I am an over-reactive type of human. I did not choose to be – this is simply my genetic inheritance. So I cannot blame myself – nor can others blame me for that.
However, genetics is not a mandate, but a kind of framework. And both environment and your own choice of behaviour can override many aspects of genetic predisposition. So the over-reactive type cannot fully abdicate responsibility for their overreactions.
The excellent book ‘Quiet” by Susan Cain discusses introversion, a personality type that is often the result of an over-reactive nature. It might appear to be a paradox that the noisy baby lying by the side of the quiet baby is likely to become the introvert, and the quiet baby the extrovert. But if the noise is the result of an emotional reaction to sensory overload, then it makes sense that a baby might grow up to seek refuge in the quiet of a book. Conversely, that the quiet baby, calm in the face of the same stimulation as the noisy baby might grow up to sensation seeking to get his kicks.
Resulting habits – such as the desire to read and live in your mind – may be consequences of sensory overload avoidance rather than consequences of a genetic inclination to an academic lifestyle.
The over-reactive nature is essentially a result of an over-reactive amygdala – the emotional centre of the brain, in effect. It is found in the more primitive part of the brain, receiving sensory signals before the conscious mind does. This permits the potentially life-saving fast fight or flight response before we are even aware of what has happened.
But an overly-sensitive amygdala can make for a harder time as the emotional response to life is essentially amplified. Unless they have a good upbringing, over-reactive types are more likely to get stressed and/or suffer depression. They are also more likely to be empathic – to feel what others feel – as long, that is, they are not exhausted from overload!
However, Cain revealed something very interesting about over-reactive types in her book – that a nurturing, loving upbringing will make a reactive-type more healthy than a low-reactive type. Less likely to get depressed for example. A sensitive nature, accepted and nurtured by parents will allow a reactive-type to flourish. Conversely, a harsh upbringing will mean a much harder life for an over-reactive type than their tougher skinned brethren.
It all makes sense of course, in hindsight – a sensitive microphone can excel in capturing delicate sounds (nuances) but will distort (overreact) with loud sounds. A robust microphone is a good, all purpose device, but will miss out on subtle (and often exquisite) sounds.
I mentioned that I was an over-reactive type because I wanted to relate some personal discoveries on the matter.
At one period in my life, I had bouts of acute anxiety that are termed panic-attacks. You literally feel like you are about to die, or at least have a heart attack. It is, in essence, an extreme emotional reaction to a potential threat, real or perceived (it can even simply be a situation that looks like one that was a danger in the past). The brilliant “Self help for nerves” by Claire Weekes allowed me to manage my way out of this caustic anxiety spiral.
The essence of her method is counter-intuitive to a large degree. You must not try to push away or ignore the intensely horrible feelings of a panic attack (such as pounding heart and light headedness). You must use the Eastern Philosophical concept of acceptance to just see it as it really is without judgement. Trying to push it away or worrying about what is happening will inflame and hence aggravate the attack. Accepting it will allow it to slowly fade away.
It would seem that the mindfulness is a key part to retraining your amygdala. By observing without judgement, you are quietly telling the amygdala that this is not a big problem – you provide a calming effect as well as a cue that the situation in the future is not one that is to be so concerned about. But you must be patient.
Most Christmas days, I have to endure the mother of all bad headaches, caused by a catch-22 situation where my subconscious thinks back to previous years where it got overloaded and tenses up in preparation for a possible repeat. This year, I was able to ignore the tension headache that awoke me at 4am and eventually go back to sleep in a relaxed state. It has taken years to develop this capacity to relax on demand, and it does not always work, but this time I ventured from my normally solitary life-style to a day with my sister and her family.
But relaxed or not, I felt deeply, deeply uncomfortable sat there watching all the presents being unwrapped. It was a reaction, in part, to losing the quiet of my own company. But it was way over the top. I knew this, but that knowledge cannot directly get through to the inflamed amygdala to calm it down. It screamed at me to run away or to tell people to be quieter or behave differently. I felt so uncomfortable that my mind desperately wanted the discomfort to end. What is deeply frustrating to over-reactive types about this situation is that their mind that is creating the discomforting feelings in the first place.
This was not a panic attack, but I decided to apply the same techniques. I observed what was happening in the room – people actually having fun and getting excited – and observed my deep agitation – and did what Weekes advises – just let time pass.
It was a very interesting experience. I suspect I helped accelerate the process because I knew that the discomfort would indeed fade, and that I reflected on the disparity between feeling and the innocence of the scene causing the feeling. It was like being patient with an impatient child nagging at you – sooner or later then would give up, as long as you did not react.
I reckon it was about an hour before the discomfort faded away. Remember that this discomfort is not one of my choosing – I was literally sitting there receiving the feelings, at odds to how my conscious mind wanted to proceed.
But I believe that similar situations where I suffer acute discomfort can benefit from this mindfulness approach. Except, maybe the headache I get when in conversation with certain people – people who do not seem to sense how I feel. ‘Unempathic’ is probably the best way to describe such people. I cannot observe in a detached manner as I am part of what is being observed – the dialogue. I will have to work a way around that type of problem.
On the plus side, my highly reactive nature lets me enjoy many simple things in life with an exquisite intensity that I suspect that extroverts can only experience in highly charged situations, much less common parts of daily life. So if I can defuse and reframe my negative reactions to life and revel in the positive things, then life will be sweet!