Dear global Self-reggers: a letter from stuart shanker

Feb 24, 2022 | Dear Global Self-Reggers

We welcome you to read and respond to this first letter for Self-Reggers around the world, originally penned by Stuart Shanker on February 17th, 2021.

Dear Global Self-Reggers,

I am working this week on the global epidemic of anger. We see it everywhere: an alarming rise in domestic violence. Angry protests that paralyze an entire city. Sudden explosions of rage directed at health professionals, or for that matter, complete strangers. Families that are no longer able to celebrate holidays together without violence breaking out.

Our first step in Self-Reg is always to ask Why, and here we find it invaluable to probe beneath the surface of the brain. It is clear that heightened levels of stress have sent a great many into Red Brain, where the lapse into rage is just a small neural step away. It is also clear that anger is contagious, spreading quickly from one limbic system to another. And it is clear that there are forces afoot that are seeking to capitalize – financially or politically – on the cultivation of anger.

But what exactly is going on inside our brain when we get so angry that we lash out, verbally if not physically? Here is where things start to get complicated. There is a subcortical pathway that runs from the Amygdala to the Hypothalamus to the Periaqueductal Gray (PAG) in the midbrain. Signals flow up-and-down, releasing the neurochemicals that trigger anger. But then, the amygdala itself is connected to prefrontal systems, so thoughts and fears are all part of this “neuroaxis,” keeping the limbic and midbrain systems hyperaroused.

And then, to complicate matters further, systems deep in the midbrain are not nearly so differentiated as the categorical distinctions that we draw in language. The PAG lies adjacent to the systems deeply implicated in SEEKING and FEAR. It turns out that there is a neurobiological reason that the anger we feel towards a health or government official is often associated with the fear that they represent a threat to some of our deepest desires.

The better we understand all these connections, the clearer it becomes why excessive stress renders us vulnerable to the effects of a hyperaroused midbrain that radiates up the neuroaxis and, all too often, out towards others. But understanding why we are seeing an anger epidemic is one thing; what we can do to lessen the anger that is another.

– Stuart Shanker

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