When I met Juan, I was struck by his inability to sit still. Some part of his body was always in motion. For most of our meeting, his right leg bounced rhythmically. He picked at his fingers. He chewed gum, too — the kind of intense chewing you see in baseball players during a game. I could see the muscles of his jaw tighten over and over again. Despite this activity, Juan didn’t look animated. He looked exhausted.
Juan knew that family members and coworkers described him as a hothead and that he reacted to many commonplace exchanges with impatience. He appreciated that his job allowed him to spend hours interacting with his computer and not with people. He would occasionally have lunch with a colleague, but more often he would eat at his desk, working between bites.
Eventually, after I'd spoken for a while, Juan spoke.
“I really don’t want to be that guy,” he said. “The computer guy with anger issues.”
A lot of people suffer from jumpiness and irritability — in a variety of professions. Some make it through the workday without exploding, saving up their tension for unfortunate family members at home. Some aren’t hostile at all but find interpersonal interactions so stressful that they want to jump into bed and pull up the covers after a trip to the grocery store. Some drink. A lot. (These are the people who need to “take the edge off.”)
I’ve always suspected that these kinds of people are underrepresented in therapy offices — in part because therapy sounds like 50 long minutes of irritating interaction, but also because they fear labels. Something is terribly wrong with you, they imagine me saying. Here, let me show you this textbook that explains the word for people who can’t handle being around others.
But every person who’s come to my office has been endlessly complex and interesting — and shorthand labels, even diagnoses, can never capture a soul’s complexity. There’s no judgment here: People with chronic interpersonal stress are usually relieved to know that their tension is not a character flaw or a personal failure. It’s simply a problem with what I’ll call the “calm” neural pathway. This kind of constant relational stress is related to low tone in the smart vagus.
Your nervous system helps you respond appropriately to stress. It has three branches:
1. The sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the fight-or-flight response when you are in danger.
2. The parasympathetic nervous system, which brings on the freeze response when your life is threatened.
3. The smart vagus, which has the power to block the fight, flight, and freeze responses when you are feeling safe.
If you want to get calmer, you have to strengthen your neural pathways.
For everyone who struggles with these sorts of interactions, education is the first step toward improvement. When I asked Juan about friends and romantic relationships, he shrugged the question off, saying, “I’m not good at relationships.” He, like so many other people, believed he had been born like this.
He was born with the reflexes to connect with people, but he needed healthier relationships to help him build stronger neural pathways. Using a computer metaphor, I explained the neural pathway system. He became very engaged in the neuroscience — a good sign.
His nervous system had been formed in an environment of both traumatic loss (his mother’s death) and constant threat (his father’s emotional and physical violence). His neural pathways for healthy connection had not been stimulated enough to grow. We both knew turning down the volume down on his overactive sympathetic nervous system was key to his moving out of the deep isolation he felt.
His brain was telling him to be angry and scared. For anyone struggling with chronic irritability and anxiety, learning to feel calmer and more trusting will require strengthening your smart vagus so it can tell your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems when you’re safe.
You can improve vagal tone by working on these goals:
1. Starve some of the pathways to your sympathetic nervous system.
2. Strengthen the smart vagus directly.
3. If necessary, reduce stimulation to the parasympathetic nervous system.
By the time we’re adults, most of us have spent two decades building up our sympathetic nervous system and ignoring smart vagus skills, like learning to soak up the calming effects of trustworthy relationships.
Adulthood brings a whole new bucket of stresses: paying the rent or mortgage, surviving life in the cubicle, raising children. If you’re living a typically hectic contemporary life, you probably feel chronically stressed.
Lots of people who frequently feel anxious and irritable are living with a noisy sympathetic nervous system. If you feel so chronically tense that, like Juan, you are revved up and worn down, your most important job is to reduce the workload on your sympathetic nervous system.
Here’s how to get started.
Remember the golden rule of brain change: Use it or lose it.
Weaken your stress pathways by starving them of stimulation. Start by reducing your exposure to unsafe relationships.
Take a look at your relational safety groups. If you’re being physically or emotionally damaged by any of them, end or reduce contact with people who set of your internal alarms with good reason.
In Juan’s case, this meant cutting back on time he spent with his father, and not seeing him alone. Taking a safe person with you into a frightening situation can be very reassuring.
You should always, always, always leave a relationship that is physically or sexually abusive.
If you are in a relationship that is emotionally disrespectful, the decision to leave can be weighed against the level of harm, the importance of the relationship to you, and whether you have other safe relationships to balance the emotional destruction.
If the person who feels emotionally unsafe is a parent, the choice to leave can be extremely painful. You’re biologically wired to connect with your parents. Cutting off a relationship with either one is like cutting off a leg: something you’d do to save your life but only when there are no other options.
When staying is painful but leaving is too brutal, recruit a supportive mental health professional.
Reduce your exposure to the emotionally unsafe person. Cut as far back as you can on the time you spend with him or her in person, on the phone, or online.
Work with your therapist or counselor to help you identify how, when, and why you interact with this person. Those interactions are probably based mostly on the unsafe person’s needs, but you may be able to change those terms. You can also become more sensitive to the unsafe person’s mood changes and end the exchange before things get tricky.
As you build other, healthier relationships, you’ll see this person’s behavior and the damage it does more clearly. This insight will help you justify the decision to spend even less time with the person or, perhaps, to finally end the relationship.
Invest more in the most rewarding, nurturing relationships you have.While you’re working to reduce your exposure to difficult relationships, you should also increase the amount of time you spend in your safest relationships. Every minute you spend with your most trusted friends helps heal the neural pathways that are being damaged by the low-safety relationship.
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