Fuming in anger, exploding in rage, shaking in fear, or trembling with anxiety, what can you do? How can you control your emotions and what can you do if you are reacting to a friend or colleague who is out of control? There are many useful self-directed approaches and traditional advice such as, “Count to 10 before you speak,” ”Sleep on it before acting on the decision you have made,” “Practice stress reduction techniques such as mindfulness meditation,” “Leave the situation,” or “Wait 24 hours before clicking “send” on an angry email response.”
These suggestions aim to reduce the strong negative emotions which could cause people to lash out at or totally withdraw from the perceived threat. Under perceived threat, we may react defensively and impulsively to protect ourselves. During those times we may say the meanest things to hurt the person as a substitute for inflicting actual physical harm.
In almost most cases when angry or frightened we may react automatically. Thus having skills to recognize and interrupt the escalating cycle of negative emotions can facilitate resolving conflicts. These skills allow us to react more cool headed, rationally, and recognize how our responses would impact other people and prevent future blow back from our excessive emotional response. It could also interrupt an escalating argument. Despite our best efforts, it is often difficult to change our emotional reaction especially when we feel threatened, hungry and tired.
Emotion regulation as described by Professor James Gross, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, consists of 1) awareness that there is a need for an unhelpful emotion to be regulated such as noticing an increase in heart rate or worry, 2) selecting a strategy to regulate the emotion such as thinking about positive memories such as a loving grandparent or practicing breathing, 3) implementing and acting on this strategy which means doing the strategy at that moment when we don’t want to and all our impulses are saying “I am right, don’t change,” and 4) constant follow-up to check if what we are doing is effective and if not, what needs to be improved (Gross, 213).
This approach can be very effective and may work even better by combining multiple strategies instead of only one technique. The more skills you have and practiced the easier it becomes to master motional regulation. Sometimes, psychological behavioral approaches may underestimate the role of biological factors such as diet, exhaustion and exercise that underlie emotional regulation.
Think of a four-year child throwing a temper tantrum. As a parent, it not useful to discuss with the child what is going on. Each suggestion may increase the tantrum. Instead the parent thinks, “My child is exhausted or hungry” (how many tantrums don’t occur when the child stays up after bed time or just before dinner?). The millennium’s phrase, “hangry,” is the combination of hunger and anger.
The knowledge that food may prevent or reduce conflict is reflected in the cultural wisdom of most countries except the USA. In the Middle East you are offered tea and sweets before buying a small rug at the bazaar; in Japan or China, you are invited to a meal before beginning a business transaction. The food and may slightly raise your blood glucose levels and encourage digestion which triggers a physiological state that is the opposite of that triggered by anger or fear. It may also evoke positives feelings associated with eating such as family gatherings and parties. As the food and drink are a gift, it may allow you to perceive the other person more positively. Thus, it is easier to be collegial and react more positively in challenging situations. The influence of rest and food has also been observed in Judicial rulings. Judges are much more likely to accept prisoners’ requests for parole at the beginning of the session–right after breakfast or lunch–than later in the session (Danzier, Levav & Avnaim-Pesso, 2011).
What can you do?
One useful mental strategy when you are out of control is to remind yourself that you are acting like a four-year-old child who is having a tantrum. Begin in the same way as you would with a four-year-old: take time out, eat some food, and get rest. Then in the clear light of the next day, after having eating a nutritious breakfast– not just a cup of coffee with a muffin–discuss and resolve what happened the day before that triggered the outburst. Similarly, when another person is out of control, do not to take it personally, he/she may be a momentary acting like four-year-old.
Keep in mind, whatever other people said or did during an outburst, they may have responded automatically because they experienced their survival being threatened. Remember, how in a past moment of anger, you have said something very hurtful? At the moment the words left your mouth, you wished you could have reeled them back in as you realized that it would be almost impossible to repair the damage.
From a biological perspective you were hijacked by the amygdala which is part of our emotional brain (Goleman, 2006). The amygdala processes information 22 milliseconds earlier than the rational brain and acts protectively before our rational brain, the neocortex, can assess the situation and respond. This reaction occurs because the information signals “we are in danger” and evokes the automatic defense reaction as shown Figure 1.
Figure 1. Triggering of a defense reaction is 22 milliseconds quicker from the amygdala than from the cortex. Thus we sometimes react without recognizing the consequences (adapted from Ropeik, 2011)
Implement the cultural wisdom of eating together first and then discussing business or challenging issues. Do not send negative messages by email or mail since that allows people to react asynchronously without having the social feedback to modulate their emotions.
