Managing adrenaline flow when anger and anxiety are at an all-time high during an unavoidable divorce is akin to riding the rapids. You try to stay afloat. Anger and anxiety both fueled by adrenaline are useful for short-term emergencies but are quite destructive and unpleasant long-term and often interfere with mediation. In fact, adrenaline affects the same areas of the brain as alcohol, undercutting the ability to see options, see other points of view, make effective decisions, and think clearly about the consequences of your actions.
Anger and anxiety won’t go away until you effectively deal with its source. You may be trying to control too much. Anger may precipitate an aggressive approach whereas anxiety is avoidance. In the meantime here are some strategies in dealing with this monster. Some options involve coping with anger or anxiety until issues can be resolved. These skills should be practiced before you are angry to reduce reactivity. To make it easier to remember we can take an “ABCDE” approach until the adrenaline metabolizes.
A cceptance of anger or anxiety itself. Acceptance is not resignation, it is living in reality. Anger or anxiety signals a need. The question is how to meet that need. Pick your battles, using your energy for the best outcomes. Acceptance also acknowledges the reality of what you feel underneath the anger or anxiety. It includes mindfulness: awareness of one’s feelings, thoughts, and sensations without reacting or judging them. Emotions can then inform but not determine one’s actions. Acceptance also includes a recognition that two people do not have to agree to make agreements. In other words, other points of view do not have to threaten your own view.
B reathing techniques, like breathing in a phrase used to calm and focus, as in self-coaching. One example would be breathing in the words “I will” and breathing out “be okay.” Or breathe in “This too” and breathe out “shall pass.” Others use “belly breathing”: deep breathing using your diaphragm. Your stomach should extend when breathing, and not your chest. Others breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. “Combat breathing” involves breathing in for four counts, holding for four counts, breathing out for four counts, holding for four counts, and repeating.
C alming techniques employ the five senses to relax the body. Appealing to the sense of touch involves soothing sensations that lead to muscle relaxation, the sense of sight using visualization of beautiful scenery or desired outcomes, or using relaxing or pleasing sound, aroma, or taste. Sometimes lowering stimulation in one of these areas is more helpful.
D istraction, including anything that effectively holds your attention for some time until the adrenaline can metabolize.
E xpressing anger or anxiety appropriate to your desired outcome. One example may be to state “I feel _____ when you _____” and then make a request. It is a request; no one has the right to control another. Requests can be negotiated, or one may have to take action to protect oneself. How can you make it okay in the here and now?
How do you know when you are calm? You could do a “prefrontal check.” This is the part of the brain that is active in the following tasks:
- Am I able to appreciate another’s point of view?
- Can I see the consequences of my actions?
- Can I think of a number of options to solve the problem?
Taking breaks throughout the day to meditate or practice acceptance, breathing, calming approaches or healthy distraction, and then using assertiveness (versus aggressiveness or passiveness) has been shown to be effective. It is a skill that needs to be developed over time.