Heal Your Angry Brain: Part 3 of 5

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

The Power of Imagination

Insanely brilliant and far too young for all of his accomplishments, Neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone was the first to map the brain using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).  TMS can turn on or off parts of the brain so researchers can determine the function of a specific brain area.  He performed an experiment to determine if mental practice, or concentrated thought, could produce physical changes in the brain.  He divided a group of piano novices into two groups.  He taught both groups a series of notes on the piano, showing them which fingers to use and allowing them to listen to the notes as they played them.  Then one group, called the “mental practice” group, sat in front of the keyboard for two hours per day for five days.  During this time they imagined playing the notes and hearing the tune.  The second group, called the “physical practice” group, actually practiced playing the music for two hours per day for five days.

The results of this simple experiment proved quite amazing.  The group that performed mental practice alone learned the music as well as the physical practice group and had the same changes in the motor part of the brain as the physical practice group.  This simple experiment points to the power of imagination to produce physical, measurable changes in the brain.  You might ask, “what does this have to do with anger control?”

Imagine this scenario:  you’ve been working lots of overtime hours, even though your young child has been home sick with a babysitter.  You had to cancel doctor’s appointments for some pain you’ve been having, because you don’t want to let your team down at work.  After weeks of this your boss calls you into his office and says, “I have some serious concerns about your work performance.  Several employees have complained about the constant scowl on your face when you come to work.  I have been told to reduce the department by 50%.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep you on with this attitude.”

A conversation like this might predictably trigger anger, anxiety, confusion and fear for most people, especially in this economy.  Many of us find ourselves working longer hours for fewer benefits and reduced pay.  To add insult to injury, getting criticized at work after sacrificing your own health and family time for the sake of your coworkers and employer, can shake even the most even-tempered person.  You might imagine telling off your complaining co-workers, throwing a chair at your boss, or any number of angry behaviors in retaliation for this insult.  In a situation like this, it helps if you stop, take a deep breath, and think.
Limbic System
What we regularly imagine shows up in our brain.  If we spend a lot of time with anger and revenge fantasies, we keep our brain in a constant state of arousal.  Over time we clog our arteries, prematurely age, stress our immune system, and feel unhealthy and miserable.  We also strengthen neural pathways for anger and violence, making us more likely to behave badly when triggered.  Indulging in a little self-pity or anger might prove effective in helping you identify your feelings and recognize the emotional injury.  After a few minutes of that it’s best to exercise your imagination to help you get out of the anger.

Hostile feelings pull from the emotional memories of your brain’s limbic system.  You can train your brain to activate your brain’s pre-frontal cortex where you can solve problems and feel better.  It starts with your imagination.  Instead of mentally rehearsing clever ways to tell off your boss, imagine yourself strong, capable, safe and secure.  Calm yourself with thoughts like, “I can handle this.  I can think about this problem and find a good solution.”  Imagine, in vivid detail, the following scenario:

Visualize talking with your boss and coworkers in a mature, adult, calm manner.  With straight posture and direct eye-contact, imagine explaining to them that your unpleasant scowl is due to physical pain, and worry over your sick child.  Imagine that they show kindness and respect and feel guilty about misjudging you.  Imagine your boss experiencing a renewed respect for your incredible dedication and he offers you a promotion and raise.

When we imagine behaving like  strong, capable adults, it produces different neurobiological outcomes.  We stop pumping the stress hormone, cortisol, that ramps up our heart rate and arousal level.  We activate our parasympathetic nervous system to return the body to its normal equilibrium.  We can speed the process of recovery by activating our imagination.

Take a moment, close your eyes and imagine yourself in a beautiful setting.  You feel strong, confident, comfortable and secure.  All your worries fade away, replaced by a sense of peace and comfort.  You smile, activating the pleasure centers of your brain.  You have everything you need.  Safe, calm, and content, this moment feels perfect.

Nature gave us the sympathetic nervous system to allow for quick reactions for self-defense, and the parasympathetic nervous system to return us to calm.  One amazing thing about the human brain is its capacity to heal itself.  Take that conscious effort, put into place self-calming thoughts and images from your imagination.  Exercise these thoughts daily.  Soon you’ll go from worry to calm as quickly as you can imagine it.

Photos courtesy of lloydcrew, grapefruitmoon and Sarah & the spider.