Have you ever been triggered by something - even something minor - and you feel as though you are instantly hijacked by your emotional response? Often this is anger or rage, sometimes it is distress or panic, and it can even be a sudden numbing response, in which we shut down and check out. All of these responses can be alarming, both to ourselves and the people in our lives. Once this period of intense reactivity passes, we often feel ashamed and confused by our behaviour. When this type of reaction is a pattern, it can impact our interpersonal relationships, which can become conflict-ridden and volatile.
There are a variety of reasons that we might struggle with balancing our emotions. One of the more common reasons is that we've experienced of some type of trauma or invalidating environment in our early life (abuse, neglect, bullying, or a compromised attachment relationship to a parent are typical examples). This leads our brain to become extremely sensitive to threat so that it can protect us from exactly the type of helplessness that felt so unsettling at an earlier point in our lives. Once our brain decides that something is threatening, our nervous system becomes instantly hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused, meaning that our ability to calm ourselves down, be rational and problem solve all go offline (for more on this, see my blog post about why we 'freak out').
People often seek out psychotherapy for something they refer to as "anger management," but a growing number of psychological professionals now look at this as a emotional dysregulation problem rather than merely an inability to manage anger. This is one of the most common issues I address in therapy. I like to first help my clients understand some simple neurobiology (how our emotional brains work) so that they really get what happens to them when they either lose it or disconnect. This really helps provide a good foundation for the next stage of our work, which is to develop and practise important skills such as stabilizing, self-soothing, and grounding. The reason these skills are so crucial to get a handle on is that they enable us to intercept our reactions and change the course - beforethings get really ugly. It is often very productive and eye opening for us to walk step-by-step through a recent blow-up and start to understand the relationship between present triggers, past events, and the reflexive - even protective - nature of our reactions. We can then look at ways to prepare ourselves to do things differently the next time around - which is what people are really hoping for when they enter therapy!