Oxytocin for Headache
Thoughts From a Labor/Delivery Nurse

Inherited Anger: How Emotion Begins in the Body

We've all experienced being royally angry; sometimes, the anger seems all out of proportion to others.

"I don't understand why you're so mad." That just makes me madder.

"I can't help it. It's just the way I feel."

Our feelings seem sacrosanct. They're intensely real and must be acknowledged -- and maybe soothed -- by everyone around us. They seem to rise logically and inevitably from circumstances.

One thing I struggle with as I'm writing my book (Love Chemistry, all about oxytocin) is defining emotion in the first place. I'm not alone.

At the Seven Dimensions of Emotion Conference last weekend, it was clear that presenters were not speaking about the same thing when they used the word "love" or "anger."

I'm defining emotion as a physiological state. We may enter a particular state, such as anger or love, in response to external stimuli: My friend says something mean, or she encourages me. They can also begin internally, when something we don't consciously notice triggers a pattern, or when we think about something that raises emotions.

In either case, after the physiological response, the prefrontal cortex, the thinking, planning part of the brain, names the emotion (sometimes) and explains it: Ooh, I'm pissed off. She shouldn't have said that. Ah, she's so wonderful.

But the cortex, in its determination to find meaning in everything, sometimes leads us astray. New information about that famous Appalachian feud between the Hatfields and McCoys shows just how wrong it can go.

The Hatfields and McCoys are famous in American history for having the longest-running, most intense inter-family feud. See Wikipedia's entry for more information. Let's just say they hated and killed each other for a hundred years.

It turns out that the McCoys are plagued by Von Hippel-Lindau disease, a genetic disease that causes, among other things, tumors on the adrenal gland. According to the Associated Press,

Dozens of McCoy descendants apparently have the disease, which causes high blood pressure, racing hearts, severe headaches and too much adrenaline and other “fight or flight” stress hormones.

...James Reynolds, said of the McCoys: “It don’t take much to set them off. They’ve got a pretty good temper.

“Before the surgery, Winnter, when we would discipline her, she’d squeeze her fists together and get real angry and start hollering back at us, screaming and crying,” he said.

You don't need to have Von Hippel-Lindau to have a hyperactive stress response. The hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal gland are together known as the HPA axis, or the stress axis, because they respond to stress by initiating the fight-or-flight response. How reactive the HPA axis is is determined by pre- and post-natal experience, through, probably, the first two years of life. Abuse and trauma -- possibly even the trauma of being born via cesarian -- can set the HPA axis to keep the body in a perpetual fear or rage state.

Understanding how this response is generated below our consciousness is the first step in learning to regulate anger and fear so that we don't automatically project it onto others. Would this understanding have been enough to cool it between the Hatfields and McCoys?