Passion’s Slaves

Passion’s Slaves is the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Since the time of Plato a sense of self-mastery, of being able to withstand the emotional storms that the buffeting of Fortune brings rather than being “passion’s slave,” has been praised as a virtue. The ancient Greek word for it was “sophrosyne.” Page DuBois, a Greek scholar translates it as “care and intelligence in conducting one’s life; a tempered balance and wisdom.” The Romans and the early Christian church called it “temperantia”, temperance, the restraining of emotional excess. The goal is balance, not emotional suppression. Aristotle observed, what is wanted is appropriate emotion, feeling proportionate to circumstance. The passions discussed in this post are anger and rage, worry and anxiety, and depression and melancholy.

Anger and Rage

The design of the brain means that we very often have little or no control over when we are swept by emotion, nor over what emotion it will be. However, we can have some say on how long an emotion will last. Consider the anatomy of rage. Say you are cut off in traffic by a driver. You think, “He could have hit me! That bastard—I can’t let him get away with that!” Your knuckles whiten as you tighten your hold on the steering wheel, which you regard as a surrogate for strangling his throat. You body mobilizes to fight not run—leaving you trembling, beads of sweat on your forehead, your heart pounding, the muscles in your face locked in a scowl.”

Compare that sequence of building rage with a more charitable line of thought toward the driver who cut you off. “Maybe he didn’t see me, or maybe he had some good reason for driving so carelessly, such as a medical emergency.” Such thoughts tempers anger with mercy or at least an open mind, short-circuiting the buildup of rage. Aristotle’s challenge is to have only appropriate anger reminds us, is that more often than not, our anger surges out of control. Benjamin Franklin put it well: “Anger is never without a reason, but seldom a good one.” There are different kinds of anger. The amygdala is a main source of the sudden spark of rage we feel at the driver whose carelessness endangers us. On the other end of emotional circuitry, the neocortex, most likely foments more calculated angers, such as cool-headed revenge or outrange at unfairness or injustice.

Rage seems to be the most intransigent of al the moods. Researcher Diana Tice found that anger is the mood people are worst at controlling. Anger is the most seductive of the negative emotions; the self-righteous inner monologue that propels it along fills the mind with the most convincing arguments for venting range. Unlike sadness, anger is energizing, even exhilarating. Anger’s persuasive power might explain why some views about it are so common: that anger is uncontrollable, or that it should not be controlled, and venting anger in “catharsis” is to the good. A contrasting view holds that anger can be prevented entirely. However, a careful reading of research findings suggests that all these common attitudes toward anger are misguided if not outright myths.

The train of angry thoughts that stokes anger is also potentially the key to one of the most powerful ways to defuse anger: undermining the convictions that are fueling the anger in the first case. The longer we ruminate about what has made us angry, the more “good reasons” and self-justification for being angry we can event. Brooding just fuels anger’s flames. Seeing things differently douses those flames. Tice found that reframing a situation more positively was one of the most potent ways to put anger to rest. Timing matters. The earlier in the anger cycle, the more effective. Anger can be completely short-circuited if the mitigating information comes before the anger is acted on.

The second way of de-escalating anger is cooling off physiologically by waiting out the adrenal surge in a setting where there are not likely to be further triggers for rage. This is a common way of dealing with anger according to Tice’s research. One such fairly effective strategy is going off to be alone while cooling down. People go for a drive or a walk. Of these two, the second is preferable. Exercise also works. Relaxation methods such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation, perhaps because they change the body’s physiology from the high arousal of anger to a low-arousal state, and perhaps too because they distract from whatever triggered the anger. [enter “Relaxation Response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to find relevant posts].

However, a cooling-down period will not work if that time is used to pursue the train of anger-inducing thought, since each such though will trigger more cascades of anger.

Distractions like TV, movies, reading and the like work, but not shopping or eating.

Ventilation does not work. In fact there is a ventilation fallacy. Ventilation may feel satisfying, but it is counterproductive. Tice found that ventilating anger is one of the worst ways to cool down: outbursts of rage typically pump up the emotional brain’s arousal, leaving people feeling more angry not less.

Worry and Anxiety

Worrying is at the heart of all anxiety. The reaction that underlies worry is the vigilance for potential for potential danger that has, no doubt been essential for survival over the course of evolution. When fear triggers the emotional brain, part of the resulting anxiety fixates attention on the threat at hand, thus forcing the mind to obsess about how to handle it and ignore anything else. Worry is a rehearsal of what might go wrong and how to deal with it. The purpose of worrying is to come up with positive solutions for life’s perils by anticipating dangers before they arise.

Worrying becomes a problem with chronic repetitive worries that go on and on never getting nearer to a positive solution. Goleman writes that a “close analysis of chronic worry suggests that it has all the attributes of a low-grade emotional hijacking. Worries that seem to come from nowhere and are uncontrollable generate a study hum of anxiety, are impervious to reason and lock the worrier into a single, inflexible view of the topic of worry. When this cycle of worry intensifies and persists, it crosses over the line into a full-blown neural hijacking, the anxiety disorders: phobias, obsessions and compulsions, panic attacks.

For each disorder worry fixates in a distinct fashion: phobic anxieties rivet on the feared situation; obsessive disorders fixate on preventing some feared calamity; panic attacks can focus on fear of dying or on the prospect of having the anxiety attack itself.

Researchers have observed that anxiety comes in two forms: cognitive, or worrisome thoughts, and somatic, the physiological symptoms of anxiety, like sweating, a racing heart, or muscle tension. Insomniacs are suffering from anxiety attacks. Their main problem preventing them from sleeping were intrusive thoughts. No matter how sleepy they were, they could not stop worrying. The one technique that worked in helping them get to sleep was getting their minds off their worries, focusing instead on the sensations produced by a relaxation method. In summary, the worries could be stopped by shifting attention away.

