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How June Overcame Her Short Fuse & Emotional Volatility

I've written a series of articles exploring ideas from my one-page Stress Resilience Blueprint, which is a summary of what you need for effective stress management. I thought it would be helpful to show you how these ideas play out in real cases, so I'd like to tell you about my client, June. June (not her real name) was an accountant with marriage issues. Although the problems dated back to an infidelity on the part of her husband a couple of years earlier, June felt her feelings and behaviours ever since were part of the problem. She'd decided to stay in the marriage and try to work things out, and she felt she wanted to forgive her husband, but the truth was, June had a lot of volatile anger and every week or two, some minor issue would blow up into an explosive row. Later her self-recriminations would leave her feeling awful.

We had four or five sessions together but the real work was done in just one of them, in which, using biofeedback, I was able to offer June an insight into what was going on.

We worked with a biofeedback parameter called galvanic skin response or GSR, which is able to pick up the body's fight or flight response (it's what's used in the well-known “lie detector” test). Fight or flight triggers a sharp rise in the measured signal (which we can show as a graph in real time - the figure below shows a typical GSR trace) while relaxation engenders a steady fall.

galvanic skin response biofeedback graph

I gave June a challenge – one with a hidden edge. I asked June to try to make the signal come down (i.e. to relax). The edge is that the responses driving the signal are largely involuntary – though it is possible to have some indirect control, GSR embodies emotional processes happening to a large extent automatically, and too fast for the conscious mind to veto.

The result was not entirely surprising to me – a series of hugely exaggerated upward spikes.

This was just what June needed to see. We had a clear demonstration of what I've been calling the “quicksand trap”, which is a mental dynamic whereby our efforts at control are entirely counter-productive. June's efforts to reign in her emotions were actually making things much worse for her – we saw a series of large fight-or-flight reactions.

In physiological terms, fight-or-flight is driven by the sympathetic nervous system. One of the most reliable triggers for sympathetic activation is what I call resistance – the mental act of rejecting experiences you don't like.

What we were seeing with GSR biofeedback reflected what was happening in June's rows. Something relatively minor would trigger June's ire – she would notice, and immediately become wary of another explosive row. She would try to suppress this anger – and in so doing, she'd amplify greatly the initial arousal in her sympathetic nervous system.

Just seeing the dynamic play out was enough to change everything for June. 

June had a powerful intellect. She probably over-invested in the power of her intellect to maintain her self-control. She knew her ongoing outbursts weren't  very rational, and thought she could just consciously decide not to have them. Now she could see that more was happening in her mind and body – things she had little direct control over. On the positive side, she knew she couldn't blame herself any more. She had to find a better way to relate to her own emotions than force and willpower – a more emotionally intelligent way, if you like.

And with my help that's just what she did. Her explosions more or less stopped completely soon after. With biofeedback she learned to allow her body to relax, and to trust her body's innate emotional intelligence. The key was the change in the way she related to her own emotional mind. She ceased to treat it like an unruly child and developed a more trusting and appreciative connection.

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