STEAMING OVER: The connection between stress and anger
It is imperative that we switch that thing off once in a way, that mobile device and the screen that keeps us perpetually connected
“My boss is impossible to talk to”, a friend remarked a couple of months ago, as I enquired after her work.
“He’s perpetually on a short fuse,” she said, almost ruefully, “and it seems to get shorter by the day!”
Oh well, I thought of her boss, another one bites the dust.
These are classic signs of having entered the Stress-Anger zone. Yet, try telling persons who are constantly stressed that they are also angry people, and the first response will inevitably be negative.
“I’m not angry! I’ve never been an angry person! It’s just that I’m under pressure at the moment.”
The question then is, does that moment of stress cease?
LEVELS OF STRESS:
Stress operates at varied levels.
“First, there is ‘positive stress’, which is when we rise to meet a challenge”, Dr Bruce McEwen, better known as the Father of Stress Neurobiology, explains. A major part of his work at the Rockerfeller University in New York is to do with how stress affects us.
“Then there is ‘tolerable stress’, which is when something negative happens but we can cope up with it because we have social support and a good self esteem to take us through the storm.”
“Finally, there is ‘toxic stress’ which is when we lose perception of control, and that begins to seriously affect the brain and the body.”
THE PHYSIOLOGICAL REACTION:
Whatever the level, stress is pressure we feel in response to a threat. Anger is the emotion we feel as a reaction to a threat.
In either case, when we perceive a threat, our body activates the stress response.In this, the Amygdala (the size of a pea) in the brain, sparks and activates the Fight-or-Flight response.
The brain then tells the pituitary glands to release adrenaline and other hormones, which in turn trigger off related signals, so that we are suddenly pumped with energy and have added strength to fight or flee.
Because we need all our energy to face the challenge or fight it (depending on how threatening we perceive things to be), all healing, digestive and tissue repair systems stop or slow down at this time. This isn’t the time to heal – this is the time to fight.
SWITCHING ON AND OFF:
Importantly, the stress response is designed to switch on quickly, and switch off equally swiftly, as soon as the threat (real or perceived) has passed.
If the stress response remains active over long periods of time (because you have a lousy job, because you spend too much time in traffic, because you need to be the smartest person in the room, because you hate your boss or mother-in-law, or because you’re feeling generally entrapped), then the level of adrenaline and other neuro-corticoids in the body are on a high along with otheranger triggers, and it takes one small prick for you to lose your temper disproportionately!
You will be the boss who’s “perpetually on a short fuse!”
THE FUSE GETS SHORTER:
More serious consequences follow. The Amygdala, which is in constant use (owing to your feeling constantly stressed), grows more neurons and becomes bigger. This means more anxiety and fear, something we begin to feed, unknowingly.
On the other hand, the Hippocampus, which is involved in executive function – remembering names, dates, things to do, facts and other functional data – begins to shrink.
And, the Pre-frontal Cortex also shrinks. What is the Pre-frontal Cortex? That, among other functions,is what applies the breaks on the Amygdala. That’s what tells it to shut up when it over-reacts.
So, the brain gets into a neurological loop where it begins to spend more time dealing with emotional data (fear, anxiety, insecurity) rather than functional data (moving ahead with a task, and feeling more with it).
Our response is of anger. The anger circuit gets triggered big time from a feeling of loss of control.
When the stress response is triggered once in a way, it temporarily boosts our immune system. It also sharpens our alertness, since we need to be ready to face the threat.
However, if in use for long periods of time, it does quite the opposite. It weakens the immune system and dulls memory and alertness.
As for digestion – the acidity we deal with under stress is because digestion is slowed down. And antacids are only relieving the symptoms, not the cause.
So we may feel physiologically weakened, and neurologically, more anxious and nervous. And we begin to fight more to keep up, which in turn deepens the loop.
Our response? Anger. From this inability to cope.When we feel pressed, pushed or pressured, we react with anger. We explode in rage because we don’t know what else to do.
The key to breaking this wheel of stress and anger is balance- physiologically, neurologically, psychologically.
“The sensory inputs we face have gone up thousands of times over the past couple of decades”, Dr ShubhinderShergill, Consultant Psychiatrist at St Andrews Healthcare in the UK, explains.
“We need time to recharge, time and space away from work, time with friends, and time to pursue other things we love.”
“Things should be dynamic,” Dr McEwen suggests of the stress response in the body, “they should switch on and switch off, and that means we need to live our lives in a way that allows this to happen”
Dr McEwen is emphasizing conscious choices.
As technology continues to invade our personal and private spaces, it is imperative that we switch that thing off once in a way, that mobile device and the screen that keeps us perpetually connected.
Would that mean we’d lose out? I’m not sure we would. I did it recently for 10 days. Minimal phone, no internet, no TV (the latter out of choice).
And so, what was the buzz I missed?
Anna. Ramdev. Coal-gate.
Vandana Kohli is a filmmaker, photographer and musician. She has produced and directed the award-winning film ‘The Subtext Of Anger’, and conducts screenings and workshops on anger and its management. www.vandanakohli.com