Medication – Part 1, Medicine Itself

In mental health, medication has a bad name. People are reluctant to take it for a range of reasons – it shows you are weak, it validates a real problem exists, fear of addiction, conspiracy theories around big pharma, or ignoring the real problem and only treating a symptom. Yet for any other medical condition we are far less suspicious of medicine.

Part 1 – Medicine itself

In Australia, generally your doctor is the first person you will meet when you are experiencing mild to moderate mental health problems. You will go to them and explain what you are experiencing and they should ask you some questions about it. Shortly afterwards you will most likely be prescribed some medication and or be given a referral to a counsellor. What the doctor has done here is hear a list of symptoms, done an assessment (the questions and your answers) and then made a judgement about your situation and implemented a treatment. Generally the treatment (medication and or counselling) will have a return to the doctor in x amount of time for follow up. The counsellor will also be sending reports to the doctor, just like if you went and had an X-ray for a suspected fracture – the doctor gets a report about that too. If you have a more severe experience with mental ill health you might go straight to the hospital emergency department (ED) and see either a doctor there or a psychiatrist. The doctor will follow the same procedure outlined above while the psychiatrist will be doing a longer version because it has been deemed that your situation is more complex than a standard general practitioner can deal with. GP’s are well versed at many things, but they are not specialists – they are generalists in medical care. The psychiatrist will then generally give you a diagnosis, a script for medication, refer you to counselling and like the doctor, check in on you every now and then. Psychiatric medication has a nasty stigma attached to it. Some of the reasons are empty and some have some interesting history. Good medical practices started a mere hundred and fifty years ago, which is practically modern history so far as our scientific knowledge is concerned. Good psychiatric practices slowly followed. Increases in our scientific understanding of bacteria, X-Rays and scientific method accelerated our medical knowledge to the point where a wound isn’t likely to kill you, we know that smoking cigarettes is bad for you and we are having this stupid debate about whether to vaccine or not (do it) after vaccines have pretty much eradicated nasty diseases such as polio, almost measles and some other stuff that should just die. Psychiatric medicine is still in its early stages and even only a few decades ago we had some pretty horrific problems with experimental drugs.
The distrust for most modern medicine is generally a thing of the past, while distrust for psychiatric medicine is still fairly fresh and relevant. Certain medications, such as antipsychotics and mood stabilisers, can seem like they turn functioning people into zombies, occasional side effects to some antidepressants can include increased suicidality (you want to kill yourself), or constantly feeling dizzy. In each of these cases, where the medication is not working as intended, one can ask oneself why we are taking them and who would ever prescribe these? In doing so we miss the large number of people who are prescribed these medications and have the desired effect, saving their quality of life, or where the side effect is far less bad than the symptom the medication is effectively treating. Consider antibiotics. They treat bacterial infections in most people really well, saving millions of people on a yearly basis. A cheap, common and effective antibiotic is penicillin and its subtypes. Some people who take the penicillin derived antibiotics have a bad reaction and fall in the category of having a penicillin allergy. We don’t define all penicillin medications as bad and to be avoided… we instead recognise that some people are allergic to them. In a similar way it is noted that some antidepressants occasionally increase suicidality – an existing risk of being depressed in the first place, is now much worse. Much like those who are now known to be allergic to penicillin, we note on the patient’s/client’s record the “allergy” and avoid that medication in the future. Most people who take the medication get the primary result – antibiotic or antidepressant – and some get the side effect, the effect we don’t really want. Yet people will avoid antidepressants fearing the side effect, but won’t avoid antibiotics for the same logical reason. Medicine is about balancing costs. A well known antipsychotic medication makes life possible for people with a relevant range of diagnoses. However a common side effect is a metallic taste in their mouth. The benefit of this drug is that symptoms that prevent you from having a functional life are abated (psychosis, hallucinations, loss of drive), while a new symptom (metallic taste) is added. While not a fun effect, it is much less bad than being non-functional. The cost vs the benefit tips it into being a thing worth doing. I don’t see brilliantly. I have a few problems with my eyes. One of them is the difference in the ability to focus with each eye, another is that one of my eyes is slightly turned giving me a stigmatism (horizontal lines don’t meet) and a third is that the cones of one colour are slightly offset to the other two.  Overall, things are a bit blurry, text more so. Glasses correct most of these issues. I have to say that wearing glasses is somewhat disconcerting – the world is yellower and more vibrant (yellow tint fixes the colour cone error) and things look amazingly crisp and vibrant – like someone upped the resolution on the video. These benefits are quite nice, but there are some costs. For a start my peripheral vision becomes munted and turning causes me to be dizzy. Walking is a bit odd as the field of focus goes a bit odd. Potentially I could adjust to this. Another cost is that I have to carry my glasses around with me and put them on when I read or do some other precision stile stuff. I have a bad habit of forgetting my glasses so they either don’t make it to where I need them, or they don’t make it home afterwards. Another cost is that I look a bit odd with tinted lenses. I have decided that the cost is greater than the benefits. The cost I accept is that the world is a bit blurry and that if I read for too long I will have a headache. I know there will come a point in time where my eyesight will deteriorate enough that I will have to wear glasses all of the time, because the cost of not doing so will now exceed the convenience of not having to carry glasses. Benefits and costs. If the cost of a medication was too high for most people, then either the medication is banned or it becomes a medication of last resort. What this means is that if your general practitioner is prescribing a medication, the odds are it is generally fairly simple and most likely to work, for a given value of “most likely to work”. We’ll get on to that. The more specialist levels of psychiatric drugs require either a psychiatrist to prescribe or another brain specialist like a neurologist. Let’s take a slight detour here. Simply put, when we can’t isolate a cell based mechanism for the condition, we call it psychiatry. When we can, it is neurology. We know that the problem is in the brain for both. Parkinson’s Disease is a problem located in the substantia nigra, a region in the mid-brain section and is a degeneration of the motor and central nervous system. We know the actual biology of this, thus it is neurology. Depression is somewhere in the brain and seems to be affected by serotonin. Too much, too little, too much re-uptake or too little re-uptake (re-uptake is recycling of the present neurotransmitter) appears to change the balance in people with the resultant symptom of depression. But serotonin isn’t the only factor as there are many people who experience depression without having any positive effect of various serotonin medications. We aren’t sure which part of the brain, or parts of the brain, are the real culprit, thus it is psychiatry. When you have a fracture of the bone, you can objectively test it, find it and treat it (most of the time). When you have a fracture of the psyche we can’t objectively test it – only subjectively test it, we can’t find it and our treatment of it is based on best guesses. However the guesses are well educated guesses and are generally pretty effective. You don’t need to know why you ache, or which specific part aches, for pain relief to be effective. Working out which form of depression you are experiencing and which treatment plan is best is a bit of scientific trial and error, where the first treatment tried is the one that has the best likely results with the least likely side effects. It may not be the right one, so after it is ruled out, it is time to move on to the next one. Most depression is addressed with the first treatment plan, but many require a third go before finding good results. Some forms of depression are not responsive to regular treatment and require specialist intervention. I often see those ones.
X-ray fractured femur
X-Ray – Fractured Femur
By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Breaking a bone requires treatment of the bone and probably physiotherapy afterwards. There is no point receiving physiotherapy without treating the break. However if the problem isn’t a break and more of a muscle problem, then a referral to a physiotherapist is enough. Similarly GP’s often treat mental health by first treating the symptom and seeing if that fixes the problem. If it is a mild case, a pill for a few months will help and no counselling (therapy) is needed. Most mental ill health is due to current circumstances which will resolve themselves in a bit of time. If the doctor thinks it is more complex, they will recommend a therapist to help you through it. Not all mental illness requires or needs a medication, so when appropriate the doctor will prescribe therapy in the absence of medication. Next we will look at the stigma behind medication and counselling – a social perspective.

Mindfulness – A more scientific approach

Mindfulness is a term adopted by Western Psychology to describe a type of thought pattern adopted from Buddhism to help manage one’s own mind and mood. It is a practice of bringing the attention from external to the body and present back to your own body and now. It is a powerful tool in the use of self regulation.


Jon Kabat-Zinn [wiki] was used his history of Zen Buddhist techniques to develop a stress reduction course, which he named Mindfulness in 1979. He based it on his understandings of Sati, a term used in Zen Buddhism to refer to being aware of here and now. While he based the mindfulness methods on the Zen Buddhist technique, he put the practice in a more scientific based context, removing most of the philosophy from the method. This developed  a small following and use of this technique as Kabat-Zinn perfected his technique in a therapy context.

In 1991 Kabat-Zinn published a book based on this method with the frugally titled “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness” (Delta, 1991).

Definition of Mindfulness

Despite this single source for the scientific concept of Mindfulness, it is poorly defined. In essence, the definition of Mindfulness is “is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment” [wiki] – but what the heck does that mean, and how is it done? The different interpretations of this simple phrase and the multiple methods for how to get there mean that studying the effectiveness of “Mindfulness” are difficult.

A loose definition allows for a loose list of outcomes that are difficult to disprove. Did the failure of this particular line of research fail to prove the claim of X because they didn’t do Mindfulness properly, or was it because the claim was false? To disprove the claim, does every method of Mindfulness need to be checked, and what methods are not technically Mindfulness?

Different studies of Mindfulness may disagree on the efficacy simply because of the different implementation of the method in their research.

For this article, Mindfulness is the use of skills and techniques that allow you to reach a state of mind that may be used to ameliorate your mood and attention.

Past, Present and Future

It has been glibly stated that “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – frequently and falsely attribute to Lao Tzu (which in itself is an error, his name was Li Er, Lao Tzu is his title “The Master”), but is most likely created by either Warren Buffet or Junia Bretas. While this statement is simplistic and frequently falsely quoted or attributed, there is a really nice nugget of truth worth looking at here.

Hourglass indicating time
Time – ticking away the moments

If your mind keeps going back to past events, or your keep forecasting the future, you fail to notice the present that you are in. Right now, as you are reading this, you are not in immediate danger. Take a moment and look around, notice the things that are there. Look for something red, something orange, something yellow, green, blue, purple and black.

Congratulations, you brought your mind to the present.

You aren’t reading in a loop the first sentence of this article, trying to extract all the meaning from it – that has diminishing returns on effort. Once you have looked at it, perhaps glanced back to review it, you move on. Nor do you skip to the last sentence of this article and miss all the bits in between – because the bit you are reading right now is the bit that is relevant right now. That bit is the present.

You might take a sneak peek to the end to see where this is going, even the section titles to see how this will flow – but that depth of the discussion is in the bits between these projections, and to get that you have to be present and reading.

The same thing is true in our lives. When we think back to our past, we usually pick moments that were scary or troubling in some way. Learning from these past experiences has excellent merit, but being stuck in them is a problem. Projecting into the future what is likely to come and where you’d like to be gives you some things to do right now to affect that prediction. But if you only predict, you never do anything. Additionally, your predictions will become less and less valid as you lose connection to what is happening right now.

