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3 Ways to Outsmart Automatic Fear/Anger Response and Take Control of Yourself

Overcoming Emotional Hijacking

Photo by Tahiro Achoub on Unsplash

Brows raised in a flat line, upper eyelids raised, and mouth open with lips drawn back — that scowl on one’s face is evidence for anyone who’s is really paying attention.

Yet some people don’t get it.

In fact, there are people in this world who totally ignore those facts.

Titanic Explosion of Anger

For instead of admitting and facing their anger, they deny it. They refuse to admit they’re holding tightly onto their anger. Because they’ve repressed it. They’ve buried it deep within their subconscious.

Probably because they “can’t handle the truth,” as Jack Nicholson so aptly put it.

For many are afraid to feel what they feel. They fear the danger of their impulsive reactions. They’re scared they will turn destructive. They’re terrified their anger will be detrimental to health of body and soul. For they succumb to triggers that stop them from writing, They must learn to outwit counter-productive triggers.

Instead of saying and doing nothing about it, avoiding anything that would enflame their anger more. Never realizing that they could be one-split second away from disaster.

But bottled up anger can be as problematic as an instant, automatic fear-response.

For repressed anger will usually, at some time or another, break free…without any warning ...

Resulting in a catastrophic explosion of ranting and raving, spewing raging resentment, and acting out that rocks their boat and sinks the Titanic all over again.

Yet far too many of us resort to such things. And even worse. For anger causes us to revert to our caveman and cavewoman selves — and fight back when we get mad.

And we don’t even realize what we are doing.

We don’t know …

Emotionally Highjacked

“We’ve been emotionally highjacked.”

For as Vanessa van Edwards explains in her book Captivate: the Science of Succeeding with People, “your ‘low road’ is emotionally hijacking you.”

For research has discovered that there are two pathways in the brain that are responsible for the processing of our anger (our fear response). They call one the ‘low road’ which connects our thalamus to our amygdala, the part of our brain where fear responses are processed.

The ‘low road’ is, explains van Edwards, “the fast automatic, primary fear response that helps us react quickly to a threat. The low road helps us survive.”

And survival is the quintessential goal of every human being. Right?

Yet …

According to van Edwards,

“Emotional highjacking is the reason social situations can be difficult — and why difficult people can be difficult.”

Van Edwards reports that psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman says, “When your low road is in an emotional fear response, you cannot connect with your high road, make logical decisions, or act in your best social interest.”

Blocked High Road

In other words, your ‘High Road’ is temporarily blocked so you can’t access it.

For the ‘high road’ is the pathway which travels from the thalamus to your neocortex to your amygdala.

This high road pathway, is the “slower, more logical secondary fear response that helps us think through a threat. The high road helps us thrive,” says van Edwards.”

Thus, because we are on the low road in survival mode, we are stuck.

Stuck and acting out our anger in ways that are counterproductive.

For we seem to be on a path to do as much damage as we possibly can. Without realizing we have been emotionally highjacked by our fear response taking over both mind and body.

That’s why you say and do stupid things.

Like going on a rampage. Telling someone off. Even denying our feelings and refusing the help that is offered no matter how much you need it.

And often it’s your defiant reaction to even the littlest things.

Like your spouse leaving his car behind yours so you can’t get out of the garage. Or even your memory of the past incident where your mother criticized you. For doing your chores ‘the wrong way.’

For, says van Edwards, “Triggers from your past can also condition you to react fearfully to relatively minor events.”

Resulting in an obsessive sense of injustice and a need for revenge.

An Ongoing Battle with Fear/Anger

But, as Professor Peter M. Vishton of William and Mary College expounds,

“Some of humankind’s greatest accomplishments began when someone became outraged over the world the way it is, rather than the way it could — or should — be.”

In his book Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You Course Guidebook, Professor Vishton goes on to say, “While extreme anger can create numerous problems, mild anger can be a valuable source of energy and motivation.”

Yet, according to Professor Vishton, all too often our automatic unconscious brain systems such as our fear response takes over our lives.

“All of us are embodiments of an ongoing battle between [certain cognitive] reflexive automatic tendencies and our conscious, intentional mind,” he asserts.

But, instead of venting our anger, or hiding it until it destroys us, we can transform it.

Outsmarting Automatic Responses

Here are 3 ways to ‘outsmart’ the automatic process of your fear/anger response and take control for yourself.”

1. Smile instead of Scowl

Professor Vishton advises you to smile when you are angry because “what you do with your body — and your face in particular — plays a significant role in how you feel.”

Researchers call this the “facial feedback hypothesis.”

Their hypothesis suggests that information flows in both directions. For just as your feelings and emotions influence the way you act, your actions influence the way you feel.

