psychotherapy mindfulnessWe’ve all heard the advice. “When you’re angry, just count to 10!” or “Just take a deep breath before you say anything”. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were able to use that strategy? The truth is, when we are really angry, the last thing we are capable of thinking about is the logical, reasonable strategy of counting to 10.


Why doesn’t it work? Triggers.

Here’s how anger happens:

  • The primal part of the mind, the limbic system, recognises a threat to our physical safety or sense of self
  • It quickly sends signals to our adrenals that we are in a risky situation.
  • Adrenalin is pumped throughout our body, preparing us for fight of flight.
  • Our body surges with energy, blood pumps to our muscles so they can be better used, and our pupils dilate, ready to take in extra data that could be useful.

Unfortunately, all this happens before the thinking parts of our brain, the cerebral cortex, even registers that we are angry! We are angry before we know we are angry. This is the biological explanation of being triggered, or having our buttons pressed. And once triggered, counting to 10 to calm down is like telling someone in a park not to duck when a speeding cricket ball is rushing towards their head. It actually can’t be done, because our body responds and reacts with our limbic brain before our more rational parts kick in.


Everybody has triggers

Everyone has their triggers in life—those events which drive the biological process, which has us experiencing “fight or flight” adrenalin when in reality, there is no real risk. For many of us, these triggers are formed in our upbringing. Whether they are formed during fights with siblings, parents, friends, or even a punishing school teacher, we take these triggers forward into our lives. The closer we become to others, the more likely these triggers will be set off. So of course, there are plenty of potential triggers as people move into marriage.

In couples counselling, I often hear scenarios where Jane screams at Thomas something like, “That’s it! You don’t hear a word I say. I don’t want to be with you anymore.” And then Thomas screams back, “You always say that, rather than taking responsibility for what you’ve just done.” Both are triggered and acting out emotionally: Jane is angry Thomas isn’t hearing her, and Thomas is frightened Jane is going to leave. They are both operating from their limbic brains and are in “fight or flight” mode. The longer they attempt to negotiate what they want from this place, the more it reinforces the struggle of not getting what they actually want, and the more damage ensues.

Jane’s trigger came from her father, who was quite absent and didn’t really attend to Jane emotionally when she was a child. Thomas’ trigger was formed when his father left his mother when he was 13, pretty much disappearing from Thomas’ life. As a result, he is hypersensitive to being abandoned.

When both are in their limbic states, a feedback loop is created in the way they communicate, which actually keeps them triggering each other over and over, escalating the fight.

So how can we resolve these patterns when two people are both living in their limbic “fight or
flight” states of mind, and all their efforts serve only to worsen tensions?


Dealing with triggers: becoming an observer

It is in these instances that becoming an observer can and does unblock these stuck patterns, help people get some distance from their limbic responses, and be able to start to think once again.

Once we create space for Jane to observe what is happening in her body right as she starts shouting “You don’t hear a word I say”, she notices a long-forgotten sensation in her stomach: a dull ache that she perceives as “blue… and cold”. As we linger here and Jane looks closely at this sensation, rather than reacting to it and shouting at Thomas, she notices a feeling: a feeling of betrayal. At this point, the dynamic is shifting for her; for the first time, she is negotiating what is at the core of her limbic response. She has become aware of how her shouting attempts to fix a previously unnoticed feeling of betrayal.

As Jane keeps her awareness on this feeling, she starts to realise it is hers. It doesn’t belong to Thomas, nor is it Thomas’ to fix. The longer Jane sits and observes this feeling, the more it starts to change, and the urgent charge that causes her to lash out at Thomas has softened.

As a result of Jane observing what was happening in herself as it happened, she eventually stopped demanding that Thomas hear her. She was able to hear and acknowledge herself, rather than demanding Thomas hear and acknowledge her. The reason to fight disappeared.


How it works

The process of observing I’m suggesting is to notice what occurs within oneself in any given moment in time. Notice that when a certain conversation arises, there is tension in your chest. Notice that when you speak with your manager, there is nervousness in your belly. Observe your emotions, thoughts, and sensations rather than try to fix, avoid, or change what’s happening in front of you.

When I work with clients to achieve this, some initially say “What’s the point of doing that? I’m still stuck with this uncomfortable feeling.” But over and over I see that as they sit with what they feel, that uncomfortable feeling weakens and loses its power.

Science backs me up. Neuroscientists have proven that the mere task of noticing how one feels, rather than acting out from it, instantly creates new neural pathways and behaviours.

For example, imagine a young man struggling to manage his outbursts of anger.

As he experiments with observing the anger as it arises—observing the thoughts and bodily sensations he has while in his anger—rather than blindly reacting from his anger, he finds he has a new option. He can now be angry and notice it, rather than unconsciously react from it. He is seeing himself having an experience of anger, rather than just being in the experience of his anger.

Becoming the observer of our emotions creates breathing room. To observe the emotion rather than be caught up in them creates distance from the emotions, and this increases the more one keeps observing. There is a part of oneself in the emotion, but now there is also a part of oneself outside of the emotion, witnessing it.

A very easy experiment to experience this yourself is to recall a recent event which left you very
upset. Recall what was said and done vividly. Spend a minute reliving it. Next, continue to recall the event, but now also notice yourself as you recall it. That is, observe your feelings, sensations, and thoughts at the same time as remembering the angering event.

If you are able to do this, you will have a sense that there is a “you” in the scene, experiencing all the anger and upset, and there is also a “you” outside of the scene: the observer, noticing the upset that the event brought on.

Many schools of psychology and psychotherapy state that the body is the unconscious mind. In psychological terms, when we observe in the moment what happens in our bodies, not only are we re-wiring ourselves and creating behavioural options, we are making the unconscious conscious.