Unfortunately, most worriers seem unable to do this. These worriers get a partial payoff from worrying that reinforces the habit. It seems that there is something positive in worries: worries are ways to deal with potential threats. When the work of worrying succeeds, it is to rehearse what those dangers are, and to reflect on ways to deal with them. But Goleman writes that worry doesn’t work that well. “New solutions and fresh ways of seeing a problem do not typically come from worrying, especially chronic worry. Instead of coming up with solutions to these potential problems, worriers typically simply ruminate on the danger itself, immersing themselves in a low-key way in the dread associated with it while staying in the same run of thought. Chronic worriers worry about a wide range of things, most of which have almost no chance of happening; they read dangers into life’s journey that others never notice.”

Still chronic worriers report that worrying helps them, and that their worries are self-perpetuating. So why should worry become what seems to amount to a mental addiction? Borkovec notes that the worry habit is reinforcing in the same sense that superstitions are. Since people worry about many things that have a very low probability of actually occurring, to the primitive limbic brain there appears to be something magical about it. “Like an amulet that wards off some anticipated evil, the worry psychologically gets the credit for preventing the danger it obsesses about.”

Borkovic discovered simple steps the can help even the most chronic worrier control the habit.

The first step is self-awareness, catching the worrisome episodes as near their beginning as possible. Borkovec trains people in this approach by first teaching them to monitor cues for anxiety, especially learning to identify situations that trigger worry, or the fleeting thoughts and images that initiate the worry, as well as the accompanying sensation of anxiety in the body. With practice people can identify the worries at an earlier and earlier point in the anxiety spiral. People also learn relaxation methods that they can apply at the moment they recognize the worry beginning, and practice the relaxation method daily so they will be able to use it on the spot. [Much has been written about relaxation in the healthy memory blog. Enter ‘relaxation’ into search block of the healthy memory blog.]

Goleman offers the following precaution: “for people with worries so severe they have flowered into phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or paid disorder, it may be prudent—indeed a sign of self-awareness—to turn to medication to interrupt the cycle A retraining of the emotional circuitry through therapy is still called for, however, in order to lessen the likelihood that anxiety disorders will recur when medication is stopped.

Melancholy and Depression

The single mood people put most effort into shaking is sadness: Tice found that people are most inventive when it comes to trying to escape the blues. Melancholy like every other mood has its benefits. The sadness that a loss brings has certain effects: it closes down our interest in divisions and pleasures, focuses attention on what’s been lost, and saps our energy for starting new endeavors, hopefully for the time being. It causes a reflective retreat from life’s pursuits, and leaves us in a state to mourn the loss, mull over its meaning, and make the psychological adjustments and new plans to continue with out lives.

Although bereavement is useful, a full-blown depression is not. In a major depression, love is paralyzed: no new beginnings emerge. The very symptoms of severe depression place a life on hold. For most people psychotherapy can help as can medication.

The far more common sadness that at its upper limits becomes a “subclinical depression” is sometimes referred to as melancholy. This is a range of despondency that people can handle on their own, if they have the internal resources. Unfortunately, some of the strategies most often resorted to can backfire, leaving people feeling worse than before. One such strategy is staying alone. However, more often than not this only adds a sense of loneliness and isolation to the sadness.

Tice found the most popular tactic for battling depression is socializing. Going out to eat, to a ball game or movie. Doing something with friends or family. This works well if the effect is to get the person’s mind off his sadness.

One of the main determinants of whether a depressed mood will persist or lift is the degree to which people ruminate. Worrying about what’s depressing us seems to make the depression all the more intense and prolonged. In depression, worry takes several forms, all focusing on some aspect of the depression itself, such as how tired we feel, how little energy or motivation we have, or how little work we’re getting done. Typically this reflection is not accompanied by any concrete course of action that might alleviate the problem.

Cognitive therapy aimed at changing these thought patterns has been found in some studies to be on a pair with medication for treating mild clinical depression, and superior to medication in preventing the return of mild depression. Two strategies are particularly effective. One is to learn to challenge the thoughts at the center of rumination. The other is to purposely schedule pleasant, distracting events.

Tice found that aerobic exercise is one of the more effective tactics for lifting mild depression, as well as other bad moods. A caveat here is that the mood-lifting benefits of exercise work best for the lazy, those who don’t work out very much. For those with a daily exercise routine there is a reverse effect on mood: they start to feel bad on those days when they skip their workout. Exercise seems to work well because it changes the physiological state the mood evolves: depression is a low-arousal state, and aerobics pitches the body into high arousal. Relaxation techniques, which put the body into a low-arousal state work for anxiety, a high-arousal state, but not so well for depression.

Tice reports that a more constructive approach to mood-lifting is engineering a small triumph or easy success: tackling some long-delayed chore around the house of getting to some other duty they’ve been wanting to clear up. Lifts to self-image were also cheering, even if only in the form of getting dressed up or putting makeup.

One of the most potent antidotes is cognitive reframing. For example, stepping back and thinking about the ways a relationship wasn’t so great, and ways you and your partner were mismatched, seeing the loss in a more positive light is an antidote to sadness.

This post offers some tips for dealing with emotional problems. Should problems persist and become chronic, please see professional help. Should you ever fear that you are a danger to yourself or others, SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP IMMEDIATELY. If necessary, go to an emergency room.

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One Response to “Passion’s Slaves”

  1. russvane3 Says:

    Grateful for a thoughtful, balanced approach to emotions. Excellent content. Very well done!

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