The past and the future are merely guides to what is happening right now. This is where you live.

Therapeutically speaking, often when people are experiencing elevated or flattened emotion, they are not reacting to what is present right now, they are reacting either to something they remember or something they predict. Neither of these harm the person right now.

As our mood elevates, we become less able to plan a solution. All of our brain resource has gone into feeling that mood and preparing for conflict. A conflict that isn’t here and thus a preparation that is not needed.

In the rare instance that conflict is a clear and present danger, by all means, be present to that – but if it isn’t, it is time to calm down.

Low mood has a similar problem. The present things in front of you seem distant and disconnected. Things don’t seem real. This could be due to being over stimulated by too many things – overwhelmed; it could be due to a safety fuse shut down – recent too elevated feeling; it could be due to medication or some other factor.


There is an itchy bit on your body. Do a quick body scan. Did you find it? Have you noticed how annoying it is? Are you tempted to scratch it, rub it or press upon it? Notice how it is getting worse? Now bring your attention to another part of your body, perhaps the warmth of your breath as you exhale and the cool on your skin as you inhale. Feel the movement of your lungs as you breath in and out. In and out. Do you feel the expansion of your torso as you breath?

I apologise (a bit) for the mind trap above. Go ahead and scratch if it is safe to do so… Anyhow, as you focused on your itch (sorry), it became more pronounced, more encompassing and harder to put up with. (Again, sorry). As your took your mind to another part of your body and focused on an innocuous thing (apologies for those with injured ribs) the itch diminished.

Now replace itch with anxiety, or depression, or pain, or fatigue or some other feeling/aspect you wish to negate/diminish. You have experienced the power of mindfulness.


There are some common factors that are useful in a good mindfulness exercise:

  • Bringing the temporal awareness to the present
  • Focusing on a body element
  • Giving the mind a specific thing to do

Following are a few of my favourite mindfulness exercises.

Four Second Breath Cycle

A full breath is taken when you breath down with your diaphragm, all the way down to your belly button. Your belly button should move in as you breath out, and out as you breath in. Put one hand on your stomach just under your belly button and take a deep breath in and feel your hand move outwards. Now breath out and feel it come in. This is easier if you sit or lie such that your back is straight rather than hunched.

When our body is ready for fight and flight, our digestive system is set to “purge”, making us feel nauseous and reluctant to breath deeply. Our breath speeds up and is shallow, to avoid triggering our purge setting and compensate to keep oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange happening in preparation for our energetic expectations.

Our attention is fixed out there looking for the threat that is going to hurt us. If it is actually right there, then it is important to do something about it – if immediate, use your heightened state to run away. If it isn’t immediate then we need to solve it.

We need to disrupt our breathing in a meaningful way. That is what this breath exercise does.

Note, if you can, how you feel. What feeling is it? What score would you give it out of 10, where 0 is an absence (so it won’t be that) and 10 is “OMG – I’m going to die!”

Now that we have defined a full breath, we are going to breath in for a count of four seconds. As you breath that deep diaphragm breath, count the seconds – one, two, three four. Now hold your breath for four seconds. Feels how your chest has expanded. Count – one, two, three four. Now breathe out, feeling how your shoulders drop or your ribs move. Count – one, two, three, four. Hold your breath for a count of four seconds. Notice the urge to breathe in. Count – one, two, three, four. Repeat four times.

Now, how do you feel? What feeling is it, and what is it’s score?

Five Senses

Technically we have more than five senses. However most of us learned in primary school the five primary senses – taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight. We are going to use these.

How do you feel? What feeling is it and how strong, out of 10, is it?

Now, what do you taste? Sometimes this is hard to describe because we often don’t have words to describe taste in the absence of food. But you do taste something. I’d like you to tune into that feeling. Is it nice, unpleasant or very meh? Move your tongue a bit and see if different parts of your mouth taste differently.

What do you smell? What is a strong odour in your area? What is a subtle odour in your area? Can you smell yourself? Is there an object nearby that you can pick up and smell? Which nostril are you smelling from?

Touch something with your finger tips. Feel the texture, the temperature, the friction. Is it pleasant? If you rub the thing lightly does it feel different to when you press and rub hard? Does a different finger feel the thing differently? Try rubbing it with a nail, or the back of your hand or arm. How does that change the feeling?

Listen… what is the loudest thing you can hear? What is the most distant thing you can hear?What is the quietest thing you can hear? Now the deepest sound… now the highest pitch. Which sound did you like the most?

Look at a distant thing and put your finger between your eyes and the thing. Close an eye – did your finger jump? Switch eyes and try again. Now focus on your finger. Go back to the distant object and notice the shift as things go into and out of focus. Now pinch your fingers close together, but not quite touching and look through them. Do you see the interference lines where some bands of dark and some bands of light exist? That’s quantum man… Can you see your own nose? Most people can, but they automatically tune it out.

How do you feel now? What is your score out of 10?

Muscle Exercise

While this exercise can be done lying down, sitting down or standing up, I’m going to describe it as if you are sitting down. Get comfortable. Put your feet flat on the ground. If you can be barefoot, it is a bit easier, but if not, that is okay too.

How do you feel? What is your score out of 10?

Curl your toes into the ground. Notice how your foot arches up a little to do this. Count to five – one, two, three, four, five. Now relax your toes. Lift your toes up and tense your ankles. Do you notice that muscle on your shin tensing too? Count to five. Say the numbers. Now relax.

Gently tense your calf muscle. We don’t want to go too tense on this in order to minimise the chance of a cramp. Count to three. One, two, three. Relax.

Tense your knees. I bet you don’t do this one very often. Notice how the muscles just under your leg but above the knee tense too. Count to five. Now relax.

Upper thighs. What do you notice? Count to five. Relax.

Butt cheeks. Did you lift up? Count to five. Relax.

Fingers – can you make fists? Or make the fingers rigid? Pick one. Where else stiffens when you do this? Count to five. Relax.

Elbows and biceps. How does this change your fingers? Count to five. Relax.

Shoulders. Flex them apart. Notice how your back moves. Count to five. Relax.

Lower gut, all around from the lower back to your belly button. Notice how this changes your breath. Count to five. Relax.

Chest. Use your lower gut area to breath. If you can, count to five. If you can’t breath while tense, count to three. Relax.

The next two are hard to do subtly in public, feel free to skip them.

Neck and lower jaw -tense them. Hold your breath. Count to three. Relax.

Face and back of head. Notice how flexible your face is. Count to three. Relax.

How do you feel? How intensely out of 10?

Seven Colours

The rainbow didn’t always have seven colours. Different times and different cultures often described it as having three or four colours, and those colours varied a bit depending on place and time. However once Isaac Newton started playing with prisms, he defined the rainbow colours as 7. He had to fudge indigo to make this happen. Partly because he liked the number 7 and partly because it made memorising it easier – ROY G BIV.

How do you feel? What intensity would you rate it out of 10?

Look for something Red. Does it feel warm to you or cool? What is a fruit that looks like that?

Look for something Orange. How does orange feel today? What is another orange object that matches the orange colour you found, but isn’t the object you found?



Blue – Light blue

Indigo – Dark blue

Violet – Purple

It is fine if you happen to not find the colour you are looking for. It can’t always be found. Acknowledge its absence and wonder at its absence and move on.

How do you feel? What score out of 10 now?


Did you notice how each of these exercises mixed elements of the three mindfulness factors?

Grounding and Meditation

Sometimes grounding and or Meditation is used interchangeably with Mindfulness. Mostly this is due to Mindfulness having such a poor definition and thus being broadened to include everything. Here is how I differentiate them.

Meditation is a method of focusing the mind through a set of patterns, often to reach a thought type state. It can be done via guided visualisation (self or other guided), repeated kinesthetic movements (such as weeding, or trimming the hedge) or just attempting to empty the mind of distractions. Mindfulness uses meditation, but meditation may not be mindfulness. Much like a dog is an animal, but animals aren’t always dogs.

Weeding implements indicating weeding as a meditation
Weeding in the garden can be very calming

Grounding is about bringing the self back to the here and now. This may seem very similar to Mindfulness, but it lacks the hyper awareness aspect of Mindfulness. Grounding is more about being switched on to what is here in this moment, than it is about becoming chill. Mindfulness aims to bring awareness of self to your attention and shift your mood to a moderate level. Grounding doesn’t need these two aspects.

Grounding can also be a way to visualise excess feeling or energy going into the ground and being recycled by the earth. Sometimes these feelings are negative and brooding, sometimes they are just too much zing. Grounding can also be used to visualise creating a barrier between you and the rest of the world, just beyond your finger tips. Imagine you are in a white bubble and only helpful things can get through it, all else is blocked.

Similarly to meditation, mindfulness uses some aspects of grounding in its skill base, but grounding is not mindfulness.



Panic – Part 2

In the last post [link], we covered what the panic reaction is, how it works and why we need it. In this post we are going to cover why it can go wrong and how to manage fear.

Risk Management

Our fear system is designed to keep us alive. It is supposed to assess the risk of a thing – object or event – for a threat value and prime us for a response to that threat. The greater the perceived threat, the less time you have to intellectually evaluate that threat and response and make a choice about your actions – you just do it.

So how do we manage a risk?

  • Threat evaluation
  • Planning a solution
  • Implementing that solution

Threat Evaluation

You can’t  manage a threat if you don’t know what the threat is. To assess a threat, first one must detect a threat, then one must compare it to known threats and lastly one must confirm the accuracy of that threat as it changes based on several factors.

When do we classify a thing as a threat? We perceive the world around us, constantly comparing the sensory inputs to known dangers. A few dangers are programmed into us – edge of a platform detection, being left alone by a primary care given, loud noises. All of the other fears we learn as we grow up, initially from our care givers – if they are frightened of a thing, then we should be too! – and from our own experience.

Baby learning fear
Baby learning fear

As we covered earlier, our brain processes a raw feed of our sensory inputs through our hind brain threat detection system. It is looking for identified threats that we have mostly learned as we grew up.

Our decision that this thing is a risk to our safety is based on comparing it to things our care givers were afraid of, things that have hurt us in the past, or things that we can imagine hurting us. This allows for some errors to creep into our threat perception system.

Cockroaches have no direct means of hurting humans. They can very rarely bite humans which might cause a small amount of irritation at the site of the bite. They can carry pathogens that can cause disease, but this is rarely the source of human disease. They mostly just freak people out. But why? If they can’t hurt you, or more to the point, are far less dangerous than pretty much everything else you come across, why are some people so terrified of them? Partly it is the jump scare thing – you didn’t expect that thing to be moving when it did. Partly it is that they move oddly and very rapidly. Mostly it is because you have seen other people react badly to them. Primarily the fear of cockroaches is caused by seeing other people afraid of them.  If a primary care giver has a fear of roaches, you have a much higher chance of also having a fear of them.

