Recently, an incident here at home involving Puppy Gus got my rapt attention. Early one evening my wife and I were relaxing in the living room and Gus decided he wanted Dad Ollie’s attention. To get it, he began barking – a sharp, piercing, aggressive yelp that he kept repeating over and over.
Ollie paid him no mind, but Gus’s insistence was getting on my nerves – each bark sent a shot of adrenaline rushing through my body. I told Gus, “No” several times using my Command Voice. Still, he kept it up. Finally, I snapped. I reached down and nabbed him by the nape of his neck and gave him a hard pinch. He squealed in surprise and pain as I scooped him up and summarily deposited him outside onto the back deck.
There was no thought or planned action on my part in this interaction. It was all reactive anger and frustration combined with a sudden urgent need to reduce the stress hormones rising to uncomfortable levels in my brain and body. If Gus was smarter and paying closer attention, I suspect he might have noticed some tell-tale signs of my mounting frustration – tightening jaw, color draining from my cheeks, constricted breathing. He would also know that this kind of response is quite a rarity for me. But that would have been little consolation.
Paying Attention to the Relevant Dimensions
After his own experience of similar sudden anger, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development neuroscientist Doug Fields began researching the phenomenon and uncovered nine specific triggers that hold the potential to make any of us snap. He wrote the book with the same title as this blog. It summarizes the reasons he thinks we snap. They’re remembered by the mnemonic: “LIFEMORTS” –
Life or Limb preservation – defending yourself against attackers;
Insult – someone saying something irritating or offensive about you;
Family – as a response intended to protect loved ones;
Environment – as a response designed to protect hearth, home or national borders;
Mate – actions orchestrated to keep a primary partner safe;
Order in society – responses designed to preserve the rule of law and to right social injustices;
Resources – actions taken to gain and/or safeguard possessions;
Tribe –defensive reactions intended to preserve group/tribe safety;
Stopped – planned or impulsive actions taken to escape restraint or imprisonment.
Most of these behaviors seem to come prepackaged with neural network development and are instinctively designed to keep the human species alive and well and capable of carrying on and bringing forth future generations. Evolution wants us to evolve. Although you wouldn’t necessarily know it if you look to our political process. Fields details how politicians and their campaign managers are masters of manipulating these triggers – especially the Tribe, Social Order and Environment triggers. We are better served using awareness of these triggers to help in uniting people in empathy rather than the way they are used in politics – to divide, alienate and demonize members of the “other tribe.”
Fields goes into even greater detail in how the brain may sometimes send false positives around these triggers. When that happens a person may snap, but just as suddenly recover and put a brake on their anger. Cognitive understanding of the LIFEMORTS triggers can be a useful tool for anger management – it can readily allow us to discern if something is really worth getting angry about or not. Or if what we’re perceiving or thinking is mostly an imagined threat or an actual real one.
Getting Help for Puppy Gus
All this is interesting and useful to know, but it doesn’t much help Puppy Gus. The work of helping Puppy Gus is actually mine to do. It was my neurophysiology that slowly increased its levels of stress hormones. My brain and body that sat frozen as Gus continued his attention-seeking barking.
My adrenal glands that silently ratcheted up the flood of adrenaline and cortisol – temporarily shutting down cognitive functioning – until the only relief available to me was the impulsive action I took.
To avoid actions like that, I believe, requires the lifelong practice of brain network-building, making the unconscious conscious and ongoing practice in learning to skillfully manage my adrenal glands. Somewhat later, while reviewing the incident, I realized that Gus had actually triggered a childhood memory of Buster, the yappy rescue dog my mother got to replace one that ran off. It was a dog I used to beat with a belt in an unguided, unparented attempt to channel childhood anger, frustration and rage. 60 years later, in deploying only a quick pinch instead of a belt to Gus, I seem to have made some small amount of progress in neural network-building. And the work goes on.