May 25, 2010

Emotional False Alarms

Emotional False Alarms: Why we get upset over "nothing" and how we can stop it.

For the past five years, we have looked at how understanding psychology can be helpful in coping with difficult, every day, life situations. Today we are going to talk about a psychological phenomenon which creates a lot of unnecessary confusion and unpleasantness: Emotional false alarms, i.e. those times when we over-react or get upset over "nothing". Sometimes things happen that are really upsetting: serious losses or disappointments or unexpected conflicts. At other times however, folks can get upset and fight over trivial matters. Although we can't totally eliminate emotional upsets or verbal squabbles, there is much we can do to limit the damage done by these unnecessary emotional flair-ups and over-reactions. Today we will show you how.

 Why We Get Upset over "Nothing".

When folks say that someone is upset over "nothing", they mean that there is no apparent logical or rational explanation for the person's experience of distress or argumentativeness. In fact there are reasons which explain the outbursts but they have to do with historical associations which may only be known by the person who has become upset and, even then, the person may not be aware of the linkage which has created the false sense of urgency. Another way to think of these false alarms is see them as a minor form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. (e.g. We know that when soldiers first return from deployment, they can easily be spooked by simple events such as loud unexpected noises which can trigger reactions connected to combat.)

  •  Triggers and Emotional Associations

To understand how false alarms happen, we need to understand that as humans we are not simply guided by reason. We act not only on the basis of logic but also emotion. For example, we all know that a fragrance or a song can remind us of another time and place or person and for a moment we are connected with that memory and the feeling associated with it. These associations can be either pleasant or disturbing.

  • Transference This phenomenon can also happen with people. Something about a person or a situation can stir up intense feelings which have little to do with the present moment. Psychologist refer to this as transference. The experience can be triggered by something as simple as a look or a tone in a person's voice.
  • Perceptional Distortions and Emotional False Alarms When a transference takes place, our perception and judgment become distorted. We mush together what is happening in the present with what has happened in the past. The upset we are experiencing is not simply from the stress of the present moment (although we may think it is) but also includes residual and unresolved stress from our past emotional wounds. Trigger stimuli have an unseen double-whammy effect which makes things feel a lot worse than they really are and creates a false sense of imminent threat. This false alarm, in turn prompts behavioral reactions which are exaggerated. The reaction feels justified to the person experiencing the faux crisis, it is totally confusing and inexplicable to a partner or bystander. It's like the fire alarm goes off where there is smoke but no fire. For example: Someone who was raised in a home where there was fighting may react intensely when a spouse simply raises his/her voice.

2. How to Stop Getting Upset over "Nothing".

Become aware. Being mindful of the complexity of human psychology is a good start. Having a better understanding of how emotions effect what and how we perceive life events means getting to know ourselves and our partner's history better. We carry around unhealed wounds from the past which can blur our perceptions. Getting to know our own as well as our partner's "unfinished business" will cut down on unnecessary arguments.

3. What to Do When Upsets occur.

  • See the Similarities between the present trigger and events from the past.
  • Understand why you are having had a distressed impulse.
  • See the Differences between Past and Present. Remember that you are not in the same situation that you were in the past and that you are not the same person. You are older and wiser and have more power than you did as a child and have more options to respond.
  • Reality Test Ask yourself, " Is the distress I feel coming from a real threat or a false alarm ?
  • Think before responding and try to respond to the present not the past.

Remember - . We may not all have been in combat but we all have been wounded emotionally. Know your own and your partner's wounds and triggers. We can't stop having false alarms but we don't have to send out the fire trucks every time they go off.

The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow A.A.P.C., prepared these for Bridge Street 5 25 2010

 

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