Sometimes we are hurt by something or someone. We don’t want to re-experience that pain, so we avoid that thing so that it can’t hurt us. However that is not generally the best solution to the threat. Imagine that a dog bit you and it hurt. As a result you avoid dogs. The problem is that dogs are everywhere. So your avoidance creates a significant hassle in your life. Another solution to the dog threat is to recognise the warning signs of good dogs vs risky dogs, then work out how to manage both.

I don’t have experience falling off a cliff to imagine that doing so is going to hurt. Clearly I should stay away from cliffs. The problem is that I don’t know how big a cliff has to be in order to be dangerous to me, which can cause a problem when the cliff is only half a metre high (about 2 feet), or I have safety equipment protecting me from falling and I still can’t get near the edge of the cliff. My imagined threat is not being balanced or fairly portrayed.

Feet at edge of cliff above ocean
Confronting a Cliff – Fear of Heights

The care giver and bad experience parts of threat assessment are miss-training our threat perception, while our imagined threats are misinforming the hind brain about the nature of the expected threat.

Dynamic Threats

Once a thing is determined to be safe or unsafe, we need to continue to check the thing in case its nature changes. Threat is a dynamic thing that changes due to distance, time and intent.

A crocodile is clearly a threat, but if it is way over there and I am way over here, it isn’t much of a real threat to me. I shouldn’t camp at the bottom of a river known to have crocodiles, because in time that crocodile will come and visit me. While crocodiles will eat humans, they much prefer pretty much any other medium to moderate sized animal, so if there is another animal nearby, the crocodile will predominantly attack that instead. However you are still food, so you should still be concerned about the crocodile.

Trying to work out the intent of things and the ability of the thing to target you is an important aspect of threat detection and evaluation. Coffee tables may seem to leap out and attack your shins, but perhaps their targeting of you is  a misperception. The coffee table has no intent to harm you. Predator animals might, but rarely target humans. Predatory humans do, but most humans are not predatory to other humans. If you avoid all humans, then you end up quite isolated and lonely, so your assessment of individual humans needs to be continuous in case they reveal themselves to be predatory.

A common error is to assume intent before it is revealed, acting on the threat that isn’t there on the off chance it will come.

Planning a Solution

Now that you have detected a threat, and are keeping an eye on it for dynamic changes in its threat to you, it is time to work out what to do if it is going to affect you.

Imagine a ball game where there are three people standing in an imagined triangle. There is you at point A, Blake at position B and Casey at position C. While Blake and Casey are throwing the ball at each other, there is no threat to you of the ball. You aren’t involved. The ball has a low level of threat as it might become directed at you, but it hasn’t. Rushing in to disable the ball is a possible solution the the ball threat, but not a good one.

The threat of the ball comes if the ball is thrown to you by either Blake or Casey. At this point, the ball threat has increased as it now involves you. Action is now required. Referring to our earlier chart of fear responses, you can either freeze, that is try not to be noticed by Blake or Casey so they won’t throw the ball at you, but now it is too late; flee, dodge the in coming ball so it won’t hit you; or fight, catch the ball and throw it back. The game you have agreed to is the catch and throw back, so it is a very valid solution. Dodging the ball minimises your harm, but it may have a greater social cost as neither Blake nor Casey are likely to want to continue to play with you if you keep fleeing the ball.

Person ready to catch a ball
Catching a Ball – building up ability

Catching the ball can be scary. A thing is moving at you at high speed with enough mass to hurt you if it connects to a sensitive part of your body. If you catch the ball badly it can hurt your hands, or you might drop the ball and look silly in front of your friends. Each of these sub-threats is helpful in breaking down the actual threat and can have a solution to them. If you turn your body slightly, the ball has less chance of impacting some of your more sensitive parts, if you track the ball as it comes in, you can guess at the landing location and put your hands in proximity, if you step back as the ball gets to you, you have a bit more time to catch the ball and remove its momentum. You can also step closer to Blake and Casey so the triangle isn’t an equilateral so the ball isn’t thrown as hard at you so you can build up skill. You can also inform Blake and Casey that you aren’t very good at ball catching and want to work on your skill, which addresses the social threat.

It is tempting to now break each of these perceived threats down another level and solve them too, however that it over analysing the complexity of the threat and allowing yourself to over analyse. The cost of this is either paralysis through over analysis, justifying avoidance, or feeling overwhelmed because there is too much to work out. Knowing when to stop planning and allow yourself to make up a solution on the spot if it is beyond a reasonable level of anticipation is an excellent skill to develop.

Having a basic management plan allows you to inform your over scared mind “stop – I’ve got this worked out”. Your brain is trying to save you as it prompts you to go through scenario after scenario prompting for solutions. We don’t have to work out how to splint a little finger bone with straws and elastic bands in case you break it, nor do we have to work out what to do if it turns out that Blake is a brain eating zombie. These scenarios are either overly specific or very unlikely. Should they become the actual problem we face, then we can create solutions at the time for them and the odds are, you already have some defaults in place – especially for the zombie problem.

Implementing that Solution

There is no point having a solution to a threat and not doing it. Some plans are preventative – turn the saw off when it isn’t being used, use a condom, look both ways before crossing the road. Some plans are based on the threat surfacing – splinting a broken bone, calling for emergency services, explaining why you are late. Not all solutions need to be implemented, however knowing that you have done the prevention actions and have a plan to get through a perceived threat means now you have to do the thing. The thing you weren’t previously going to do because it was scary.

When we are over sensitive to a perceived threat, such as cockroaches, cliffs and men, we need to face that fear and recalibrate our senses. Cockroaches pose no real threat, so bring soap to wash your hands if needed. Cliffs should be tackled with caution, so do some research about how high you can jump safely and work your way up to that, then go on an abseiling course that works with height phobias. Some men are predatory (as are some women, but less so), so learn the signs that you tend to miss that indicates the person has become a threat and interact in safe ways.

Seeing a therapist can really help you work out safe means to manage overcoming your fears and managing your moods. If you don’t face your fears and learn to manage them, then you will always be avoiding your fears or becoming overwhelmed. Consider that most people in society do not have the fear you have and survive quite well despite the sensitivity to the thing you have… that tells you that you are over sensitive and the threat is over represented in your mind. You don’t have to be uncomfortable.

Missing Threats

Most of the previous assumes that you have noted and identified a clear and present danger. Something that is there and can harm you. Once identified, then you can address it directly as a plan for just in case, or an action as needed.

What happens when the threat isn’t there, but it feels like it is?

Imagine that you are hiking the plains of Kenya in Africa. You’ve stopped for a lunch with your friends Blake and Casey. Blake notices a lion off on the horizon eating an antelope.

Lions can kill humans.

Lion face
Lion – King of the Savannah

The Lion is quite a way off, and currently eating, so the odds of it coming for you are remote. So at this point you are all wary of the lion and take turns keeping an eye on it… just in case. You also come up with some handy plans for what to do if it comes your way. When to leave, when to fight, how to fight. Mostly though, you are using the freeze options – don’t draw attention to yourself and the lion will probably ignore you.

It is during your watch that you notice the lion gets up and heads in your direction. You all get a bit nervous… the threat, it is coming. You are all desperately watching the lion to work out if you should get out of there, but it is still quite a ways off, and leaving early means leaving the track you are following, risking becoming lost; or drawing attention to yourselves, which could lead to a fight.

The land dips a bit between the lion and you, and as the lion walks the track you all seem to be on, it goes beneath the dip and you lose track of it.

Where has the lion gone?

You wait… expecting it to appear on the track above on the other side of the dip in moments, but it doesn’t.

Panic starts to set in. Your plans required knowing where the lion was. Now you don’t know that. Your plans are far less useful.

Blake suggests that the dip is bigger than you all guessed, so you keep waiting. If it is that big, does that mean the lion is that much closer to you? Casey suggests the lion has gone perpendicular to the path when it was out of sight of you. As the minutes tick buy, this seems more and more likely. The question now is, is the lion stalking you, or has it gone home?

The three of you spend the next 30 minutes in terror, looking for the lion. Every snapped twig, every movement of tan on a tan background, every shifting of the breeze freaks you all out, expecting the attack from the lion at any minutes… but it never comes.

It turns out that the lion went somewhere else and really didn’t care about you. The result, though, is a day spent waiting for the lion to jump out at you at any minute.

In this example, we had a clear and present danger prompt your danger sense. That isn’t always the case, sometimes it just goes off for no good reason. We spend our day looking for the threat/lion to justify our panic. In the example of the lion it was possible to make some basic plans for how to deal with the lion, but what if you hadn’t seen the lion and you just felt like you were being stalked, or more vague, like something was just going to go wrong?

Our hind brain has, for some unknown reason, decided we are in danger but hasn’t done us the grace of informing us of what we are in danger of.  This invalidates our risk evaluation of the danger, because we can’t identify it. This invalidates the planning a solution phase, because we can’t identify it. This invalidates our implementing solutions, because we can’t identify it.

Wait up… if we can’t identify a threat, is there a threat?

Step 1) Identify the threat. If it isn’t clear and present, it isn’t a threat. If it is clear and present, go to step 2.

Step 2) Evalue the threat. Does it just need caution, or does it need action?

Step 3) Create a management plan for the threat, a few basic options for the most likely (top 3 or 4) ways the threat can affect you, then stop planning.

Step 4) Implement any necessary things now for prevention, then implement as needed based on how the threat evolves.

In the case of the feeling of threat without a clear and present danger, we can stop at Step 1.

There is no threat, so stand down.

Next we will cover how to do that using various mindfulness and grounding techniques.

Don’t Panic

“Don’t Panic” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has these famous friendly letters written on the cover to help your roving hitchhiker manage pretty much any situation as they rove around the galaxy. Panic, though, has its uses. When a threat exists that requires an immediate response without thought and cogitation, panic has a fair chance of keeping you alive. Panic attacks are when this goes wrong.

Crying man in foetal position
Panicked and overwhelmed

Fear is an integral part of our survival mechanism. If we had no fear, we would do things that would harm and probably kill us. That isn’t a good way to pass on your genetic material to the next generation, and from a biological perspective, that is the point of life. Passing on genes doesn’t require joy, contentment or comfort – merely survival.


When we see a threat, we need to work out if we it can be ignored (passive, passive aggressive), we can overcome it (assertive, aggression) or not (hide, run). When we react to the threat we can compare our reaction to the actual thing and work out if we have over or under reacted. If we over react, we waste our personal resources, if we under react, we may not overcome the threat – and that can be fatal. As you begin to address the threat you can also assess how effective your strategy is. If it is working, you can reinforce it; if it isn’t, you can change your strategy.

Scared man bungee Jumping
Adrenaline Rush

An important ingredient to this is control. You may not have chosen the threat (sometimes you do), but you can choose how you are going to defeat the known threat. Continual assessment of success against the threat allows for continual choices to be made. It might be scary, it might be dangerous, but we feel we can defeat it. We feel in control of the threat.


