The Medical Reason I Lose My Temper

My kids are the joy of my life. The ability to stay home with my 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son is an enormous blessing, and 99 percent of my time with them and my husband is fun.

But every once in a while, it happens. A toy will snap in half, or one of them will start a screaming tantrum. Suddenly, my throat will tighten and a hot rage creeps up the back of my neck. My pulse quickens and my hands start to shake. Inevitably, angrily, I explode: Stop yelling! Both of you — right now!

One day, when my pulse sped up and I started to sweat mid-drama, it hit me: This isn’t anger. It’s anxiety.

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As it happens, anxiety and I have been tight for years now. On a trip to India as part of a study-abroad program in 2009, I developed kidney stones that became obstructed in my urethra. After days of not being able to pee, I flagged down a rickshaw and directed the driver to a local hospital — a poorly lit building with puddles of water on the floor. Struggling with the language barrier and in extraordinary pain, I argued with the doctors about my condition and forked over thousands of rupees for surgery to remove the stone, puking into a bucket the entire time.

Watts in India (Photo: Sarah Watts)

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For months afterward, anything that reminded me of the hospital — loud noises, unfamiliar settings, any kind of bodily ache — sent me into a tailspin of panic. I suffered debilitating panic attacks and nightmares until I was diagnosed and treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in January 2010.

Currently, PTSD is something that sits in my back pocket and only crawls out occasionally. With therapy and medication, I’m functional. But every few months or so, a shrill noise or a cramp in my abdomen hurls me right back down a panic spiral. Anger, it seems, is how my panic commonly shows itself.

It turns out, I’m not alone. Around 10 percent of women and 4 percent of men develop PTSD at one point in their lives following a traumatic event. And although there are no statistics regarding PTSD and anger, Overcoming Trauma and PTSD author Dr. Sheela Raja, an assistant professor of dentistry and medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says anger and PTSD commonly go together.

Anger can actually be an evolutionary response to dealing with stress, according to Raja. “When we’re faced with something we feel is threatening, our body physiologically gets ready to fight that threat, or run away,” she explains. To fight or flee the threat, a body “revs up” in preparation: the heart beats faster, muscles tense, and pupils dilate. People who are chronically anxious, says Raja, are at a higher state of hyper-arousal, and “rev up” in response to things that, to non-anxious people, normally wouldn’t be considered provoking. “With panic disorder, you’re more easily provoked,” says the expert. Anger provides the body an additional boost of energy to stay and “fight” the threat at hand.

(Photo: Sarah Watts)

“There’s still a real stigma talking about anger and irritability in relation to parenting, particularly with mothers,” Raja says. “But we know parenting can really trigger anxiety, especially if your first child. It’s generally a lot for most people to adjust to, especially if you have a past trauma or an anxiety disorder.”

Moreover, parenting is inescapable. We parents can’t exactly flee a band of small, noisy kids — as much as we’d like to. Realistically, we have to stay and deal with the stress. And physiologically, that means our bodies gear up to fight.

So how can parents deal? “One of the key things we teach parents is when your anger level is high, make sure your child is in a safe place and step out of the room for fifteen to thirty seconds,” Raja advises. “Thirty second seems like a short amount of time, but we can use it to bring down our physiology.”

To further de-escalate, Raja suggests practicing mindfulness, a cognitive behavioral technique where the person focuses on their surroundings, their body, and their breathing to ground them in the present moment. Deep breathing — inhaling for eight seconds and exhaling for eight seconds — slows down your pulse and lowers your blood pressure. Other helpful methods include daily yoga, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.

(Photo: Sarah Watts)

Mindfulness, especially, has been an enormous help for me. With anxiety “our thoughts take us somewhere back to the past or somewhere in the future,” Raja says. And boy, is that the truth. When I start to tumble down the panic spiral, it’s usually because my head is in the past (reliving my traumatic event) or I’m too far ahead in the future (fretting about what-ifs).

The other day, as the kids and I hung out together in the kitchen, my son started hurling fistfuls of Kinetic Sand at my daughter. As she shrieked, tugging at my shirt and demanding that he be sent to time-out, I felt my heartbeat quicken, heat creeping into my face. But instead of exploding, I went into the living room and centered myself. I inhaled for eight seconds then exhaled for just as long. “I’m okay,” I said out loud. “This is not an emergency. We’re okay.” And I went back into the kitchen.

It’s a start.

(Top photo: Sarah Watts)

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