I’m fascinated by volcanoes.
My heart raced with excitement and awe when I stood in the hot steam rising from the ground, walked across kilometres of lava rock, and flew in a helicopter over the crater of the active volcano in Hawaii.
When they’re not erupting, you can only imagine the intense pressure and power of mother nature bubbling and potentially rising within. There are little hints on the surface, but without professional equipment, you don’t know when you can expect a fiery explosion.
Much like anger.
We walk around all day, pressure bubbling and rising within us.
Woken up by being smacked across the face. Pressure rises.
Bowl of cereal spilt on the floor. Pressure rises.
Out of coffee. Pressure rises.
Asked your child to brush their teeth 15 times with no results. Pressure rises.
Running late for child care drop off. Pressure rises.
Kids refuse to get in the car. Pressure rises.
Cut off by another driver. Pressure rises.
Your mother in law calls to say she can’t look after the kids for your date night anymore. Pressure rises.
Your boss gives you another task with a deadline of 5pm. Pressure rises.
You might hardly notice at first, but there are countless little things that can happen through your day that incrementally, or substantially, increase the pressure you are feeling.
You manage every situation, like always, pushing your feelings aside to get on with it, not wanting to lose your cool in front of your kids or other people. But internally you bristle. Your heart rate quickens. You feel increasingly agitated.
If pressure continues to rise, without any release, it makes sense that you will eventually explode. And like a volcano, it’s often in a spectacular fashion.
Perfect mum is never angry
Anger is a very common emotion amongst mums yet we feel so alone in our experience of it. For many mums, anger is a surprise in motherhood. They wouldn’t have considered themselves an angry person before and they don’t understand why suddenly they find it so hard to keep it together.
We don’t talk about our anger because an angry mum is seen as a bad or scary mum. The perfect mother myth tells us we should be endlessly patient and never ruffled. It tells us that we should have everything in order in our lives, and that we should be raising perfectly obedient children, so that there really isn’t any reason to be angry. This is fiction, lovely. Pure fiction. And the fact that this fiction is deeply embedded in our identity as mothers, creates unmet expectations and more anger.
We don’t talk about our anger because we don’t want to be judged and we feel so guilty and ashamed for behaving in a way that isn’t aligned with our values. We worry about the impact on our children and wonder why we are failing at staying calm. Of course, we don’t see others lose their temper, because it’s much easier to hold it together when you’re in the presence of other people, so we assume it’s only us and that everyone else is doing a much better job.
We need to start talking about it more. We need to let each other know that we aren’t alone, or failing when we feel angry. We need to remind ourselves that anger is a normal and functional human emotion. Everyone experiences it, so feeling angry doesn’t make you a bad mum. We can however, learn to deal with our anger in a more constructive way, and also release pressure on a regular basis so we minimise the chances of explosions.
What happens when we get angry
It’s helpful to understand what happens in your brain when you get angry.
Neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel explains that you have an upstairs and a downstairs part of your brain. The upstairs brain is the thinking part of your brain. It helps you make good decisions. The downstairs brain is the emotional centre of your brain. It’s the home of your big feelings. These two areas of the brain work together to regulate emotions, think before acting and consider how others feel. The amygdala is part of the downstairs brain, and is responsible for quickly processing and expressing emotions, especially anger and fear. It’s always looking for danger, and when it identifies a threat, it can completely take over the upstairs brain, meaning we end up acting before thinking.
In our everyday lives, the threats are often emotional threats, but they can also be physical threats. I’ll come back to this later.
So, the reason it’s hard to think clearly or calm yourself down when you hit that 10 out of 10 pressure level, is that your thinking brain is being blocked by your amygdala. Your emotions are in charge. This is a normal function of your brain. This can happen to any of us.
Releasing the pressure
If you’re already at a 7 or 8 out of 10 in terms of pressure, it won’t take much to get to 10. At this stage it’s difficult to remember to release the pressure. We need to learn to release the pressure much earlier, so that when we hit 5, for example, we can take it back down to a 3 or 4 (when your upstairs and downstairs brain work together much better), even if we have to do this over and over.
Here are some ways you can release the pressure:
1. Take care of your basic needs
When there’s a lot on our plates, our own needs tend to be taken off the to-do list. But these are the most vital items because they are the foundation for our day to day emotional resilience in the face of rising pressure.
- Eating nourishing food regularly?
- Drinking enough water?
- Exercising or moving regularly?
- Getting adequate sleep or rest?
- Taking time for yourself? (this is often overlooked but makes a big difference)
- Connected and able to access support where needed?
It might seem like a lofty ideal to have all of these areas covered, but try not to see it as another thing to get right. Things will ebb and flow in different seasons. Start where you are, look for the biggest gaps which could be contributing to your heightened emotions, and address those.
2. Learn to spot the warning signs
Your body will tell you when the pressure is rising. Quickened breath, racing heart, tension in the shoulders or jaw, flushed cheeks, heat in the body. It’s different for different people so get to know your own signs. When you can spot the warning signs early, you can take action to release pressure before it gets too much.
3. Allow your uncomfortable emotions to hang around
When we push our emotions down, deny or ignore them, they don’t actually go away. They add to the pressure. Instead, let them exist. Notice how they feel. Give them a name to engage your thinking brain. Learn to sit with the discomfort because it’s the only path to letting the feelings go.
Changing our physical state can change our emotional state. In fact, many of our emotions start in the body. When I tense my shoulders (which I do often), it sends messages to my brain that I am stressed. So, release pressure by moving your body. Jump up and down, run on the spot, walk, stretch or do whatever works for you.
In Part 2 of this blog series, I share more ways to release pressure, as well how we can learn from our anger and repair when we do explode.
Want more support with managing your anger?
We’re diving deeper, over in my Facebook group for mums. Come and join us! Otherwise, if you’re looking for one on one support, email me at email@example.com.