Anger as a Flame and Not a Forest Fire

Anger is a human emotion that involves physiological responses which can be adaptive for resolving conflict. However, when mishandled, this otherwise normal, healthy response can spiral out of control, causing pathological illness and enormous interpersonal relationship problems. A few ways that anger is mishandled are as follows: (1) Catharsis– research shows that contrary to popular belief, excessive expression of anger, e.g., venting, pillow punching, and being hostile and aggressive, is actually extremely destructive to the health of the individual and those involved. More importantly, this emotion tends to escalate rather than “release,” following cathartic methods. (2) Suppression– letting anger bottle up inside is also a recipe for illness. It can also lead to passive aggressive and antisocial behavior. Both unhealthy and expression and suppression of anger seems to promote hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and mood disorders. So what is to be done?
flameResearch has shown that cognitive restructuring, problem solving, and relaxation techniques are much more adaptive strategies for channeling and coping with angry feelings. Cognitive restructuring involves thinking about the situation differently. This involves using logic, empathy, and wise reasoning to see all sides of the situation. This strategy tends to lead to more problem solving, rather than destructive, aggressive behaviors. Functional and healthy expression of anger comes in the form of self-respect and asserting boundaries in a clear, well-thought out, and confident manner. Lastly, relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and imagery meditation can be used to assist this process by cooling arousal and allowing the individual to act from a more rational and progressive vantage point. So let anger be the candle flame to spark your motivation and drive for social repair; not a forest fire that both suffocates you and destroys the environment around you.

References:

Beck, R., & Fernandez, E. (1998). Cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of anger: A meta-analysis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 22(1), 63-74.

Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.

DiGiuseppe, R., & Tafrate, R. C. (2003). Anger Treatment for Adults: A Meta‐Analytic Review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(1), 70-84.

Holt, R. R. (1970). On the interpersonal and intrapersonal consequences of expressing or not expressing anger.

Lewis, W. A., & Bucher, A. M. (1992). Anger, catharsis, the reformulated frustration-aggression hypothesis, and health consequences. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 29(3), 385.

Warren, R., & Kurlychek, R. T. (1981). Treatment of maladaptive anger and aggression: Catharsis vs behavior therapy. Corrective & Social Psychiatry & Journal of Behavior Technology, Methods & Therapy.

Meditation Alters Brain Wave Activity

The brain is an extremely complex organ which communicates via electrical impulses between neurons. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a device which measures the frequency and amplitude of these electrical impulses (i.e. “brain waves”). Studies have shown that meditation practices can induce different EEG states in practitioners. For instance, one review found that meditation tends to induce a larger proportion of alpha wave (8-12 hz) and theta wave (4-8 hz) activity in the brain, which are characterized by rest and relaxation. At the same time, there appears to be a decreased proportion of beta waves (12-30 hz), which occur when the brain is actively processing information. Too much beta wave activity is associated with anxiety disorders. In addition, studies have shown that some advanced Buddhist meditators are able to self-induce high frequency gamma waves (25-42 hz) during practice. Gamma wave activity has been associated with heightened perceptual clarity and superior cognitive control of thought and emotional expression. Finally, yoga nidra practitioners have been shown to induce slow wave delta wave activity (0.5-4 hz), that is, EEG activity exhibited during deep sleep stages, while paradoxically remaining conscious. Delta waves contain a “down state,” where neurons in the neocortex are silent and able to rest. These studies reveal the potential for meditation to enhance control over differing levels of consciousness which may be highly implicated for improving mental health.

References:

Buchsbaum, M. S., Hazlett, E., Sicotte, N., Stein, M., Wu, J., & Zetin, M. (1985). Topographic EEG changes with benzodiazepine administration in generalized anxiety disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 20(8), 832-842.

Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 180.

Kjaer, T. W., Bertelsen, C., Piccini, P., Brooks, D., Alving, J., & Lou, H. C. (2002). Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Cognitive Brain Research, 13(2), 255-259.

Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(46), 16369-16373.

