Stressors Trigger a Nation of Yellers

1:19 PM, Nov 27, 2012   |    comments
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(USA TODAY) CHERRY HILL, N.J. -- According to studies in the workplace and at home, we are a nation of yellers.

That's not because we are all at the game cheering our favorite team, only to wake up hoarse. We are apparently yelling in anger, in frustration, distressed as a way of communicating -- and venting.

A few years ago, researchers asked a thousand families about yelling and found that 88 percent of parents admitted yelling, screaming or shouting at their children during the year. In families with 7-year-old kids, that number climbed to nearly 100 percent.

Yelling. Shouting. Screaming. Railing. Wailing. Howling.

Regardless of what we call it, raising our voices is exhausting. Especially if it becomes our reaction to stressors -- or our way of relating. Not only does it take a physical and emotional toll on the yeller, but it deeply affects those on the receiving end of this high-decibel stress.

Children's brains are so sensitive to yelling that a child who is yelled at regularly, say, at bedtime or before school (or at school) can become "immune" and start to "tune it out," explains psychologist and researcher Myrna B. Shure, author of Raising a Thinking Child.

In her research, she found a troubling correlation between kindergartners whose parents disciplined through yelling and demands and the children's expression of aggression.

Why we yell

Relationships can be enormously resilient. But chronic yelling can create a kind of relational erosion, fraying the fabric of trust and security between us.

Since none of us sets out to intentionally squander our interpersonal and internal resources, we would do well to get curious about why we yell or retreat from yellers time and again.

John Armando, a licensed clinical social worker in practice in Cherry Hill, N.J., says the answer lies in acceptance, not of the yelling itself, but of our shared imperfections as human beings -- and the beliefs that tend to drive our behaviors.

"That belief, that things should be the way we want them to be, tends to trigger that primitive behavior in us," says Armando.

"I think yelling would be an example. I'll increase my volume as a way of trying to solve this problem. But, people get intimidated and push back. So what you get is more of the problem.

" ... (Yelling) almost never works, yet we continue to try it. And we continue to escalate."

There are some key triggers that tend to drive our yelling: stress, impatience, needing to be heard and feeling anxious.

Parent and teen brains

Teenagers are not, in fact, rebellious, but reactive.

Their brains will sense shock, anger and fear more readily than adults. A teen might yell in defense, sensing a threat to his emotional well-being.

Or a teen might experience an adult's yelling as intensely alarming, and have a brain send "Mayday!" signals to bolt or debate or zone out.

While at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, a University of Utah professor, gathered groups of subjects for an experiment that mapped the differences between the brains of adults and teenagers.

Todd monitored how they responded to pictures of people in various emotional states. Adults and teens were asked to discern emotions in a series of faces.

All the adults identified the emotion by using their pre-frontal cortex (front of the brain, where problem-solving, executive planning, reason, insight and self-regulation are mediated).

However, many of the teenagers interpreted the emotion using a different part of their brain: the amygdala, which acts as a 911 center, producing emotional and physical reactions in response to intense stress.

Todd found that teens were neurologically more likely to "misinterpret" facial expressions, and unwittingly perceive fear, worry, sadness and confusion as anger.

Hence, "why are you always yelling at me?!"

Calm down

Armando, a specialist in acceptance and commitment therapy, says that the best way to deal with relationship stress is to "defuse it, to get some distance from it and to accept that our minds produce lots of negative thoughts and distressing emotions.

"It's normal, and when we can notice those thoughts and feelings, and allow them to be there without struggling against them, we can live a life based on what our value system is."

Armando says it's not about vowing to never yell again, because taking a vow of yellibacy, so to speak, is not realistic or effective.

"I can try to control my behavior and say I'll never ever do that again. What works better is to say I regret that, and that behavior is not consistent with my values. It's not who I strive to be. I want to be able to notice that. My life is about trying to make my actions match my values.

"When you can accept that you're flawed, you don't have to struggle against it," he continues. "You can say I'm human and I'm going to work at that. If my values are to own that and apologize, then that's what I can do. Beating myself up and making myself feel shamed and guilty is not particularly effective."

How to break the yelling cycle

To break the intensely negative cycle of yelling-yelled at stress, there are some simple rituals that speak directly to where the fire is burning: our brains and body systems. In the face of stress and hot emotions, we are most easily and readily restored through breath.

Instead of counting to 10, try some different math. Find a quiet place for two minutes (not at a traffic light), close your eyes and breathe in for four, hold for seven and exhale for eight. Start your day with two or three rounds of this breathing, and your body-brain systems will immediately benefit from the good chemistry of peace.

Notice your feelings escalating, your heart racing or pounding hard, your mouth getting dry and your palms getting sweaty. The very act of noticing our body's response to emotional stressors can help us control our impulses by strengthening our self-regulating neural pathways in the front of the brain that boost insight and self-calming.

Consider starting a journal. The practice of writing, even scribbling, drawing or just noting something that is throwing you off and getting under your skin, has helped many people to hone their "noticing" skills.

Get some regular exercise to reduce sympathetic stress, calm your system, and produce more BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which keeps you growing and thriving. Not yelling and surviving.

Practice yoga and meditation. Both are easier than you may think, and the effects of both have been proven by neuroscientists to boost immune function, reduce inflammation, and increase longevity by slowing down the degradation of telomeres at the ends of our DNA. Genetics aside, they make you feel good and peaceful. Which means you're not primed to feel like yelling and less inclined to be around or be affected by those who do.

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