Adrenaline junkies are people who deliberately go out of their way to do something that is known to be dangerous, but in such a way that you are intellectually certain you should survive, even if your feelings are telling you that you shouldn’t. These people thrive on this conflict in the brain and the thrill of the act that brings the fear reflexes to the fore. This is then followed by a satisfaction that they have faced and defeated a threat. The satisfaction can be very addictive.

Different regions of the brain
Fore brain (above the eyes), and hind brain (above your neck)

Let us take a look at the difference between the intellectual assessment and the feeling assessment. The adrenaline junkie works on creating conflict between the two, yet that is conflict in the same brain. Surely this should be impossible! Yet it is not. In a simplified manner, the basic threat assessment that triggers the feeling of fear is all in the hind-brain. If you cup your hand to the back of your head, just above the neck, you are encapsulating the area that contains the amygdala, thalamus and hypothalamus. Some people refer to this region as the hindbrain, primitive brain, the monkey brain or the lizard brain. Of course neuroscience is far more complex than this simple representation – but this will help you get your head around the idea of separate processing in the same head.


The intellectual part of your brain is at the front, the cerebrum. Put your hands out in front of you, palm up. Now put your hand together so your palms are still up and your little fingers are now touching, your thumbs are pointing away from each other. Place the heel of your hands just above your eyebrows and the little finger join goes up your head until the tip of your finger touches the crown of your head (ish). Wrap your joined hands around your forehead. This region of your skull holds the frontal regions of your brain. There are two halves, the left and the right. Mostly they do the same thing with a few very specific “one side does this bit and that side does that bit” specialised processing. They communicate via a chunky bundle of communication neurons about the diameter of your thumb called the corpus callosum that connects one half to the other.


The intellect can take abstract ideas, facts and feelings and turn them into predictions of the future. Once we have these predictions, we make management plans. This is how we are going to manage that threat. This is what we will do if it doesn’t work.


Our hind brain isn’t concerned with the management plan the intellect will eventually get around to making, it needs to know if you are going to survive right now. It looks at the current knowns – this is here, that is there, in the past we did this, in the past we got hurt by that. It tries to work out the timeline of harm from the known threat and either handballs the problem to the intellect to solve (low to medium threat) or takes over and hits the panic button RIGHT NOW.

Baby showing worry, fear
Fear is a primal instinct

Fear has three immediate survival defaults. Flight – we can’t fight it, it’s seen us, get out, go – run away! Freeze – we can’t fight it, it hasn’t seen us, don’t get noticed, don’t be a tall poppy, stop painting that target on your back! Fight – we can fight it, or we can’t outrun it so what they hey, either fight or die. Based on the perceived threat, your hind brain decides to pick the most likely survival option and either triggers that reflex if the threat is immediate, or offers that reflex to the intellect if there is some perceived time between threat and consequence.


This is what makes you flinch from the incoming sports ball you didn’t know you saw, or step back from the curb to avoid the oncoming truck, or brace for the unexpected attack. Your hindbrain has quickly processed the environment and yelled “watch out” and taken over. Afterwards your intellect catches up and goes …. whoa.


The hindbrain is a quick and dirty calculator. It doesn’t really have good information, nor does it make logical conclusions. It sees the world as raw data and samples just enough to get an early warning. It is frequently wrong in how it perceives the world. Biologically speaking, if the hindbrain gives you 9 false alarms to 1 real alarm, it has done its job. Responding to the 9 false alarms doesn’t kill you, while failing to respond to the 1 real alarm might. Alive and uncomfortable trumps dead.


When the hind brain responds to clear and present danger saving you from harm, it is exactly what we need in this complex world. This is a fear response to a real event. When it hits the internal alarm button and there is no clear and present danger, we call this a panic attack.


There are two main ways the hindbrain can get things so wrong. One is that the automatic process has been miss-trained, the other is that it is being fed bad information by the intellect.


We’ll cover that next time.

This Week in What Fills Me with Awe: We are in the Big Bang

Time is a funny thing.


We know that the universe is about 14 billion years old, which seems incredibly old. A brief history of the universe goes thusly: Before the Big Bang is unknown and unknowable – time is the passing of events, that is change.  If there is no change, there is no time. “Prior” to the Big Bang, there was nothing to change, so there was no time. Then there was something. The entire observable universe existed in a spec smaller than an atom as we know it now, and it got really big. Within a fraction of what we call a second, the observable universe expanded to the size of about a grapefruit – approximately half a litre. While this doesn’t seem big from our standards now, if you consider the change in scale, this was the biggest and fastest expansion of the universe in relative scales in the entire history of the universe. We call this expansion the Big Bang. We tend to think that it happened in the past and we compare it to an explosion.


A slightly trippy thing to consider is that this is what we know about the *observable* universe. That first bit is really important. The bit outside the observable universe could just be more universe, or it could be nothing. As we observe the edge of our observable universe, the distribution of galaxies seems even and more or less uniform, implying that on the other side of that event horizon is just more universe. So at the point of the big bang, there could have been an universe the size of our observable universe of the start conditions. This can be a bit hard to visualise, so imagine the universe is flat and just an ink dot on an elastic sheet. Zoom in until all you can see is that dot. Now stretch the elastic sheet and zoom out at the same speed so that you can still only see that dot – the ink dilutes as the space expands. That is what we see. Now start again, but realise that the entire sheet of elastic is filled with ink, not just one dot. Consider how big our universe has got from that dot smaller than an atom to our current scale – 90 light years across – and apply it from a starting point of not less than one atom, but to Big Bang Stuff 90 light years across. And we will never know what it is out there.


About 300 million years after the Big Bang, the universe cooled down enough that matter formed and light was impeded. This is the first point where we can observe things – that is, matter. This is when our own Galaxy, the Milky Way (so named, because it looks like a milk road on the sky – blame the Romans) first formed. We have a few stars in our system that are still burning from that first coalescence of matter. Hydrogen was the first atom to form and it clumped together to form the first stars. These stars are very, very pure. All stars that have formed since have some impurities (known as metals when they aren’t hydrogen or helium – even though chemists don’t call those elements metals).


Our own Earth is about 4.5 billion years old – it came into creation about 2/3 of the age of the universe ago. Traces of life in the form of fossils have been found on Earth that date to about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled down after the late bombardment period. The Earth started as a big ball of molten rock, then it cooled down and formed a crust. Earth then cleaned up its orbit and got hit, a lot, by asteroids and other bodies (including Thea, a mars sized planet which ended up splitting proto-Earth in two – our Earth as we know it, and our Moon). Finally it cooled down again to form a new mineral rich crust and life formed almost immediately after it. This is about 3.8 billion years ago.


This life forming as soon as conditions were approximately right gives me great hope that life exists on any planet that conditions are approximately right.


Zoom forwards a few billion years and life leaves the oceans and populates the land. Viruses and Bacteria were first, followed by plants, then followed by the insects that evolved from crustaceans. Eventually vertebrates follow (evolved from fish). That eventually evolved into us humans (modern humans are about 200,000 years old) and every other form of life we see on the Earth. Life is continuing to evolve, ensuring that no niece that can be exploited for energy (food) remains untapped. This includes bacteria evolving to eat stuff in nuclear reactors. On the scale of life, if all of life on Earth were scaled to be 1 day, humans are about 4.5 seconds old. Soon that scale is going to be useless, so let us convert instead to 1 year. If life on Earth were scaled to exist in 1 year, then modern humans are 28 minutes old.


Recall my earlier note that as soon as life could form on Earth it did? The earliest that life conditions (as we understand it) could form in the observable universe was around 12 billion years ago (give or take a billion). If life took the opportunity to start then, just like it did here on Earth, then there has been life in the observable universe for 12 billion ish years. That is pretty cool.  If we do our year scale, humans are 8 minutes old.


But we haven’t got to the best bit yet!


Eventually our sun will die out as we know it, leaving behind a red dwarf.  Don’t panic, we have about another 5 billion years before that will happen. We have much more immediate concerns to weather – like the weather. Anthropogenic (human caused) Climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable by humans in only a few hundred years (unless we fix it – hint, hint). If we survive that, the sun will have grown to the point of being too hot for us in about 100 million years, moving the “Goldilocks Zone” past our Earth. We can potentially engineer a few solutions to that, or become space faring to escape the ever increasing heat.


The sun won’t really be dead in 5 billion years though, because it will become a type of star called a red dwarf. That red dwarf will burn for about a trillion years. That is 1,000 billion years. Consider that our entire observable universe is only 15 billion years old. If we turn that trillion years of age into 1 year again,  modern humans are 6.3 seconds old.


We still haven’t got to the best bit. Red dwarfs degrade into white dwarfs, whose lifespan is measured in a conservative quintillion years (1×10^18 years). That is a million times longer than a red dwarf. The estimated upper limit to the lifespan of white dwarfs is a number I can’t write down that makes any real sense – between 1×10^30 years to 1×10^200 years. And then the white dwarfs finally break down to black dwarfs. We don’t know how long they will last. White dwarfs are the last point that we can conceive of life as we understand it managing to live, after that, there isn’t sufficient energy distribution. Philosophical question: if the universe exists and there is no one there to appreciate it, does it matter? If we use the conservative number of the white dwarves lasting about a quintillion years, and we scale that to our year, then modern humans are about 6.3 micro seconds old. That is, a million microseconds pass to get to 1 second. We haven’t really happened.


This assumes that the Big Rip, or something similarly universe ending, doesn’t happen first. We are looking at how long the universe can go for. The Big Rip is where the accelerating expansion of the universe (confirmed and verified), fed by Dark Energy (seems to be an emergent aspect of space) gets so powerful it rips everything apart faster than it can form. Estimates on when this might happen vary from as little as the universe being aged 20 billion (whe our suns turns into a red dwarf) to 80 billion. That range tells you that we really don’t know. If the Dark Energy is an emergent property of space, and space continues to increase, then Dark Energy will continue to increase and lead to the Big Rip – where the space between things is so great that matter no longer has access to other matter. If it is not an emergent property of space, the universe won’t rip apart and we are down to the lifespan of black dwarfs.


Ok, so the universe is going to get really, really old. What of it? Remember how we were looking at our current human age compared to the scale of universal time and it started to seem very small…? 15 billion years seems like a long time when we are here at the 15 billion year mark, but compared to the projected lifespan of the universe, it is nothing. It started in an explosion and pushed outwards. Our universe is still expanding.


If you think about an explosion – like a hand grenade (named after pomegranates – blame the French) where you pull the trigger, it goes bang and sends shrapnel everywhere – that’s us. Very shortly after the reaction that started the explosion of the hand grenade, one of the bits of shrapnel formed life which became us, which became you, reading this. When we project where the pieces of the explosion are going and how long it will take to get there, and look at our place on that scale, the grenade just went bang, and we are in it – we are in that explosion riding a bit of debris.