Moore, N. C. (2000). A review of EEG biofeedback treatment of anxiety disorders. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 31(1), 1-6.

Tang, Y., Li, Y., Wang, J., Tong, S., Li, H., & Yan, J. (2011, August). Induced gamma activity in EEG represents cognitive control during detecting emotional expressions. In Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, EMBC, 2011 Annual International Conference of the IEEE (pp. 1717-1720).

Dismantling the Default to Deal with a Wandering Mind

Research has shown that mind wandering, that is,
ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, makes people unhappy. On the other hand, mindfulness, which is attuning to internal and external present moment stimuli with full acceptance and equanimity, is associated with greater subjective well-being and overall quality of life. The “default mode network,” which is comprised of several midline structures of the brain (medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and precuneus), is highly active during mind wandering, and studies suggest that its hyper-functionality may be mind wanderingimplicated in psychiatric disorders associated with maladaptive anxiety, major depression, attention deficits, and mild cognitive impairment. However, studies show that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default mode network while strengthening connections of various attention circuits. These findings suggest that mindfulness may improve attentional abilities and help individuals disengage from irrelevant distractions in their daily life, and that this may have downstream implications for preventing and treating psychiatric disorders affiliated with mind wandering.

References:

Hasenkamp, W., & Barsalou, L. W. (2012). Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 38.

Froeliger, B., Garland, E. L., Kozink, R. V., Modlin, L. A., Chen, N. K., McClernon, F. J., … & Sobin, P. (2012). Meditation-state functional connectivity (msFC): strengthening of the dorsal attention network and beyond. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2012.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.

Foundations of Boundary Building

Communicating and executing personal boundaries are imperative for both sustaining cognitive/ emotional health and maintaining functional social relationships. Boundary setting comes naturally to some; however, it can be a lot work for others. This is especially the case for people pleasers, highly empathetic individuals, and those with high rejection sensitivity. Luckily, like any other interpersonal skill, confident boundary setting can be learned and developed. Here’s how:

  1. Cultivate awareness of your personal boundaries. Tune in with your emotions during social situations; when do you begin to feel uncomfortable? When do you begin to feel under-appreciated and resentful? Understanding your own limits is the first step.
  2. Deliberately prioritize self-care. Understand that setting boundaries not only helps yourself, but ultimately the other person(s) involved. Keeping in check this rationale will help you cope with guilt, shame, and fear.
  3. Be assertive and direct. Explicit verbal communication of your boundaries is much better than relying on non-verbal cues or assuming the other person should be able to read your mind.
  4. Be consistent. Prepare yourself for the fact that you might have to give repeated reminders of your boundaries to the person(s) involved, especially if a certain social dynamic you wish to change had been heavily habituated in the past. Boundaries may also change; constant communication and check-ins are necessary to deal with the fluid dynamics of relationship structures.
  5. Start slow and build up. Be patient with yourself. Like any skill, setting boundaries takes practice. Failures are inevitable and when these do happen– practice all the self-compassionate you need, and then get up back on your feet again.

Expressive Writing Improves Emotion-Regulation

Expressive writing (i.e. journalling), has been shown to be a helpful tool in working through traumatic experiences, relieving emotionally driven distress, and thus improves a variety of physical and mental health parameters. One self-regulatory model suggests that this could be due to a few reasons: first, it directs our attention to the distressing event. That is, the traumatic event must be tended to before it can be conquered. Second, it helps to habituate the memory. Slow, incremental, and controlled exposure to the trauma is necessary to decondition negative emotional responses. Concurrent deep breathing can assist this process. Lastly, it allows for cognitively restructuring of how the trauma may be journal-011viewed. When examining the memory with contemplative rigor, this allows us to step back and see the unpleasant event from multiple angles and develop a more self-distanced view (one may also do this with contemplative meditation practices). The restructuring process also allows us to gain appreciation of potential positive outcomes, ex. learning experiences, of which the trauma may have lent us. Therefore, journalling can be a highly effective tool for overcoming past and present emotionally distressing life events. Moreover, adopting a daily journalling routine can prevent build up the micro tensions (i.e. chronic stressors) of everyday life.

