Under Pressure: Why Am I Overreacting?

No! Stop right now!,” I screamed frantically at my partner. I couldn’t help it. I felt so threatened, so stressed out, as if everything depended on this moment. Under this kind of pressure, I lost my rational abilities, my knowledge of what I “should” be saying and doing. Instead, I clutched the door and screamed again: “Stop! I mean it!”

To tell the truth, I was surprised at myself. I thought that I was beyond all that. I thought that no matter what the circumstances, I would always be able to control myself. Of course, I have “lost it” on many occasions during my relationship, but not like this. It was certainly within the realm of possibility for me to shout at my partner, something which I always regretted. If I found myself yelling for some reason or other, I would take note, find what was causing me to over-react and under-think, and then promptly fix it. By the time my partner provoked me in the same way on a subsequent occasion, I knew I would be able to handle it “the right way” – and I did. However, this was different.

This breakdown of communication between myself and my partner was unprecedented in many respects. Firstly, this was a considerate, easy-to-love person who virtually never provoked me. The last time I screamed at her must have been years ago during some frustrating antics. Secondly, no matter how much I tried to anticipate the trouble and prepare myself to respond more appropriately, I just couldn’t seem to get a handle on it. This was actually beyond me. It happened so fast. Every time she did it, I reacted in the same, destructive way. I was destroying her self-esteem, her personal confidence and our very relationship: I was teaching her to drive.

People are not supposed to say that someone is “driving us crazy” since, ultimately, your choice is your own. If you choose to collapse in a frenzied, tantrum – well, that’s your choice. No one is making you do that. No one else is responsible for your impulsiveness and low frustration tolerance. It’s just that, when it comes to teaching my partner to drive, it’s very different. In this case, it is possible, correct and accurate to say, “she’s driving me crazy.”

Now her driving teacher wouldn’t understand. Her driving teacher thinks that she’s the best student she has ever encountered. Perhaps this is true. But the driving teacher has a special brake in her car, doesn’t she? And I don’t. All I can do to stop the car from swerving into the lamp pole, is shout. Which I do. Still, I find it disappointing. I would like to be able to say in a calm, sweet voice something like, “Darling, do you see that lamp post coming up rapidly on the right? Do you think you could steer the car a little to the left, Sweetheart, so that we could avoid driving into it?” But no, not me. I open my mouth and holler: WATCH OUT!! WE’RE GOING TO CRASH!” Naturally this only alarms her and makes her quite annoyed with me. I regret it immediately. In fact, I am filled with remorse. Why did I do it?

The explanation is quite scientific, actually. You see, during times of threat (both physical threats such as the appearance of a poisonous snake and psychological threat such as being the victim of verbal abuse) the human body goes into the “fight or flight” response. This is an automatic and fast reaction, in which the body gets literally ready to attack or to flee. In this readiness routine, adrenalin and noradrenaline pump rapidly through the blood, readying the body for quick movement: the pupils dilate, the breathing becomes rapid and shallow, digestion slows down or ceases, sweat gland activity is increased, and blood and oxygen drain from the brain into the larger muscles becoming prepared for rapid movement.

Notice the last part of the previous sentence: “and blood and oxygen drain from the brain…”. This part is very important for understanding “why I do it” (scream, that is). You see, the brain is emptying of blood and oxygen, leaving it somewhat dysfunctional apart from the emergency system it is operating regarding fighting or fleeing from danger. The frontal cortex, your thinking brain is out of commission and the amygdala, the emotional brain is in control. This presents a problem in my relationship because the amygdala controls emotional processing and automatic responses. The cortex is where you do your thinking, which is best when its fed by a good supply of blood and oxygen. But during the fight or flight response, no significant thinking can occur.
So that explains it. I shout because of adrenalin. My life is at risk (I figure) and adrenalin saps the oxygen from my brain, leaving nothing there but a primitive scream reflex. When you shout, obviously the stress response is at play. A person’s antagonism or lack of co-operation threatens you and sends off the alarm in the brain, quickly hurling you into the fight or flight response. You know that you shouldn’t be shouting. Yet you are shouting because of your brain’s oxygen deprivation. Having figured this out, I solved the problem by taking up reading in the car. I read, my partner drives. She doesn’t really need me to point out the near crashes; she’s actually doing great – much better since I stopped trying to be helpful. I stopped shouting and our relationship has healed.

Reprinted with permission from Aaron Karmin, http://blogs.psychcentral.com/anger/2015/04/under-pressure-why-am-i-over-reacting/

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