Self-regulation of unhelpful emotions is challenging because negative emotions trigger the body’s defense reactions to prepare it for flight and fight. At that point, it is more and more difficult to perceive the long term consequences of our action– our only goal is to survive. Even our cognitions change and we tend to interpret any information more negatively and may assume harmful intent. The more we are captured by our emotions, the more challenging is it to implement emotional self-regulation strategies.
Once the defense reaction has been activated, it is not the time to resolve conflict. Dr. Gottman and colleagues at the Seattle Love lab, discovered that when couples argued and their heartrate went over a hundred (a possible biological marker of sympathetic activation) arguments could escalate. If the person whose heart rate went up spontaneously took a time out and did self-soothing, the couple had a lower divorce rate and higher marital happiness than those couples who continue the arguments (Gottman & Gottman, 2008).
One of the effective ways to begin emotion regulation is to leave the situation and first complete the fight/flight defense reaction. If possible, this means interrupting whatever you are doing and exercise vigorously. After you have done a vigorous workout, emotional regulation is much easier as the ruminating thoughts have decreased or stopped.
Complete the alarm reaction with exercise
When you are upset take a break. If possible, take a time out and exercise to complete the fight/flight response that was activated by the negative emotions. This is not always possible in a business or social gathering; instead, excuse yourself and go to the bathroom. In the bathroom do the following five-minute exercise that was taught by Rinpoche Tarthang Tulku of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism as an approach to stop ruminating thoughts as shown in Figure 2.
Stand on your toes with the heels touching each other and lifted off the floor with your knees bent. Place your
hands on your sides, breathe slowly and deeply. Do this next to wall to reach with your hand to steady you if you lose your balance. Stay in this position for as long as 5 minutes. Do not straighten up, keep squatting.
In a very short time your attention will be drawn and captured by the burning sensation in your thighs. Continue. After five minutes stop, shake your legs and relax.
After this exercise your thoughts have stopped and continue with the more cognitive approach of emotional self-regulation or return to the meeting. Warming: Do not do this if you have hip, knee or ankle difficulty.
Use heart rate biofeedback to signal you that you may be losing control.
Wear a heart rate monitor to signal you when your heart rate increases twenty to thirty beats above your personal baseline rate during a discussion or conflict. Use that feedback to stop and take time out and implement self-regulation practices such as exercise, breathing or meditation to allow your arousal to decrease. When feeling more calm, return to the meeting.
Food and exercise are powerful tools to augment emotional self-regulation and health. In our research, Lena Stampfli and I have observed that many students who miss meals, have an unhealthy diet, do not the exercise, are sometimes irritable and experience difficulty in concentration. When San Francisco State University students implemented a four-week self-healing project as part of a class experience, the students who changed their eating behavior (eating breakfast, not skipping meals, reducing caffeine and simple carbohydrates and increase proteins, fats and fresh vegetables) and implemented daily physical exercise (e.g., yoga, jogging, and dancing), reported significant improvements in their energy level, fewer emotion outbursts and improved quality of life. They report some of the following:
“I thought I did not particularly like exercising and eating healthy, but when it is over I feel like I am on cloud nine!… I started to look forward to doing my exercises.” –A.M.
“I started to eat breakfast, I started biking to work and did a few [meditation] exercises before bed… I felt happier and more have energy to get through the day.” –C.B.
“I have learned that letting go of what no longer serves me allow room for healing and opportunities for growth… I can only imagine what years of healthy living could do for my well-being.” –K.S.
*I thank Pardis Miri, PhD, for her constructive comments.
The blog was adapted from Peper, E. (2017). Emotional control through mindfulness as path to mental health? Western Edition HP Journal. October. http://thewesternedition.com/admin/files/magazines/WE-October-2017.pdf
Danziger, S., Levav, J.& Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of Amereidcal, 108(17), 6889-6892. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018033108
Our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food.– Hippocrates
Agribusiness appears to have overlooked Hippocrates’ advice in the quest for profits and quantity over quality. Over the last 50 years key nutrients of fruits and vegetables have declined. In a survey of 43 crops of fruits and vegetables, Davis, Epp, & Riordan, (2004) found a significant decrease of vitamins and minerals in foods grown in the 1950s as compared to now as shown in Figure 1 (Lambert, 2015).