References:

Baikie, K. A., & Wilhelm, K. (2005). Emotional and physical health benefits of expressive writing. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 11(5), 338-346.

Lepore, Stephen J. (Ed); Smyth, Joshua M. (Ed), (2002). The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being, (pp. 99-117). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Park, J., Ayduk, O., Kross, E. (2015). Stepping back to move forward: Expressive writing promotes self-distancing. Emotion.

Stand Up to Stigma

Stand Up To StigmaMental health stigma is manifested in negative attitudes, stereotypes, and discriminating behavior towards those suffering from mental illness. This stigma is stemmed from the fact that mental illness is often perceived as something the sufferer is in control of, when in reality, research has clearly established that mental illness has many complex causal factors which can be genetic, developmental, experiential, environmental, and purely biological. Mental health stigma not only increases the suffering of those who experience it (by tiresome efforts to suppress and hide the illness, feelings of guilt and shame, and social exclusion), but also steers them away from accessing resources to help cope. So how can we help decrease mental health stigma in our society?

  • Let others know that they have permission to express their emotions and thoughts freely within the boundaries you are capable of holding. Expressing your own emotions also gives permission for others to do the same.
  • Encourage those who disclose their mental illness to you personally to access therapeutic resources such as clinical psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists. Let them know that they are not alone.
  • If you have a mental illness, talk openly about it to the extent of your comfort.

Working together to stand up to stigma can create an environment where we can all cooperate in the healing process. This is imperative as the mental health crisis continues to plague our society.

References:

Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614.

Unknown. (2000). Mental illness vies for attention. The Lancet.

Let Go of the Pursuit of Happiness: All Emotions Deserve Our Love

Frequent experiences of positive affect (contentment, joy, excitement, calm) are beneficial for a variety of health and well-being outcomes. As such, happiness is a highly valued emotion; this is very evident by fact that we are often expected to put on a smiley face even when we are experiencing extremely distressing emotions. Here it is argued that not only is emotional suppression deeply detrimental to health, but that there are also downsides to happiness when experienced in excess, in the wrong contexts, and when it is fervently pursued.

EmotionsSubjectively unpleasant emotions are evolutionary adaptive, and are important for survival when experienced to an optimal degree and in the appropriate situations. For instance, sadness and crying signals a need for helping behavior from social support networks. Moreover, anger signals a clear need for social reparations, and anxiety signals a fight or flight response to evade dangerous situations. Although these emotions may be uncomfortable, they must not be pushed aside when they can actually be of service to us.

In Gruber, Mauss, and Tamir (2011) paper “A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good,” it is explained how happiness is not always adaptive. Firstly, a high degree of happiness is characterized by mania, and can lead to high risk behaviors such as speeding on highways and giving away life savings. Secondly, happiness is not always appropriate across situations; as stated above, other emotions may be more adaptive. Happiness can also make us use heuristic shortcuts and stereotypes over critical and analytical thought processes. Moreover, happiness may not be appropriate when responding to others who are in distress and call for empathetic concern over positive contagion. Lastly, studies have found that the pursuit of happiness almost always leads to dissatisfaction and distress when not obtained. Rather, it is best to engage in behaviors that have a high probability of leading to happiness (ex. building strong interpersonal relationships, volunteering, exercise), without holding onto the expectation of acquiring happiness.

Therefore, it would be wise to listen and appreciate all of your emotions; express them to a healthy degree when appropriate. Likewise, it is important to understand that happiness can be beneficial, but not necessary to be put on a pedestal.

References:

Ford, B. Q., Dmitrieva, J. O., Heller, D., Chentsova-Dutton, Y., Grossmann, I., Tamir, M., … & Mauss, I. B. (2015). Culture shapes whether the pursuit of happiness predicts higher or lower well-being. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(6), 1053.

Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(3), 222-233.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.