Love Song for Amygdala

by: Lara Messersmith-Glavin1

An impactful essay about learning to celebrate the experience of anger and using it to overcome complacency in this political moment…

The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for identifying threats and spurring us to react in self-defense — often fleeing, freezing, or fighting. Neurotransmitters are released that provide a long burst of endurance, and the heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure increase. Skin temperature may drop. Other neurotransmitters, like adrenalin and noradrenalin, flood the system to trigger a “lasting state of arousal.” Memory and concentration weaken.

This is why it can be difficult to recall specifics of a fight — hyper arousal leaves lasting impressions of certain details and abandons others entirely. Meanwhile, attention narrows.

It locks in focus on its target…

When I was young, I lived in a house with a lot of anger. I mistook the anger for love sometimes, due to the force of it, the heat it expelled. The anger’s wrath was like being hit by balls of lightning, all tense crackle and explosive impact. I hadn’t yet learned how to wield it, how to make it move, so when it was hurled at me, in words and fists, I caught it in my belly and held it fast, where it boiled and morphed into steam. The pressure of that anger’s steam swelled within me, and the only way I learned how to let it out was through my skin. I learned to make tiny cuts in my wrists so all that pent-up anger could drain out, leaving me once again hollow and clear, yet limp like an empty balloon.

As I grew older, I gained some skills. I learned to open myself wide, like a valve, or like venetian blinds turned parallel to let the sun stream in. In this way, the anger would pass right through me. I learned to become insubstantial and porous, without resistance. And yet, sometimes the anger would snag on a corner of me, get caught on an edge here and there, and it would accumulate. Once again, the pressure would build within, and I sought unhealthy outlets — through numbing, distraction, and explosive release.

Chronically angry people may not produce sufficient acetylcholine, the hormone that tempers the effects of adrenaline. Overexertion of the nervous system in this manner can also produce depression and anxiety in the long run. Common maladaptive behaviors include a range of avoidance mechanisms, including but not limited to: worrying, perfectionism, avoiding feelings, staying overly busy, judging and criticism, substance abuse, sarcasm, lying, and withdrawal from relationships…

As an adult I began to feel ashamed about the anger I felt. I believed that it was a man’s emotion, something for rageful beasts, emotional children, and unsuitable for a grown woman to feel. Women are healers and nurturers, pacifists, capable of higher emotions and providing love and care. It wasn’t that we were supposed to be well behaved, it was that we were supposed to be better in every way. Anger was the way of war, of taking apart the world, and a woman’s job was to mend it.

So I tried. I tried to be the healer. I tried to be the saint, the lover, the gentle one. I tried to be better. And every time the anger emerged, I was humiliated by my lack of restraint, at the ways in which I repeated the patterns I’d learned as a child. At my urge to explode and to overwhelm, to succumb to the hideous, intoxicating power of rage.

It is possession.

Most self-help and psychology texts encourage those who are trying to overcome outbursts of anger to “take a deep breath,” and learn to “slowly count to five before speaking or acting.” The authors and texts don’t understand that when someone is triggered, there is no window of time between the trigger and the response. No space where a breath can be taken and no gap where a five count can wedge itself between gas and flame. There is only combustion.

Likely for reasons of evolution and survival, the amygdala, responsible for certain emotions and safety, respond more quickly than the prefrontal cortex, which manages reason and judgment.

Part of the prefrontal cortex can effectively deactivate emotional responses, especially with training. It is this override mechanism that is cultivated to control explosive outbursts, particularly when they are part of a chronic inability to manage anger in a healthy fashion.

Relaxation techniques are often encouraged…

It begins as a constriction in my chest. This constriction is not like a hand squeezing, or even a band of steel — it is the body straining against its own internal size, the skin trapped tightly against a new, vaster self that emerges, Hulk-like, to tear the body apart. It is a momentary dip into blackness, and then a glory of steel and acid smoke erupts in all directions at once, a demon of strength and vicious will. It breaks everything in its path — voices, glasses, excuses, and hearts.

Even now, thinking about it, I imagine tipping my head backward and feeling my skin slip from me in reverse, my soft shell peeling away and succumbing to a rocketing column of power and a cold, burning shadow exploding skyward. My vast black wings can cover us all.

It is glorious.

And it is mine.

This is not a world that encourages us to be playful, or to be kind. This is not a world that tells us to love ourselves and each other. This is a world that makes us sell our time in exchange for money, that encourages us not to sleep, not to share what we have, and not to love who we are. The world demands of us to not love what we see in others unless it is to envy and compare. It is a world that is full of disappointment and broken promises. The more we wake up, the harder it is not to wish we could go back to sleep. This is a world where anger is a sign of a healthy heart. Where outrage is a most correct and appropriate emotion.

The health risks of anger include coronary disease, stroke, aneurysm, weakened immune response, anxiety disorder, depression, lung capacity, and an overall shortened lifespan.

You have to pay if you want to use that power. I have learned to direct it, to let it move through me, not to hold onto it and let it turn me sour or poison my gut. Some anger has thorns and can tear apart your insides. Some is like ice, and it leaves you numb to other, warmer feelings. Still others twist and warp and steal your clarity of vision. Though there is evidence, too, that anger helps us think. Stay sharp.

Anger is identified as a defense mechanism against pain or sadness, but it is also described as the “conscious choice to take action to immediately stop the threatening behavior of an…outside force.” It is considered a natural, universal, and mature emotional response, and a “supportive mechanism to show a person that something is wrong and requires changing.

