First, let me thank Carol Fredrickson, CEO and Founder of Violence Free.  She and her partner are workplace violence experts who conduct seminars, workshops, and more, on Managing Angry Clients, Customers, Employees, and Patients.  People have benefitted since 1993 from her powerful messages.  Carol extended permission to me to pass on some valuable information on the understanding of anger and the part our brains play under stress.  With increasing workplace violence and violence in schools, much of the following is her insight explaining why our brains take completely over in times of stress or anger.  

Have you ever experienced so much anger, stress, or frustration that you become very emotional when someone triggers your “hot buttons?”  According to Ms. Fredrickson, the cerebral cortex is the thinking part of the brain where logic and judgment reside; the emotional center of the brain is the limbic system, which is more primitive than the cerebral cortex.  She then introduces us to the amygdala, a part of the limbic system of the brain, which acts like a fire alarm for our brain.  It reacts only to previously stored patterns.  

The reason this is so fascinating to me is that a few years ago, I had what Ms. Fredrickson calls an “amygdala hijacking” – where I had no cognitive thought such as judging, evaluating, or thinking a situation through, without regard for consequence.  I was attending a town hall meeting concerning our hospital (where I had previously worked, in administration).  The person doing all the talking was continually belittling things that I found offensive, until I exploded into stepping onto my “soapbox” to let him know how insulting the things he was saying were to many people.  I was on a roll until my head began to feel as though it were going to split wide open, so I stopped talking. A physician friend took me to the clinic adjoining the hospital, where my blood pressure was at stroke level.  

According to Carol, again, here is what the “hijack” looks like within the brain – and what it looks like on the outside:

  •          The person is usually out of control and will say or do things they later regret. (However, I didn’t regret what I said.)
  •          This state lasts an average of 20 minutes.
  •          Although the adrenaline clears the body fairly quickly, longer lasting hormones and their impact can last several hours or even a couple  of  days.   (In  my case, just talking to another doctor and nurse calmed me down, and I was able to go home.)

The lesson I learned from this experience was to stay away from situations that are that upsetting.  We know it is impossible to stay away from stress and conflict in the workplace.  This lesson, though, does teach us that when someone is having one of these “hijacks”, the person must be allowed to vent and then wait until their thoughts move from the emotional area to the thinking area of the brain before we try to reason with them.  Self-awareness of our own responses to anger will help us manage our own, and can be the key to de-escalating anger in others. 

Sometimes our brain makes us act like a bully, but if we know what our hot buttons are, and understand not to trigger someone else’s temper, we can manage to work with others in a better manner.  There are stressful situations that everyone works under, but allowing them to reach a boiling point, resulting in violence, must be prevented at all costs.  If you are aware of conflicts in the workplace, consult your supervisor.  Leaders cannot fix things if they don’t know about them. 

Thank you again, Carol Fredrickson, for the advice on understanding what can cause us to do things we shouldn’t, in public, at home, or work, by letting our tempers fly.  More good tips on safety and reducing liability can be found at the website, http://www.violence-free.com.