Figure 1. Change in vitamins and minerals from 1950 to 1999. From: Davis, D. R., Epp, M. D., & Riordan, H. D. (2004). Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(6), 669-682.
Not only are there fewer nutrients present in our fruits and vegetables, it is also laced/contaminated with pesticides and herbicides such as glyphosate. Glyphosate is the weedkiller, Roundup, produced by Monsanto and is now found in almost all non-organic foods as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Example of foods tested for the presence of glyphosate. Reproduced with permission from https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.fooddemocracynow.org/images/FDN_Glyphosate_FoodTesting_Report_p2016.pdf
We are ingesting very low levels of glyphosate in most of our foods which may contribute to the development of illness. On March 20, 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)–the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization–classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A). Glyphosate also affects our immune system and the healthy bacteria in our gut. Thus, I strongly recommend avoiding glyphosate and other types of herbicide and pesticide contaminated foods. By eating an organic food diet you can reduce pesticide and herbicide exposure by 90%. Unless you eat only organic foods, you will ingest more pesticides and herbicides at levels unacceptable by the European Union standards as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Different allowable daily intake levels of glyphosate in the European Union as compared to the United States. Reproduced with permission from https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.fooddemocracynow.org/images/FDN_Glyphosate_FoodTesting_Report_p2016.pdf
Read the article Glyphosate: Unsafe on any plate: Alarming levels of Monstao’s gyphosate found in popular American foods. It describes the scientific evidence that at even at ultra-low levels of glyphosate e.g. 0.1 parts per billions (ppb) harm to human health could begin and how much of the foods contain glyphosate. The Executive Summary is reproduced with permission below:
A leading FDA-registered food safety testing laboratory has found extremely high levels of the pesticide glyphosate in some of America’s most popular food products. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, is the most heavily used chemical weedkiller in food and agricultural production in human history, as a result of the widespread adoption of genetically engineered crops now grown on more than 175 million acres in the United States (U.S.) and more than 440 million acres around the globe.
New scientific evidence shows that probable harm to human health could begin at ultra-low levels of glyphosate e.g. 0.1 parts per billions (ppb). Popular foods tested for glyphosate measured between 289.47 ppb and at levels as high as 1,125.3 ppb. The testing and analysis was performed by Anresco Laboratories, San Francisco, an FDA registered laboratory that has performed expert food safety testing since 1943.
The laboratory found that well-known products tested for glyphosate, Original Cheerios, for example, measured levels as high as 1,125.3 ppb. Other high levels of glyphosate were found in familiar products such as Oreos, Doritos, and Ritz Crackers, among 29 foods tested. Currently, U.S. regulators allow a very high level of daily glyphosate residue in America’s food. The acceptable daily intake (ADI) limit is set at 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (written 1.75 mg/kg bw/day) in the U.S., versus a more cautious 0.3 mg/kg bw/day in the European Union. Tolerances have been set through the submission of corporate-sponsored studies and industry influence on the regulatory process.
New research shows that Roundup causes liver and kidney damage in rats as reflected in changes in the functions of 4,000 genes at only 0.05 parts per billion (ppb) glyphosate equivalent indicating damage.2 Additional studies have found that levels as low as 10 ppb can have toxic effects on the livers of fish and cause significant damage to the livers and kidneys of rats at 700 ppb, which is the allowable level of glyphosate found in U.S. drinking water.
Credible independent, peer-reviewed scientific evidence now shows that the levels of harm to human health could begin at the ultra-low levels of 0.1 parts per billion (ppb) of glyphosate. These groundbreaking new findings that one of the most iconic cereals in U.S. contains levels as high as 1,125.3 ppb should be a wake-up call for all Americans regarding unacceptable levels of pesticide residues in our nation’s food. These findings are especially troubling, considering that the latest independent scientific evidence, during which a team of international scientists re-evaluated the same data previously used by regulators, calls for a much lower ADI to be set at 0.025 mg/ kg of bodyweight per day or “12 times lower than the ADI”6 currently set in Europe and 70 times lower than the level currently allowed by the EPA in the United States. It’s important for individuals and parents to understand that glyphosate contamination cannot be removed by washing and is not broken down by cooking or baking. Glyphosate residues can remain stable in food for a year or more, even if the foods are frozen or processed.