When a situation is perceived as uncomfortable or threatening, the first coping mechanism to engage is usually avoidance. This provides an opportunity to assess the seriousness of the threat, and to determine what a more active response may entail.  This avoidance is typically a temporary state. When avoidance becomes habitual, it can persist beyond its point of usefulness, and one may fail to assess situations and their gravity accurately. Avoidance may take the place of active response even in situations of great danger…

We are in a situation of great danger. Are we habituated to avoidance? Have we assessed the situation and decided that no active response is required? Or are we simply overwhelmed? The opposite of anger is flatness and resignation. It is the commitment to the idea that nothing is wrong, that nothing can be changed. Do we lack the kinetic energy to create the movement we need?  

In order to make a world where love can live, where purpose can be defined by the fierce and gentle aspects of the heart and in order to burn down the institutions that lock us into mutual oppressions — we must have the courage to let our anger teach and guide us. We must trust our instincts that this is not the way the world needs to be. Let our anger be cognitive, be assertive. Let us wield bolts if need be.

Let us remember that the antidote for anger is forgiveness. In order to live beyond the cycle of rage and resignation, we must assess our threats with grace and reason. We must learn to hold people close even when we are uncomfortable, to stay connected if we can. We must know when to communicate, to be patient, to bend — and when to use force, to demand and to raze it all and reimagine. It is forgiveness that burns us, not anger. Forgiveness is the hard part, the friction and absorption of heat, the swallowing and release. Knowing when to burn and when to embrace and forgive. We must also know how to care for one another.

I am not a healer. I am not a wise woman. I am a weapon. My first step is to forgive myself for this fact. And my next is to take this anger and let it move myself forward, to follow its blade and its clarity to create a place, and a world, where love can thrive. As my heart rate increases and my vision narrows, hormones and neurotransmitters fill my blood. I am ready to fight.

Epilogue

You’re angry, aren’t you. I can see it.

I can see it in the way you smiled.

I can see it in the way your face just went blank.

I can see it when you cry sometimes in your car, listening to the radio. I can see it when you stare into your phone.

I can see it in the way you hold your hands to keep them from tearing the world apart. The way you bite down so your teeth hold back the lashing, the bile, and the voice that yearns to come out.  

I can see it in the way you drink.

I can see it in the way you get up to run, even when you’re tired.

I can see it in the way you fill your days with work and more work, or take on this relationship or that one so that your heart can be put toward something that might change, to feel like you can make a shift in the world, to keep ahead of the feeling that it’s all getting bigger and bigger and louder and messier. To thwart the idea that we may have missed our chance already to fix it, and oh shit what’s going to happen now, and when does it get better, and is somebody else going to stop this. When I am forced to wonder why doesn’t everyone come to their senses, and how many more kids are going to get shot, and how many cops will walk free over dead black bodies, and how many times do we have to tell our stories about what he did before someone will believe us, and how many more before someone will care. When I am pressed to  question what is up with all that plastic in the ocean, and what happens when it’s five degrees hotter, and does it really matter what we eat, and how do we choose between paying for rent or paying for doctors, and whose land are we on right now, and how many queer kids have to die, and when will Flint have clean water, and what about Palestine, and what are these fucking Nazis doing out in broad daylight and what happened to the dream of a way of life that we can fight for and was it ever there to begin with and can you even tell the difference between the news and a farce — and are you serious, what else can this administration get away with, and am I the only one who is paying attention, and if not, why aren’t we out in the streets?

Why can’t we stop this?

Why? Why? Why?

FUCK.

I feel you. I’m angry, too.

And you know what? I’m glad. I’m glad I’m angry.

Anger is what tells me my heart is alive. Not love — love makes this life worthwhile, makes it rich and dizzy and sweet. Love gives anger a purpose. But my love doesn’t keep me awake, doesn’t keep me sharp.

My love is what fills me, lifts me, but my anger is what gives me direction.

My love is my potential. Anger is kinetic.

 

Lara Messersmith-Glavin is a writer, teacher, and organizer based in Portland, Oregon. She also serves on the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and edits their house journal, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. Her work has appeared in Perspectives, MaLa Literary Journal, Anchored in Deep Water: the Fisherpoets Anthology, the scott crow Reader, and elsewhere. She co-edited Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press: 2013), and was the primary editor for Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces: Three Stories of Crime, Prison, and Redemption (AK Press: 2016), which won the Oregon Book Award for Best Nonfiction. She is a frequent performer with the Astoria Fisherpoets, and can be heard at venues around the Pacific Northwest.

  1. Header art by Federico Bebber. []

3 Comments

  • I carry with me a reservoir of anger. Some of it’s from childhood, some from the present. We’re living in the “Age Of The Amygdala”. Everything Lara wrote is true. Her essay gives me something useful, something I can turn into a tool and better hone my survival strategies. I need all the tools I can get, because I used to wake up terrified and now I merely wake up scared, thanks to the tools that I’ve acquired. I can’t think of a higher compliment for this essay or the writer of this essay.

  • Yes you are a wise woman, Lara. This piece describes for others who are full of anger how it is a good and totally appropriate response to what we are seeing, feeling, and living every day. As the gentleman above commented so beautifully… it is a useful tool, a powerful tool if we can learn to use it. Your writing changes lives and gives hope.

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