can prime their brains to meet challenging situations by evoking emotions appropriate to a situation other than the calm, relaxed state of equanimity. Sometimes it is appropriate to fuel our actions with a sense of outrage at injustice or deep sadness for someone’s loss. The neural mechanism of priming is powerfully available to work in many different directions. I’m focusing here on social engagement because that does keep the functioning of our higher brain online, for sure, to manage however else we respond to what’s happening. But it certainly is a useful practice to “rehearse” how you want to handle challenging situations, including the emotions useful to you to navigate it.
5. Priming for wider self-acceptance.
The energy-psychotherapy modality of Emotion Freedom Technique primes the brain to change traditional body-brain responses to life situations by pairing whatever old belief system needs to be re-wired with the phrase “I deeply and completely love and accept myself.” So, ‘even though I see myself as lazy, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.’ Or ‘even though I just ran a red light and got a ticket, I still deeply and completely love and accept myself.’ The priming of the brain toward love and acceptance helps re-wire old beliefs and feelings about ourselves that get in the way of responding fully and appropriately to whatever situation we are facing now. There is more involved in the modality than just this one phrase, but none the less this one phrase is on target for priming the brain to cope. Try saying the phrase to yourself as you go throughout your day, and just notice any difference it makes in your relationship to yourself as you engage with the world. “Even though I…, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.”
BOOKS AND WEBSITES
The Benefits of Blowing Your Top by Benedict Carey. New York Times, July 6, 2010.
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner, PhD. W.W. Norton, 2009. A uplifting review of important research on the centrality of pro-social emotions for happiness and well-being. An accessible entry into the functioning of the vagus nerve in Chapter 11: Compassion.