Professor Vishton explains, “If the emotional centers of your brain detect that you’re smiling — presumably based on the signals coming from the muscles and the brain areas that control them — then they encode that as evidence that you must be happy.”

Thus, smiling for a few minutes will result in your feeling more positive afterwards.

Also, smiling reduces adverse responses to stress and pain.

In one experiment, participants held a chopstick in their mouth when experiencing the effect of stress inducing tasks. This resulted in lower heart rates because of less strain on their heart.

All because the chopstick between their teeth forced them into a smiling pose.

There are many studies that support the suggestion that smiling increases the release of serotonin and endorphins associated with good feelings.

2. The Wonder Woman Way

Researchers advise adopting “the power pose” or “Wonder Woman” stance to help override negative emotions.

Do this by drawing your shoulders back, extending your neck, and facing forward with your legs spaced wide apart. Then “your body changes the way your brain is functioning…” explains Professor Vishton.

”Your personality actually changes: you become more confident and more assertive,” he adds.

And afterwards, when faced with a stressful experience, “your body will react to stress differently.”

For you have prepared for fear/anxiety-arousing situations. Where you once would have hunched your shoulder and crossed your legs and arms in subservient body posturing ... you now take a more dominant stance.

And as Vishton understands it, “people who seem more dominant tend to be treated better.”

Also, those in the power-pose performed better than the people in a subservient posture,” he adds.

3. The Nutty Approach to Preventing Crazy

Van Edwards has a way that “prevents crazy and calms crazy.” She calls it the Nut Job, a three-step process of naming the emotion, understanding the feeling, and transforming the fear.

Step 1: Name the Feeling

First you pay attention to the emotion words used by you and the person who is upset. For you are seeking an answer to the question: “what is the upset person afraid of?”

Then you echo the emotion words back to her as you discuss what happened that is so upsetting to her.

Your response to her upset is to use phrases like: “You seem ___”; Are you feeling ___?”; “Am I right when I say you’re feeling _____?”

You continue mirroring back to her the emotion words she uses until she is speaking and acting more like her usual self. She’s stopped screeching. And quit crying. For as van Edwards says,

“The moment you identify the emotion someone is feeling, you open a release valve for their anxiety.”

For you’ve validated her concerns and made her feel heard and understood.

This helps her get clear on what is really going on in her mind, as well as in her relationships, and her life.

Step 2. Understanding Anger to Disengage

Being finally heard disengages her low road and puts her on the high road where she is “a more logical, rational, relationship oriented person.”

The goal of step two is to seek answers to question: What does she really want?” So you keep striving to get information which can only be provided by her and her responses. You keep her talking to help her process what she’s feeling.

And you keep trying to “unpack emotions behind what’s being said” by using the phrases:

“What happened that made you feel ____?”

“The reason you’re so _____ is because?” and

“What caused this ______?”

When she gets to the point where she is thinking instead of merely reacting, then ….

Take the next step.

Step 3: Transforming an Anger Problem

Before you move to the third step, first she must have fully completed the naming and understanding steps.

A “sigh of relief, talking in a voice they normally do, sound[ing] like themselves” indicates she is done processing,” says van Edwards. Then you move into the transform phase.

You offer your solution if you have one.

But sometimes a problem can’t be fixed, so you go into ‘appreciation mode.’

You show her you value her. You reassure her she’s not alone. And as she talks more, you determine the answer to the question, “What does she need?”

Then you ponder how to address her “primary value.”

Is she looking for love, to be of service, status, money, possessions and goods, or information? Then you figure out how you can help her get that primary value met.

And you offer her what she’s looking for.

As van Edwards says, the nut job’s not about changing people. It’s about showing people you value them by getting a deeper understanding of their problem.

And to do that, as van Edwards says,

“You can’t argue with a feeling, but you can acknowledge it.”


”when you value difficult people, they will be less apathetic, angry, and fearful and more compassionate, understanding, and open,” she adds.

The Takeaway

The truth is that everyone is afraid of something, somewhere, sometimes.

According to van Edwards, trying to understand fear and addressing it transforms a problem into a solution.

It transforms a troubled person into compassionate human being. And yourself into a person who makes a positive impact on others in your life.

Professor Vishton believes we can “outsmart anger and turn it into positive, productive action.” You do that by choosing to smile even when you’re angry; taking up the power pose stance; and, instead of being aggressive and punitive, you seek to name the feeling, understand what the exact fear is, and then provide a solution and/or provide reassurance of the value of human beings by appreciating them.

Professor Vishton says, if you can short circuit the malice cycle of a fear response, “mean can change to nice.”

And being nice instead of angry is totally in your control, in spite of all your unconscious automatic brain patterns that trigger your fear/anxiety response.



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Kathy G Lynch

Kathy G Lynch

Kathy G. wants to show farmer's daughters how to become successful writers even in this highly competive world