The Big Bang was not a long time ago, it is now, and we are riding it.


And that is awesome.

This week in what fills me with AWE: Life

At its most basic level, the universe seems to be made up of small packets of vibrating stuff, collectively known as subatomic particles. The things we consider to be matter are made up of quarks (we have found 6 types) and they don’t have mass. Three or more quarks of different types combine together to become neutrons or protons and now, for some reason, they have mass. Several different types of particles called leptons (which also comes in 6 different types – the most well known being the electron), gauge bosons (4 types, the most well known being the photon aka light) and the scalar boson (the recently discovered Higgs). We learn in high school science that the universe is basically protons, neutrons, electrons and photons (a simplified model, and good enough). Protons, neutrons and electrons have mass… but where did that mass come from?


None of these particles are alive.

Standard Model of Elementary Particles
Standard Model of Elementary Particles

[By MissMJ – Own work by uploader, PBS NOVA [1], Fermilab, Office of Science, United States Department of Energy, Particle Data Group, Public Domain,]

All of that above stuff is 4% of what we think the universe contains. There is another 26% of a similar but uncounted chunk of stuff that accounts for the extra gravity we see. It is made of something else and we call it Dark Matter (because we can’t see it directly, we can only see its effects). The universe is expanding for some reason, and that takes lots of energy. We don’t know what this energy is, so we call it Dark Energy (because we can’t see it, we can only see its effects – and because some physicists have pretty poor imaginations).


So far as we know, that Dark stuff isn’t alive either. Watch this space though – because one day we will figure out what it is and then we’ll have a much better understanding of whether it is alive or not. Right now, we just don’t know, but we assume not.


Using our high school understanding; protons, neutrons and electrons combine to make atoms. There is no life here. Atoms combine to make molecules. There is no life here either. Molecules can become quite large and do some interesting things, pretty much being nano scale machines. We don’t think there is any life here. Groups of molecules can be clumped together in things called viruses, which we also don’t think are alive per se. While they have a way to reproduce themselves, they need an external mechanism to complete that, thus they seem more machine like than life like. They are no more alive than a lever is. A lever can’t make more of itself, but it can trigger an external process that does. There is, of course, debate about this point. I can’t make more of myself without the help of another and without the help of other things… so, am I a virus? (The Matrix movie makes an argument that humans are bacteria…)


When we look at a cell in our body, we consider it to be alive. The difference between a living and a dead cell is quite noticeable. Yet each part of that living cell is dead. The cell is made up of not-alive stuff. The cyanovirus, a molecular machine, can turn a dead cell back into an alive cell that makes more cyanovirus, so the difference between the dead cell and a live cell seems to be some kind of on/off switch. The difference in how we measure a live cell and a dead cell is that the live cell does stuff while the dead cell doesn’t. That seems like a sloppy definition.


Tardigrades are fascinating micro-animals. They were first discovered in 1773 by the German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze. Tardigrade is a phylum describing over 1,150 known species, averaging 0.3 to 0.5 mm in length, however some species get up to 4 mm in length. The most complex have about 40,000 of the above mentioned cells making up an individual mirco-animal. Tardigrades have been found pretty much everywhere on Earth that can contain life, and often places where other things can’t live. You can literally freeze them to near absolute zero, put them in a vacuum, heat them up to 150 degrees Celsius, and they’ll just keep on going. When they go out of their comfort range, they will desiccate themselves and seem dead. When

Standard Model of Elementary Particles
Standard Model of Elementary Particles

conditions return to reasonable, they re-hydrate and come back to life.

Tardigrade – one of the strongest survival machines we have on Earth

Come back to life.


An interesting phrase. When desiccated, they are basically dead. The cells do nothing. When they re-hydrate, they reanimate. Just like when the cyanovirus reanimates dead cells.


Archaea and Bacteria are the first orders of life that we consider living (remember that viruses are still controversial on whether they should be considered living or not). Both of these will move towards edible resources and away from threats. That suggests a level of awareness of their surroundings. However we can program machines to do this – so are these really alive, or just coincidentally programmed complex molecular machines?


Humans have consciousness. We are aware of ourselves, aware of our surroundings, can plan things in the future and dream up novel methods to overcome imagined problems. Some argue that this last bit – the imagination to dream up solutions – is what separates our particular species from all other life. Many “higher forms of life” have demonstrated the ability to solve present problems with novel solutions, but have not demonstrated the ability to solve problems yet to be presented.


By the same token, it is kind of hard to ask them when we don’t speak their language. We have taught some primates how to speak human language. Koko, who recently passed away, was a gorilla who was taught sign language and demonstrated some level of reasoning and emotion to circumstance (especially when her kitten passed away). However in her conversations, everything was very much in the “now”, with little to no examples of past and future tense, and has been reported to be similar to that of a very young child. Koko didn’t seem to look forward in time, however it could be argued that her grieving for her kitten shows an ability to look at the past.


Please note, racoons frequently break intelligence tests by solving problems in ways the experimenters didn’t expect them to be able to do. Racoons are probably the smartest creature on the planet.


Consciousness is more than solving problems though. It is an awareness of doing a thing. You are reading this. You are now aware of reading this. You are now aware of being aware that you are reading this. Some of you might even be aware of being aware that you just became aware of reading this… That awareness is different to a random problem solver, such as evolution. Evolution solves lots of problems by introducing a random generator and rewarding a type of success with survival and punishing a type of failure with death. We wouldn’t call evolution conscious or intentional – it solves problems, sometimes very elegantly, but it makes lots and lots of dumb mistakes too.


Assuming we do have consciousness and awareness, perhaps some other animals have it too. At what point do animals not have it? There are some very complex math problems to do with travel and networking. When bees were tested with this math problem, they came up with a very close to perfect solution. A solution that most humans would have difficulty figuring out. This wasn’t an individual bee that solved the problem, it was the whole hive of bees that solved the problem.


When we look at our bodies, we can’t point to which cell has intelligence, which cell harbours the seat of our consciousness. We have worked out that the organ called the brain is what makes decisions. Which brain cell is us? No individual brain cell seems to be it. The answer seems to be the collection of cells. If the hive is intelligent, that intelligence isn’t in any single bee, and if the brain is intelligent, it isn’t in any single brain cell. It is the collective. Kill a few bees and the hive continues mostly unaffected. Kill a few brain cells and the brain continues on, mostly unaffected. However kill enough bees and the hive collapses, and similarly kill enough brain cells and the human dies.


If you ask a single person in a farming village to estimate how much a cow weighs, that person has a chance of being accurate, but a much greater chance of being wrong. If you average the answers of the whole village, the cow is weighted pretty exactly via the collection of estimates. Are we like bees in a hive, having a much greater collective intelligence than the individual unit? When we look at human knowledge, it certainly seems that way. Humans know lots, while individual humans are pretty stupid. Believe me, I’ve met a lot of them.


One day we may leave our planet and join a federation or empire of other space faring intelligent species. Will our unit (humanity) join the bigger collective of intelligence? Destroy a single species and the collective continues, destroy enough of the collected species and the collective collapses?


It is interesting that the things that make up matter have no mass, but matter does. The things that make up life are have no life. The things that make up intelligence have no intelligence. The things that make up consciousness don’t have consciousness.


A common question in physics is “where does the mass come from?” while a common question in biology is “where does the life come from?”, and a common question in neuroscience is “where does intelligence come from?” and finally we also ask “where does consciousness come from?”


And the emergence of these aspects – mass, life, intelligence and consciousness – awes me.

This week in what fills me with AWE: Colour

We see the world in colour (or shades for those who are missing a set of cones). You are reading this from a screen that is projecting coloured light at you, it goes through your eyes and hits the cones and rods in your retina. That triggers a chemical reaction thanks to rhodopsin which uses 11-cis-retinal and light particles to form all-trans-retinal and an electric charge, which sends an ionic signal (that is, not electrons, but charged particles) to the brain.

White light being split into its component parts via a prism, which we interpret as colour
White light being split into its component parts, which we interpret as colour

The brain then looks at these chemical ions and interprets them into what you think you are seeing.

The light particle has a particular frequency which we interpret as light, and an amount of energy we interpret as brightness.

The colour we think we see does not actually exist. You made that up in the hallucination your brain creates that you call vision.

If we examine the light particle (photon) itself, it has no colour, just a certain frequency of vibration in the photonic layer of reality (we think). These frequencies are a certain type of energy amount, but there is no colour. Our eye has several different receptors that react differently depending on what frequency the photon has. The cone we call “red cone” will react to a certain level of strength to different photons around a certain wavelength (the flip side to frequency – they are inversely related). If the photon is dead on the right frequency, it fires at full strength, if it is further away, it fires less vigorously, and if it is too far away, it ignores the photon. So frequencies we call red, orange and yellow will trigger the red cone, but blue won’t. Also infrared won’t. The green cone is also triggered on these frequencies of photon, less for red, lots for green and a bit for blue.

The amount of these signals falls into a certain amount of red, green and blue being sent from that part of the eyeball (the image on your eyeball is upside down) and your brain assigns a value to that combination we call colour. At no point does the red or the orange or the yellow photon have the colour you think you are seeing. That assignment is similar to how computers interpret colour. We assign a level of red, green and blue in number levels, where [0,0,0] is black (no colour) and [full, full, full] is white, [full, 0, 0] is bright red. Do you see it? No? Neither does your eye or your brain.

You navigate the world via a hallucination that you made up based on these values, prompted by some clues out there, that doesn’t look at all like the thing you are fantasising about.

Prompting me to wonder, does the red apple I see look the same to you?

To the best of our ability to know, the red apple triggers a similar pathway and stimulates similar parts of the brain in both of us. That is, a similar part of the brain gets the photon with [full, 0, 0] for the brightest bit of the red apple. What we have no idea is if the conception you have for it is the same as mine.

Consider different languages. I speak English fairly well, so I understand words in English and a word will trigger a meaning in my brain. When I hear a word in a language I don’t speak, it registers as meaningless human speech. The pathway for the English word is fairly well known. The same pathway is travelled for the word in the other language for someone who speaks that language. Yet the meaning they have will likely be different because it means a different thing. We can’t see this bit.

If we had telepathy and I could look in your brain, would you be seeing the equivalent of a different language? Much like speech in different languages also travels a similar pathway and triggers similar parts of the brain for two different people, but is incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t speak that language. We kind of think this is how it works.

So, the colour you see is not real. You made it up.

Yet, it is very useful and that is why we do it.

And that is awesome.

Anger Management – Part 3

Anger as the emotion that tells you something is wrong and that you may have to do something about it. Sometimes that feeling is wrong – either it should be something else, or it is too big or too small. In this post we look at what to do when your anger is out of place, or your response is not wise.

In previous posts we have looked at different parts of anger.

Part 1 [Link] looked at what anger is for.

Part 2 [Link] looked at the responses to anger.

Now we are going to delve into what you can do about your own anger.

