Mindfulness and Keeping it Real in Relationships

There’s a myth that won’t seem to die in popular understanding of anger. Back in the 1960’s, psychology (doing the best it could as a very young science) put forth the notion that “venting” your anger, letting it all hang out, was the way to go if you wanted to be emotionally healthy.

Venting (a.k.a. cathartic expression of anger) feels great in the moment, and it would seem to make sense that letting it out, instead of keeping it bottled up, would make you less prone to lashing out at those you love, like letting some steam out of a cranked-up pressure-cooker.

Nope.

In the 1990s, Brad Bushman and his colleagues Roy Baumeister and Angela Stack definitively showed that letting off steam actually leaves you more prone to do it again and again (it does feel good, after all), and stated,

These results contradict any suggestion that hitting the punching bag [the form of letting off steam in their studies] would have beneficial effects because one might feel better after doing so (which is what advocates of catharsis often say). People did indeed enjoy hitting the punching bag, but this was related to more rather than less subsequent aggression toward a person…hitting a punching bag does not produce a cathartic effect: It increases rather than decreases subsequent aggression.

Venting keeps your nervous system primed for more angry responses, and you’re more likely to keep venting — all over the people in your life — so you can keep doing it. Other people react “badly”, and then you can vent at/on them. Quite the feedback loop, eh?

Whatever you practice the most is what gets wired up to be the fastest and first route in your brain. And the “hit” of dopamine that you probably get from venting makes it all the more addictive.

Not the path to better relationships.

Making mindful choices in how we respond authentically, in the moment – that’s the path you want to get yourself on. It’s something that, with early experiences of optimal, attuned communication and secure attachment, our brains have more experience and therefore more ready-for-action wiring in the middle prefrontal areas – the areas that allow for greater choice in how we respond emotionally. Shunting the surge of an angry reaction upward into the prefrontal centers (the middle prefrontal areas in particular) is, quite literally, second nature for those who grew up with brains that had those experiences.

But what about those of us who didn’t get that?

Or who, in certain contexts, are able to keep it together and use our higher-brain processes (like, at work), but elsewhere (at home after a long day) … not so much?

You may have tried various strategies and/or made lots of resolutions (“I’m not going to blow up at Bob when he forgets to _____,” or “Whenever I feel myself getting defensive, I’m going to take three deep breaths before I respond.”

Those can be helpful, but how many of us forget those well-intentioned promises to ourselves in the heat of the moment? (My hand is raised, how about yours?) To remember and choose to engage those strategies, you’ve got to be able to recruit, pretty much immediately, your higher brain. But your limbic brain is simply, naturally faster on the draw.

So how do we get there from here?

Carnegie Hall
Guy gets into a cab in Manhattan and asks the cabbie, “Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

The cabbie answers, “Practice, practice, practice.”

You guessed it — practice in mindfulness.

Mindfulness practice grows the connections from down low to up high and in between all of those helpful buddies in your mPFC, and making those connections (and the structures themselves, it seems) thicker and speedier. Instead of reactivity reverberating and ricocheting around on their own, the more “insightful” parts of the brain get called in. And the more connections between the limbic system and the neocortex, the more emotional responses are possible.

As your mPFC gets better integrated, the path from your limbic areas going “Ding!” and your emotional response gets longer and more complex, and that is the pause that refreshes.

Freedom means being able to choose how we respond to things. When wisdom is not well developed, it can be easily obscured by the provocations of others. In such cases we may as well be animals or robots. If there is no space between an insulting stimulus and its immediate conditioned response—anger—then we are in fact under the control of others.

– Andrew Olendzki, “Calm in the Face of Anger”