Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fight or Flight? How About Neither?

I don't write in this blog every day because a daily report of my feelings would, I think, be repetitive and boring.  Every day is pretty much the same: I wake up feeling afraid or depressed and then I have to do something to make that feeling go away.

What I do varies with how bad the feeling is.  Usually, just getting up and moving around, doing my morning routine, helps dispel the gloom.  Exercise, when I have time for it, also helps, sometimes a lot.  If the feeling is really bad, then I know that the reading I do on the bus to work--especially if it's a very interesting book--will probably help. And when I get to work, my job will help even more because it's a job that involves a great deal of scanning (a very useful activity for gloom-dispelling).

But there's more to it than just pushing back the gloom.  Throughout the day, I also have to remain vigilant to its influence on my interactions with other people.  I can make bad brain chemistry go away, but only temporarily.  It's always lurking behind the scenes, waiting to jump in at the most inopportune times.

For example, I can be having a particularly bad morning brain-wise, but if I have time to work on neutralizing the bad feeling, especially when I first get to work, I can succeed in being pleasant.  If I don't have time to do my therapy, then I might not fare as well.  Something a coworker says might trigger the fight-or-flight response and I'll snap at that person, saying something regrettable that hurts her feelings.  That's not very good for coworker relations.

What could be worse, though, is that now I've shown a side of me that I wanted to keep hidden, the side that is irrational and somehow shameful because it's out of my control.  And once that BBC beast is out of the closet, there's no putting it back.  The damage is permanent: no matter how my future actions might modify people's view of me, I will henceforth be seen as someone with a "temper."

Okay, it's true, it's a minor character flaw compared to some. I could be something worse--a chronic liar or a thief or a drug addict.  But the fact that my fits of temper happen suddenly and without my consent bothers me.  I don't like these irrational feelings to take control of my mind.  So I try to stay alert to the pre-cursor feelings and stay away from potential clashes with people during those times.  It doesn't always work, and sometimes it's exhausting, but it's all I've got for the moment.

I'd call it "anger management," a commonly used term these days, but I don't think it describes the actual phenomenon.  What I am managing (and I think many other people are too) could not be anger because most of the time there's no good reason to be angry--at least not as angry as the situation would seem to warrant.

Conflict is inevitable between people who live or work together, and we don't get what we want all the time.  That frustrated desire produces anger, it's true.  But the response to being thwarted should match the type of obstacle, it seems to me.  Being temporarily blocked on a small matter should not produce a full-out rage.  If it does, it's a sign, I believe, that the emotion being expressed is not anger at all, but fear.  And not just ordinary fear, but the kind of fear that evokes a fight-or-flight response--that is, fear for one's life.

Why would someone be in fear for her life just because someone got ahead of her in line at the copy machine?  There's no good reason, obviously. Something else is going on.  I think it's brain chemistry.

Here's how I believe it works: the brain is humming along with its normal balance of chemicals and then suddenly the level of tranquility chemicals takes a nose-dive for reasons known only to DNA. As a consequence, the person with this bad brain chemistry suddenly feels very frightened. Being a rational creature, he looks around for a cause and, coincidentally, at that moment he is told the meeting he scheduled for 1:30 is going to have to be postponed to 4:30 because the big boss went overtime on his meeting and screwed up the schedule. But now because of the boss, the employee's schedule is screwed up; he was going to go home early today to watch his son play soccer. So he "goes off" on the messenger, loudly telling him and anyone within earshot that the boss is an incompetent jerk who can't even control a meeting let alone a department.

Is this fellow inconvenienced by the schedule change? Definitely. Frustrated? Probably. Is his life in danger? Of course not. But he feels like his life is in danger because that is what his brain is telling him. And in that circumstance, his response is completely rational and not disproportionate at all: between fight or flight, he chooses fight. Unfortunately, when he makes that choice, he puts himself in real danger if the inappropriate rage he expresses over this minor incident causes him to lose his job.

Someone might say that such a person has anger management issues, and if he were to go for treatment, he'd be taught techniques for dealing with his anger. That's all well and good, but it seems to me that the treatment is telling him that his anger is not the problem, only the expression of that anger. It's okay to feel anger; it's not okay to express that anger by punching someone in the nose.

But I say that what he is unsuccessfully managing is not anger at all, but bad brain chemistry.  And if he doesn't know that, all the anger managment techniques in the world won't work, because he doesn't realize that the cause of his behavior is not his unruly anger, but brain-chemistry-induced fear.  And not realizing the true cause means that he will continue to feel irrational fear, mistake the cause as outside himself and life-threatening, and respond in what to him is a rational way to meet that threat.

This is not to say that knowing the truth will set you free.  Just because I know the cause of irrational "fight" (as opposed to flight) does not mean that it's easy to manage.  But at least I can look for the warning signs and try to head off an imminent attack before it happens.  I don't always succeed, but I've gotten the number of incidents down to two or three times a year, when it used to be two or three times a month.

It's a work in progress.  I've got "flight" (depression, anxiety) pretty well handled; "fight" is going to take a while longer to contain.

See you next time.

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