In another post series [link], we looked at helping someone else with their anger.

Managing Anger

We have previously looked at anger as the emotion that tells you something is wrong and that you may have to do something about it. The angrier you are, the more you feel you should do something to the source of the anger.

Managing anger comes in four parts

  • Assessing your anger
  • Making a choice
  • Calming down so you can act
  • Recovering from anger


Anger exists in a gradation of levels:

Annoyance -> Frustration -> Angry -> Ropeable -> Enraged

The stronger your feeling, the more immediate you feel the solution needs to be and the more tempted you are towards an aggressive response. The question is, is your feeling correct?

Angry looking eyes
How angry are you?

Anger is a feeling, and feelings are quick shortcuts our brain uses to try to guess at evaluating a situation and predicting an outcome. We are prediction machines – we catch the ball because we calculate where it is going to be and get our hand to that point before the ball gets there. If we responded to the world in real time we would always be behind. We also need to process what we see, so we would be even further behind. Thus we predict the future to interact with that predicted future which makes it real time. If our hand gets their too early, we grab before the ball arrives, the ball will bounce off our closed hand. If we predict too late, the ball is already past our hand.

Predictions aren’t always right and our quick shortcut process can be fooled by simple illusions.

Take a look at this illusion:

Vertical red bars on a background of spiral black lines make the red bars look bent even though they are straight
Which are the most bent red bars?

In this illusion, vertical red bars are on top of black radiating lines. Your brain is taking a shortcut to process this picture. The inner two red lines (in the middle) look quite bent. Yet they are vertically straight. Take a known straight edge to the screen and check for yourself.

Even knowing that the lines are all straight, you can’t help but see that lines as bent. If you were born sighted, this illusion works. If you gained sight after you were born (corrective surgery), this illusion won’t work. The shortcut your brain uses to interpret straight and is making this error is over ruling the part of your brain that knows it is straight.

In a similar way, your feeling of anger may be making a mistake about its prediction of the environment you are in. Even when you know it is wrong, the feeling (or bent lines) don’t go away. Yet if you needed to, you could use those red lines as a straight edge despite your feeling that they are bent. You know they are not.

Now that we know our feeling can be in error, it is important to look at how we feel. At what scale do we feel anger? What has triggered this anger? Is the feeling correct, or is it an illusion?

Faulty Triggers and Misreported Levels

Sometimes we misinterpret the source. Some trigger event has prompted an anger response in us.

Our in built shortcut is based on a combination of previous experience and hard wired responses. Your brain perceives your environment and compares it to your experience and hard wired responses and spits out a result – anger X/5. If X is 0, we aren’t angry. If it is 1, we are annoyed, 2 is frustrated, 3 is angry, 4 is ropeable , 5 is enraged.

If our brain misinterprets this event as similar to a previous event that harmed us, it will report a higher level of anger than the situation deserves. Once we recognise that an anger level has been tripped by an event, we can pause for a moment and ask ourselves “does this event actually deserve this level of anger?”, that is, “how bent is that red line anyway?”

Bad Instinctive Solutions

Once we have triggered the anger feeling, our brain suggests a solution. It will base this on the action that allowed us to survive last time. If it was destruction, then the default suggested physical response will be destructive; or if it was passive, the default suggested physical response will be passive.

Red button with don't push me written on it
Resisting temptation

Our brains are only wired to give us good enough survival solutions, and if we survived last time, that is good enough. Our emotion response centre doesn’t care that we lost a leg, or destroyed a family, it cares that we were alive. Our high brain does care. We want a less destructive and more comfortable solution.

As such, it is worth looking at our brains suggested default physical reaction and deciding if this is going to lead to an outcome that we want, beyond mere survival.

Slow down and Take a Moment

In the section above we looked at analysing our feeling – is it the correct feeling considering the trigger and is it the right strength?

To evaluate this we need to build in a gap between feeling and reacting.

Feel -> Inbuilt recommended action -> Reaction


Feel -> Inbuilt recommended action -> Pause (Assessment & Plan) -> Action

This Pause phase is vitally important to changing your habit – your reaction.  The first part of the Pause phase is to assess for Clear And Present Danger. If it exists, do the default. If not, you have time. If you have time, you need to calm down.

Making A Choice

Now that you have assessed your anger for how valid it is – the trigger event and the strength of your emotional reaction – it is time to choose. Do you go with the default recommended reaction (such as in the presence of a Clear and Present Danger) or do you make a wiser choice (when it is not)?

To be able to make a wiser choice requires you to calm down and make a plan.

Calming Down

Nowhere in the history of humankind have the words “calm down” been effective at calming someone down. It is the difference between being asked if you would like a drink compared to being told you will drink now. The instinctive response is to fight against the domination of the other, and being told to calm down is one of those dominations that we fight against, especially when we are angry.

Text written under a crown that says keep calm and carry on
Keeping calm is the objective, but we need to learn how to calm down first

Yet we must do this for ourselves. It is quite different for the self to recognise the need to calm down and do something about it. When it is an external source, it seems adversarial and it seems necessary to defend the self by digging our heels in and being even angrier. If the external source of calming down is a trusted someone, we will give them more heed, but even still, it is hard. A better external method is for that person to ask you to make your own assessment – “do you need to calm down?” or “you seem angry…”. Self evaluation prompts are much better.

Once we have identified that we need to calm down, there are some nice and logical steps we can take that will help us achieve that. First though, it is important to look at what is going on inside us.

Parasympathetic Nervous System

Once the brain has decided a situation requires anger it looks at the worse case scenario. We might have to fight our way out or we may have to run away. While other options to anger exist, if they fail, it defaults back to flight or fight.

Reporting this to the higher brain and waiting for confirmation takes too long, so it hits the bodies alarm button first, and reports – indirectly – to the higher brain that the system has gone on to high alert.

The Flight/Fight Response is an automatic process that pushes the body to be on the verge of instant action. To save time, the same process does both running preparation and fighting preparation. The process is a little different in every person, but there are some commonalities.

Dog rearing up in surprise at an angry cat indicating flight or fight response
Flight and Fight Response – what to do?

Our eyes dilate at night time or become pin pricks in the day time, the better to see the threat. Our blood leaves our outer skin layers, making us look paler, to pool into the muscles and inner organs – making cuts less dangerous and prioritising our muscular system. We want to evacuate our digestive system through throwing up and going to the toilet – which makes us both lighter and less desirable to eat. We dump a whole heap of chemicals into our bloodstream to dampen pain, sharpen senses and empower our muscles – fine motor control is out, gross motor movement is prioritised. Our heart rate accelerates to get the blood around our system faster while at the same time our breathing rate goes up to get rid of excess carbon dioxide and breath in oxygen to power the whole system.

Dilated Pupil
Pupil Dilation

This helps to explain why we feel nauseous, shaky, look pale and breath oddly. A variation that is not uncommon is blood rushing to the cheeks to advertise our state of mind to others – the looking red aspect of anger. Being social creatures, we often emote our feelings to inform those around us what we have perceived in order for them to wordlessly work as a whole.


Once our system has triggered the parasympathetic nervous system, it is just a case of hold on while it happens. You have no conscious control of this part. It takes just a few moments for the whole process to kick in – quite literally seconds.

But once those seconds have passed, it is now time to choose. Default or Retrain.

If it is default (because of Clear And Present Danger), then keep going. Do the default. If it is that clear and present, then you don’t have time to mess around. Survive first. However, consider after the fact – was it really clear and present? How often are we in a real fight or flight situation?

If your choice is to retrain, then we need to know how to tell our bodies to stand down. I liken this to a body guard who detects a threat to their employer – they have to be ready for action, just in case, but they also have to assess the validity of the threat. They have to decide whether to shoot or not. Most often the answer is “no”, at which point they have to stand down and return to relaxed vigilance, or manage the threat in a less violent manner.

We have to do this too.

The ramp up of the flight/fight response is automatic, and eventually the ramp down will be too. However that “eventually” takes an awfully long time.

Take another look at the common list of things that your body does to ramp up. How many of those things do you have any control over when you are calm? Can you manually change the dilation of your eyes? Can you manually change the flow of your blood? Most people are going to answer no to this. There is something that you can easily change.


You can change the way you breath. The Flight/Fight Response increases the speed of breathing and due to the digestive tract’s urge to clear, that breathing is shallow in your chest. In effect, you pant. So let us change that.

Four Second Breath Cycle

Try practicing this breathing exercise now.

Put one hand on your belly button, flat, so that your belly button is in the middle of your hand. Breath in deeply so that your hand on your belly button moves first, then your chest second.


Now, breathe out moving your belly button hand first, then your chest.

Now breathe in using the above method for a count of four seconds. Actually count the seconds as you do this. At the top of your inhalation, hold your breath for the same four seconds. Now slowly breath out as we practiced above for four seconds. Now hold your breath again for four seconds. Repeat this paragraph four times. Remember to actually count these in your head.

If you feel light headed, you breathed in and out too quickly – switch to five seconds or more.

How do you feel?

This works by manually overriding the breathing our automatic process has triggered, prompting the primal brain to reassess the situation. By manually counting we give the brain something to think about other than “we are going to die!!!”

Mammalian Dive Reflex

Mammals can’t naturally breath underwater. Our biology knows this so has a few tricks up its sleeve to manage this problem. This is the Mammalian Dive Reflex. We have water detecting sensors on our cheeks that alert the brain to the high likelihood that we have just dived into water and are now cut off from oxygen rich air.

Woman diving into water
Diving into water prompts you to hold your breath – we can use this

The brain registers this message and slows down the heart to conserve oxygen and ceases the breathing to avoid damage to the lungs from water. Along with a decreased heart beat, the muscles switch mode from fast muscle twitch to slow muscle twitch, a less strong but far more efficient muscle method. This is the difference between sprinting (high energy fast run) marathon running (low energy jog).

While we have no real conscious control over the Flight/Fight Response, we also have a similar lack of control over the Mammalian Dive Reflex. When we pit these two reflexes against each other, the Mammalian Dive Reflex wins – drowning is now, preparing for a fight is later.

By splashing cold water on our faces, we override the Flight/Fight Response.

Drinking Water

You can’t drink and breath at the same time. Humans have only one pipe travelling from the back of the throat down the neck and then splits off to the lungs and stomach. Similar to the Mammalian Dive Reflex, when you sip water, the liquid going down your throat automatically prompts your lungs to stop until the airway is clear. Then it takes this opportunity to take in or expel some air.

You can manually override your breathing by choosing to sip. Increase the length of the sip to decrease the breathing, space the sips to adjust how much air you allow in. This reflex has an ongoing change to your heart rate. Your heart is tied to your breath in a process called Respiratory Sinus Arrythmia (RSA). As you breath in, your heart rate decreases, as you breath out, your heart rate increases. It is thought this is tied to the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange with your blood.