The testing and analysis was performed at the request of FOOD DEMOCRACY NOW!, in coordination with THE DETOX PROJECT, which gathered additional scientific evidence from around the world and included a compendium of independent research on glyphosate that contains Anresco Laboratory’s findings. Based on this new information, FOOD DEMOCRACY NOW! is calling for a federal investigation into the likely harmful effects of glyphosate on human health and the environment and is also seeking an investigation into the relationships between the regulators and the regulated industries, which has resulted in the public being exposed to levels of glyphosate which scientific studies show can be damaging to human health.
The complete article with references can be downloaded from: https://s3.amazonaws.com/media.fooddemocracynow.org/images/FDN_Glyphosate_FoodTesting_Report_p2016.pdf
Davis, D. R., Epp, M. D., & Riordan, H. D. (2004). Changes in USDA food composition data for 43 garden crops, 1950 to 1999. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(6), 669-682. http://www.chelationmedicalcenter.com/!_articles/Changes%20in%20USDA%20Food%20Composition%20Data%20for%2043%20Garden%20Crops%201950%20to%201999.pdf
Lambert, C. (2015). If Food really better from the farm gate than super market shelf? New Scientist.228(3043), 33-37.
A healthy diet is much more than just focusing on a single food. People focus so often on adding one type of food or eliminating another such as, “Don’t eat ice cream!”, “Eat chia seeds.” “No red meat.” In almost all cases, it is not just one thing, instead a healthy diet is embedded in awareness and healthy life style choices. Watch the superb common sense white board video presentation by Doctor Mike Evans, What’s the Best Diet? Healthy Eating 101. In this short presentation, he summarizes the best practices known. Implement his approach and your health will significantly improve.
The Last Week Tonight Show with John Oliver is a superb presentation of the problems and solutions about our health and food systems. Using humor, John William Oliver hosts the weekly HBO program on Sundays at 11pm and provides superb documentation of the corruption and marketing strategies that often negatively affect our health, diet and budget.
For evidence based–yet humorous–reporting watch the following episodes;
Marketing to Doctors (HBO). Pharmaceutical companies spend billions of dollars marketing drugs to doctors (published on Feb 8, 2015).
Food Waste (HBO). Producers, sellers, and consumers waste tons of food. John Oliver discusses the shocking amount of food we don’t eat (published on Jul 19, 2015).
Sugar (HBO). Sugar. It’s in everything!
Is it good for us? Well, the sugar industry thinks so (published on Oct 26, 2014).
For additional information, see the following blogs:
Dead bird on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands. The bird mistook attractive coloring of plastics that float in the ocean as food. From: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo
Being captured by a digital device. From: http://images.gameskinny.com/gameskinny/c9689c75994e58a03dbc5e489d346e55.jpg
How come birds on Midway Island are dying?
How come your son keeps playing computer games even after he said he would stop?
How come you ate all the French fries and the dessert even though you promised yourself to reduce your calorie intake?
How come you procrastinated and did not get up from the couch to exercise?
How come you watched pornography?
The usual answer is absence of will, self-control or self-discipline. The person is automatically blamed for making poor life choices. If you had more self-worth than you would not let yourself get obese, addicted to computer games, or watch pornography. Blaming the victim is easy, however, there are other factors that underlie the person’s covert/unconscious choices. Many of these illness producing behaviors (e.g., overeating, playing the computer games, sitting and sitting) are responses to external cues that in prehistoric times promoted survival, reproduction and health. To respond rapidly and appropriately to those cues offered a reproductive advantages while not reacting would reduce your survival. In many cases there are no upper limits to turn off our responses to these cues because the more the person responded to those cues the more was there a reproductive advantage. Now, however, our adaptive preferences have become maladaptive because the cues that trigger the same behaviors lead to lower fitness and illness (Schlaepfer et al, 2002; Robertson et al, 2013). The cues have become evolutionary/ecological traps!