Person drinking water from a bottle
Slowly drinking water resets the breathing pattern

Holding your breath for short periods of time (while sipping) when in a heightened state will momentarily increase your heart rate, but the presence of water will decrease your heart rate… either way, you end up feeling calmer.

Note that while tea can increase calm, the extra caffeine in coffee may have an adverse effect. Alcohol will initially also promote calm because it is a liquid, but a sufficient quantity will start having other effects primarily because of the intoxication the alcohol can bring.

Try this sipping exercise and see what the effect on you is.


Once we have started the calm down process it is tempting to retrigger ourselves to justify how much anger we had. We look back at the event with the same filter that triggered us in the first place, enhanced by having just been agitated with a Flight/Fight Response. Re-triggering hits the Flight/Fight Response button all over again, forcing us to have to calm down all over again.

To avoid this, we can disrupt the behaviour.


Above we talked about counting in the Four Second Breath Cycle. The counting is really important as it gives our mind something else to focus on other than the initial trigger which we have already assessed as not being an immediate Clear and Present Danger.

Other hand distractions can be reciting the colours of the rainbow, the order of the members of your family or other easily memorable things that have a moderate level of complexity. Try counting backwards from 100 in 9’s. 100, 91, 82, 73 … Or 7’s, or 3’s. These are all tricky enough to be distracting without being something to retrigger the anger reflex.

Keying in other senses can also be of great benefit. Consider the colours of the rainbow – it starts with red, so look for something red, then orange, now yellow, green, blue, indigo and finally violet. Listen to the loudest sound you can hear, now listen for a high pitched sound, now a low pitched sound and finally what is the quietest sounds you can hear? What do you smell and or taste? Can you feel your finger nail on another finger pad?

The above sensory exercises are examples of self soothing, or stimming. These are tools that some cognitively diverse people use to help promote self calm that work on all people.

Do you have a smart phone? Add an app that requires you to think about bit that seems like fun. Ideally a quiet game that takes a few minutes to complete. When you need a distraction, play the game. This technique has been found to be highly effective for people struggling with PTSD. Instead of focusing on the trauma, you focus on the game, untying your physical response from the memory.


After we have disconnected our feeling from our body reaction, we still feel like we have a physical something we need to do. The easiest and highest recommendation I have for this is walking. Start off with a quick walk to get the feeling managed, then slow it down. You only need to go for a couple of hundred meters (yards). The urge we are resisting is combat simulations – things that mimic the Flight/Fight Response – such as running, boxing or breaking things. We want enough physical stimulation that we feel we are doing something, but not enough that it reinforces Flight or Fight for anger.

Absence is the Better Part of Valor

If the trigger for the anger is still present and still triggering, it is wise to move away from the trigger. Excuse yourself to the bathroom/toilet, or go outside for a breath of fresh air. Whatever it takes to walk away without looking weak or vulnerable. Once you have regained your composure, it is important to go back and try again.

Exit sign
Exiting a situation is sometimes the smart move

This trains your brain to step back from being overwhelmed, but to step back in once self control has been established. If you don’t go back in, you train your brain to run away – that flight is the best answer.

What we want to do is promote Assertion – an adult negotiation with another adult. That means going back and trying again. It is also important to recognise when the other person lacks the insight to be able to negotiate like an adult. We looked at Insight in Part 1 of Helping an Angry Person [Link].

Recovering From Anger

Sometimes we fail to manage our anger well. Remember that there are two parts to anger – the feeling that is informing you of the environment and the action you take because of that feeling. It is possible to feel very enraged and take no action.

Our actions affect others. Sometimes those actions do not produce good results. It is tempting to try to justify our anger and our actions in the face of evidence that the result was bad. This is time to person up and take responsibility for at least a share of the outcome. Nothing is 100%, but fair is fair. If you did the action, then *you* did the action. Maintaining control of your actions despite your mood is your responsibility.

I can tell you to stand and you can refuse, because you deny my words. I can demand that you stand, and you can refuse. I can threaten dire consequences if you refuse, and you can refuse. I can physically lift you to your feet, but who is standing here, and what happens when I let go? My words and my desire have no means to make you stand. Now substitute me for your feeling – it can suggest, cajole, threaten with dire consequences… – but until you chose to act, it has no power over you.


So own up to your actions and work on ways to make a different choice next time. It is hard. You have a lifetime of habit supporting your default choice. The only way to change that habit is with effort, practice and lots of mistakes.

The other person you affect with your choices is you. There may be emotional, cognitive, social and physical repercussion to what you have or have not done (sometimes aggressive action is necessary after all, and if we chose not to do it when it is needed, that too has consequences). Address the harm done as best you can.

Now it is time to review – how did this round of anger go for you? What were the triggers? Was that the real trigger, or is something else driving you to higher levels of anger? What did you chose? What would you now chose with more insight and a more level head? What calming methods worked well for you, and what didn’t?

By reviewing how you went with a level head, you give yourself better options for next time – so long as you also practice calming methods when you aren’t agitated.

So practice being calm, practice reviewing your performance, until anger management problems are but a distant memory.


This is in no way an exhaustive list of how to manage your anger. This is just a tribute. However you can use this as a primer for how to go about managing some aspects of how you response to the anger feeling and decreasing the harm you may be causing.

If this is not enough help for you, it is time to go to some professional help. In Australia, at the time of writing this, that means going to your General Practitioner (local Doctor) and talking to them. Tell them you have having troubles with anger and would like a referral to a counsellor.

Anger Management – Part 2

Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).

Last time [link] we looked at understanding anger – what is the feeling for and how do we judge what it is trying to tell us.

In this post we look at our responses to anger.

In the next post [link], we will look at what you can do when you realise your anger is not helping you.

Responses to Anger

Belo is a diagram model that helps understand anger responses. As the threat approaches (crossing boundaries) we should have an escalating response to that threat.

A series of responses to anger
Understanding the Anger Responses


Passive means no direct action is taken. This phase is preparing for a worsening of the event and induces mild stress to the self.

Generally we have a passive response when we feel that it will take more energy to fix the problem than the problem deserves, or that the problem will leave on its own, or that we just simply can’t actually do anything that would have a positive outcome.

Passive - Dog submitting to the more powerful wolf
Passive – Dog submitting to the more powerful wolf

Passive Aggressive

Passive aggressive also means no direct action is taken to the perceived threat, however indirect action is present. This phase is trying to non-directly tackle the problem or vent off stress to manage the self.

Either a perceived power imbalance between you and the threat exists (eg the boss is telling you to do a rotten job) or the effort required to fix the problem (quitting) seems worse than putting up with the problem or there is some other reason not to directly address the perceived threat. Yet the stress has built to the point where something needs to be done. This introduced the idea of venting.


When we feel powerless against the problem, we will find ways to demonstrate power in some way, even if that is going to penalise us later. We will do the task poorly, or promise to do the task and not do so, or undermine the thing in some other way. This gorilla tactic is about non-direct confrontation to prove that we have a say, even though we don’t.

Wooden shoe called sabot, the origin of the word sabotage
Sabot – a wooden shoe. The origin of the word “Sabotage” from “saboter” – to walk noisily, to make damage.


So I can’t yell at the boss, because the consequence of that would be me losing my job and I really need my job. I can, however, take it out on Alex, who has done something that I can justify venting my aggression at. Alex, of course, doesn’t feel they deserve this. And they are right, because the thing that I am actually upset with isn’t anything to do with Alex, and the excuse of my aggression is a flimsy lie to justify my action. I have transferred my anger at my boss to an innocent bystander.

Scared child
Transferred anger – Sometimes we miss the harm we do

Often we take out work aggression on family, or family aggression on friends. A key element of who we pick to transfer our anger to is that they seem less powerful than the source of the anger, and we feel that we have a safer venting ability with them – that is, the consequence to our action will be less. We either hope that the victim of theis transferred aggression will understand, or feel sufficiently powerless that they will just put up with it.


Debriefing is about talking about the problem to anyone and everyone. This is actually somewhat useful as a mechanism as it increases the chances of finding a solution that we haven’t thought of. There is also a chance that someone that we grumble to will directly fix the problem for us.

Two people talking
Talking can be useful – to vent, to solve, to get help

Often, though, we aren’t looking for solutions, we are looking to vent our frustrations in a non-aggressive way. We are not receptive to solutions, only sympathy.

When we grumble to someone else and they fix our problem for us, we learn that we can’t fix the problem ourselves. Instead when next we have a problem, we grumble yet again. When this doesn’t work, we feel trapped and helpless. We have accidentally taught ourselves learned helplessness.

Self Harm

When we can’t grumble, don’t dare transfer aggression, or do a gorilla tactic to sabotage the problem, we may find ourselves trying to release stress in another way. We can’t direct the damage out there, so we internalise it.

Self harm can be done in a number of ways. It can be substance abuse, diet abuse, tissue damage, social harm, financial harm and so on. The common element to all of these is it is bad for the self.

Drug Paraphernalia
Self harm – substance abuse

This harm expresses or relieves the internal pain in an external way that isn’t supposed to affect another. The worse the self harm, the more it indicates the stress that the self is under such that this is the way to vent that strain.

On the one hand this is a useful way to relieve the stress before it becomes explosively bad – suicide or murder – but on the other hand it delays actually solving the problem such that self harm is not needed. One should not stop self harming if the trigger problem still exists and no ameliorating actions have been put in place. Also note, this is not black and white – go see a professional and get good advice about your situation, how to reduce the problem and how to reduce your self harm.


Being assertive is all about having the confidence to be forceful and powerful in your position and pushing a solution forwards in a non-aggressive way.

This should be the first method of resolving the problem use employ.

If the cause of your anger is another person, then surely they should be intelligent, capable and willing to resolve the problem with you. This “surely” has a number of assumptions built into it – assuming the other person has the capacity to understand the problem, the insight to recognise their share of the responsibility of the problem and the willingness to do something about the problem.

Businessman closing powerful fist
Being Firm – Personal power helps being assertive, be confident with what you are and can do

When this assumption is correct, then working with the other person to resolve the problem is relatively simple and effective. However the other person may not be as willing as you are to take on their share of the burden, or willing to acknowledge how big of a problem there really is, leaving you to be the one to shoulder the solution and the consequences of it.

Assertiveness is used to not allow the other person to shirk their responsibility. Clearly you need to have a good idea about what is your responsibility and what isn’t, what you should do and what you shouldn’t, and what you are willing to accept and what you aren’t. Knowing these things allows you to more confidently confront the other person and push your agenda forwards.

It is important to remember that you are supposed to be working collaboratively with the other person towards a solution rather than finding ways to blame the other person for everything that has gone wrong. There is a big difference between recognising an error and finding fault in a person.

“When you did this thing, the result was bad” versus “you are bad for doing this thing”.

If you are too passive in your approach, you permit the other person to make the problem yours and therefore the solution yours to do. If you are too aggressive, the other person may try to resist you or will leave out of fear. Assertive is that bit in between being passive and being aggressive (not to be mistaken for the passive aggressive phase) where you stand up for yourself but are also willing to acknowledge that you can change things too.