Some of the recent evolutionary/ecological traps include:
Vigilance for survival. While playing a computer games, the person rapidly responds and continuously experiences immediate rewards (e.g., successful shooting the target, points, next game level). This process activates the same survival mechanisms that hunter used for thousands of generations. A visual or auditory stimuli represents sources of food or danger (a game animal to hunt for food, an attack by a predator or an enemy). The visual/auditory cue captures the person’s attention and if the person reacts to that cue he would probably survive. On the other hand, if he did not react, he may not survive and reproduce. In our modern world, similar stimuli now hijack the neurological pathways that in earlier times supported survival. Over activation of these pathways is a cofactor in the development of ADHD and other disorders (Peper, 2014). For a superb discussion of how cellphones, computers, gaming and social medial are changing our brains, read Dr. Mari Swingle’s new book, i-Minds (Swingle, 2015)
Energy for survival: Eating carbohydrate/sugary and fat foods are necessary for survival as humans constantly searched for energy sources to support life. Breast milk and almost any fruit that is sweet contain calories and supports growth. If the food was bitter it was usually harmful. For most of our evolutionary past, we would eat as much as possible because food was scarce. There was no evolutionary advantage to limit food intake as the stored calories would supply enough calories to survive during periods of famine. In our modern world, our survival mechanisms have been hijacked by advertising and the oversupply of foods which contribute to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes.
Being a couch potato and not moving again is again survival mechanism. In a prehistoric world with limited food supply, the less movement (the fewer calories you burned), the longer you could survive. You would move when you needed to build shelter or search for food. Again in a world where shelter and food are often abundant, there is no intrinsic mechanism to initiate movement.
Sexual arousal for reproduction: Men are often captured by pornography. They can watch for hours and feel aroused. The whole porn industry is based upon hijacking our sexual drive for reproduction.
Our brain does not discriminate between actual visual and auditory stimuli, imagined or film/video images. Until the late 19th century everything we saw and heard was real. Only in the 20th century could we produce images and sounds that appeared real. These film, TV , and the ever present digital displays activate the same neurophysiological pathways as when the stimuli were actually real. A scene on a digital screen triggers the same biological pathways and responses that for thousands of generations supported survival. If we did not respond we would not have survived. If you have any doubt, watch a scary horror movie and check how you feel afterwards. You may feel more scared, your sleep may be disturbed, your heart rate increased, and you probably interpreted any noise around you as possible danger. Thus, cues in the environment may become evolutionary/ecological traps in the same way that birds on Midway Island in the North Pacific, 2000 miles from any other islands, mistook the attractive coloring of plastics as food. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtJFiIXp5Bo. Should the birds be blamed because they have no self-control?
What can you do!
Recognize that modern industries for the sake of profits have hijacked our cues that had evolved to aid survival (Kemp, 2014).
Recognize that not reacting to product cues means inhibiting the intrinsic biological triggered survival responses. Yes, it is possible not react to the stimuli and demonstrate self-control; however, it is not only a problem of will. It is a problem that our cues have been hijacked and tricked for commercial profit.
Society may need to protect its own populations from commercial exploitation of evolutionary/ecological traps. A young child is automatically drawn to the visual stimuli on a smartphone and tablet which parents use to quiet the child during dinner. In this process they are activating the pre-wired biological pathways that captured attention for survival. By over activating these pathways, the brain is changing in response to this activation which increases the risk of developing ADHD, autism, and mood deregulation including anxiety, depression, and anger management, and other forms of addictive behavior (Swingle, 2015). In addition, school performance and memory retention are reduced when students take notes using their keyboard or read text from digital screens (OCallaghan, 2014). It will take the family and society to limit the availability of these cues until self-control has been developed. Similarly, the availability of cheap calories in large food portions, sugars in soft drinks and sugar and fats in snacks, need to be limited if the epidemic of obesity and diabetes is to be reversed.
It may be unreasonable to think that people can easily interrupt their biological responses to cues that have been created to increase profits. We need to take collective responsibility and limit the availability of commercially augmented evolutionary traps and cues in the same way we need to limit the plastic in the ocean so that the birds at Midway Island may be able survive. Without respecting our evolutionary past, our future may not be different from those Midway Island birds.
Kemp, C. (2014). Trapped!. New Scientist, 221(2960), 43-45
OCallaghan, T. (2014). Goodbye, paper: What we miss when we read on screen. New Scientist.224 (2993). 41-43.
Peper, E. (2014). Support Healthy Brain Development: Implications for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Psychophysiology Today, 9(1), 4‐15.
Robertson, B. A., Rehage, J. S., & Sih, A. (2013). Ecological novelty and the emergence of evolutionary traps. Trends in ecology & evolution, 28(9), 552-560.
Swingle, M.K. (2015). i-Minds. Portland, OR: Inkwaterpress.com ISBN-13 978-1-62901-213-1
Schlaepfer, M. A., Runge, M. C., & Sherman, P. W. (2002). Ecological and evolutionary traps. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17(10), 474-480.