Beware of losing focus on the problem. If the other person is manipulative they will seek to find fault in you about things that are not relevant to this problem to distract from the things they have done that have contributed to this problem. So while it is important to recognise that you will need to make some changes to resolve this problem, it must be focused on this problem and balanced with what the other person has done and will do about this problem.

I’ll write a post about more on this soon.

When the cause of the problem is a non-animal, such as a defective item, then calming down and finding a logical solution to the problem is highly effective. For example, computers don’t respond well to violence. They just break or ignore your swearing. However a logical solution will exist- replace a part, try a different command, re-install the program, upgrade the machine etc.

If none of these work, then consider a new plan. For example, I may be frustrated that it will just take too long to get from this part of my holiday plan to a thing that I want to see. No logical solution will fix that – some things are just not feasible. So either I need to sacrifice some of my holiday elsewhere to make this work, or give up seeing this side line thing.


Aggression is the solution to solving problems when we can’t reason with the cause of the problem, or can’t find a reasonable solution. It is a solution that either threatens to use or actually does use violence.

Aggression should be the last ditch effort to solve a problem, or a solution born of desperation.

Aggression is the use or threat of violence to force your agenda forwards

Direct Physical Threats

Previously I talked about a dangerous dog attacking. Passive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Passive aggressive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Assertiveness won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Aggression is my solution.

There are stages to aggression.


The first part of aggression is looking like we are ready to do violence. This means seeming bigger (standing taller, hands on hips and elbows out, puffing out the cheeks slightly), sounding more menacing (deepening the voice, being louder), using threatening body language (raising a hand, looming over another, getting into their personal space) and some other body language means to communicate that you are not only ready for violence, but that you will win.

Woman standing with hands on hips, showing domination
Powerful stance postures dominance

If this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins and you won.

Vocal Threats

Using the dangerous dog example, using my angry voice I scream at the dog. This comes out more as a roar than a high pitched scream. The roar indicates ability to do harm, the high pitched scream indicates being a victim. This is still about bluff.

Humans respond more to promises of harm. If the other person believes they will be hurt and tunes into that future pain, they may rethink their action. This is about bluffing the person into believing the fight is not worth their effort, that they will experience more harm than the good they are hoping to achieve.

Again, if this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins.

Demonstrations of Violence

Demonstrating violence on things around you show your ability to do harm if needed. This can be foot stomping, banging on things, breaking an item near you, slamming doors or knocking furniture over. This shows not only a willingness to create damage, but an ability to do so as well.

Broken plates and cups
Local destruction and noise can scare the danger away


As a worst case scenario, you are in for a fight. You have not managed to fend the dangerous dog off with threats of violence and it is actively trying to bite you. Now you need to use your body to minimise harm to yourself and cause harm to another. There are excellent self defence courses you can go to in order to learn the most effective ways to remain safe, do escalating damage to another and stay within the legal limits of the law for self defence.

I am certainly not going to cover that here.

Bengal tiger fight
Bengal tiger fight

Indirect Threats

If the threat of direct physical violence to you is not present – there is no dangerous dog or human – then aggression is not your solution. But it may feel like it is.

We often substitute a feeling of powerlessness with aggression. If a bit of effort doesn’t resolve the problem, then more surely will. We want to escalate the effort until the thing is fixed. Consider trying to get a thumb tack into the wall. If the wall is harder than expected, then the thumb tack doesn’t go in by just pushing it, so we want to get a bigger thing, like a hammer, to hit it in. If that doesn’t work, we reach for a bigger hammer.

Often the solution isn’t try harder. It is try smarter. The smarter idea for the thumb tack is not to use a sledge hammer (you’ll just squish the thumb tack), it is to instead pre-drill the wall. Perhaps a thumb tack isn’t the solution you should be using on this wall.

Working with government agencies can be a nightmare of red tape and powerlessness. We think the solution should be simple, but we have to fill in form after form after form. We do all the things we are told, despite the contradictions, and still get nowhere or are told we are ineligible.  We have tried to be passive (comply with the forms), assertive (work with the front desk staff) and now we feel aggression is our best answer.

It isn’t.

The temptation is to yell, be belligerent and create a problem.

The actual solution is that you need a new plan. A bigger hammer won’t solve the thumb tack in the wall. Instead, using a smarter tool or change the thumb tack. In this case, go to the complaints line and then the should that not work ombudsman. Becoming aggressive to the front desk staff just won’t work.

There are times to tactically lose your shit. That is, snap a bit, look dangerous, clearly regain control of yourself and be reasonable again. This shows the other person that you are pissed off, but trying to be reasonable. Now is the time to say something like “I get that you can’t help me, and I know you want to, and clearly this should be a reasonable thing. So, what can I do now? Where further can I take this?”

Sometimes it is important to relay to the other person just how angry you are. However if they fear you, you are probably not going to get what you want. Instead it is about appropriate levels of display. There is a huge difference between a clear and crisp swear word, a pause and a retry versus knocking the staff members monitor off the table. Don’t do the latter.

Next time

In the next article [link], we will look at what you can do to manage how you feel.

Anger Management – Part 1

Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).

We have looked at how to help an angry person (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

This post series is about how to manage your own anger, which on the one hand is easier because it is you, and on the other hand is harder, because it is you.

First we will understand what the feeling of anger is about and how to measure it.

In the next post [link], we will work on understanding what our responses to anger are likely to be and how they are useful to us.

Lastly [link], we will look at how you can change your anger and manage it when you realise the automatic feeling and response aren’t useful to your situation.

Understanding Anger

Humans have a range of emotions that help us to identify a situation and come up with a valid response. It takes far too long to manual perceive everything around you and manually process what it means and then manually go through your decision tree of actions to remain safe in a timely manner. We use feelings to automate a lot of this process and prepare the body for calm, flight or fight.

Angry child's face

The Anger feeling is triggered when our feeling assessment part of our brain (mostly thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala) recognises a situation that indicates that something is wrong and to our detriment. You don’t get angry when you win a door prize of $100, but you do get angry when someone tries to take that $100 away.

Impact – judging threat, consequence and boundaries

Something that goes wrong that has little impact upon you will only prompt a small reaction, while that same thing that goes wrong that has a big impact upon you will have a stronger reaction. The impact of a the event is based on our perception of the threat and the strength of the consequences that event has.

Because the feeling of anger is based on our perception of the event rather than the reality of the event, how we interpret the situation and its consequences is key to how angry we get. Anger is personal rather than objective. The same event can affect different people in different ways.

We all have boundaries which vary from situation to situation. They may be physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, social boundaries, conceptual boundaries, intellectual boundaries and so on. Boundaries indicate the edge of where someone or something else affects you, and each progressive stage of affect until it is actually you that is harmed.

If someone is far distant they are not a factor to your safety. As they cross your first boundary line, you become aware of them and their potential threat, as they come closer you become more ready to act depending on who they are and what they represent to you. If they are a trusted loved one, those boundary lines are much closer, if they are a dangerous looking stranger, those boundaries are further away.

Each progression past each boundary that heightens threat increases our anger level if the perceived outcome is negative.


In therapy, power is defined as the capacity one has to affect change. If we perceive ourselves to have a great deal of capacity to affect the change we want, we feel powerful. If not, we feel powerless.

Man standing in front of tanks in Tienanmen Square - a depiction of power
Man vs Tank – an interesting depiction of power

Once an event has occurred that affects us, we feel the need to address it. If we can do so without much effort or risk, then we feel we have sufficient resources  and ability – capacity – to fix the problem. While we often don’t feel powerful per se, we do note the absence of power – that is, when we can’t fix the problem.

Power is a strange concept. Every time we succeed at a task, we generally dismiss it as easy and not really worthy of notice – we minimise successes. If we have put a huge amount of effort into it, then we can feel accomplished and powerful.

We supplement our effort with anger. This form of anger is often secondary to the initial event as it has to do far more with ongoing consequences to the event than the initial reaction to it. More on that later. However it is important to note that the more powerless we feel to an event, the more it angers us and the more we want to be aggressive to compensate.


Different cultures have different ways to display anger, defining suitable methods of addressing things that provoke anger and what is a transgression of a boundary that should prompt you to be angry.

Some cultures include displays of mock aggression to symbolise social stature, or actual aggression to enforce social stature.

Respect is a concept that can either mean authority, recognition of capability or fear. If the definition you are using is recognition of fear, then you will use aggression to try to inspire respect from another person. For the person who sees respect as recognition of capability, they may fear you and disrespect you. Culture can have a strong foundational part of which definition of respect someone uses.

Treating another human as equal to you is a relatively new concept that is slowly propagating around the globe. There are cultures who still view “others” as lesser, or a part of that countries population as lesser. Each country has a sub-culture that suppresses another group. If you find that you are easily angered at someone for who you identify them as rather than what that person is actually doing, then you are practicing cultural suppression – an ism of some kind. Racism, sexism, ethnicism etc. You see that group as less than you, or a threat to you. This ism often ties into subcultural stereotypes and the disgust emotion.

Stressors and Compound Anger

In physics, stress is a force applied to a material and the effect that force has on a material. In psychological stress, the person feels a force acting upon them – work, arguments, hunger – and experiences that effect as stress. Some ongoing low level stress is good for us, and occasional large amounts of stress are also beneficial, so long as that force applying the stress doesn’t break us or last for too long.

Person being handed a phone, list, pen and writing pad indicating stress
Too many stressors

The more stress we feel, the shorter our fuse is with anger and the more prone we are to react with aggression. Suppressing the aggressive reaction to anger is stressful and so compounds our shorter fuse and our aggressive response.

This plays into one of our responses to anger – passive aggression / transference. More on that later in Part 2 [Link].

Primary and Secondary Anger

When anger is informing you that something is wrong and needs to be addressed in the absence of other strong feelings such as fear or disgust, then it is the primary feeling. The trigger may need to be addressed or monitored (more on this later).

Often anger is secondary to an initial emotion. This is common in some subcultures where feelings are represented by either good or anger. Feel happy? Translate to good. Feel comfortable? Translate to good. Feel surprised? Translate to anger. Feel disgusted? Translate to anger. Feel scared? Translate to anger. Feel sad? Translate to anger.

Disgust expression then triggers anger
Disgust can often trigger anger

Sometimes the correct fear response is aggression – if I a see a big nasty dog coming to bite me, I should swell up, raise my voice and scare the dog so it doesn’t bite me. I need to be ready to fight the  beast if this fails or face the consequence of being harmed by it. This aggressive fear response is going to trigger anger as a secondary feeling. After the event, where the dog has been fended off, I will continue to feel anger because I was scared and had to defend myself. I may look for reasons to feel angry to justify my secondary emotion.

Often the anger I feel towards a thing isn’t well balanced. If that is the case, then it may be that my anger towards this thing is secondary to a problem I have somewhere else.