Psychiatrist Eric Berne, the father of Transactional Analysis and author of the best seller Games People Play, often referred to the “afterburn” experience.
Afterburn - according to Berne – is the period of time it takes you after an emotional disturbance, such as anger, fear, guilt, shame, or jealousy, to “come down,” and return to a normal baseline emotional state.
Depending on the individual and the situation, it might be minutes, hours, or days, and sometimes even longer. Berne posited that some people become big time “afterburners,” with prolonged arousal periods, and unable to recover quickly. Some chronic afterburners even experience overlapping episodes – they trigger off on the next tantrum or emotional roller coaster before the last one subsides. They may become continuously disgruntled and stay in an unrelieved state of stress.
Are You an Afterburner?
Are you an afterburner? How well do you adapt to emotional disturbances, and how quickly to you bounce back? Although many people tend to think of their emotional reactions as purely reflexive, automatic responses to signals, the modern science of mindfulness shows us that it is definitely possible to manage these reactions.
We can think of bouncing back emotionally as a psychomotor skill – something the mind can do to support a healthy state in the body.
One of my favorite stories from show business illustrates the extent to which we actually have control – or, at least, influence over our emotions. During the production of Mel Brooks’ film “The Producers,” Brooks was particularly cranky during one work period, and had been criticizing the performers. After one especially angry tirade, Zero Mostel, the legendary comic and character actor walked off the stage and headed for door.
“Where are you going?!” Brooks demanded. Mostel looked at him imperiously and said “I shall retire to my dressing room, and wait until your tantrum is over.”
Stunned, Brooks demanded, “Are you telling me you’re going to stop this whole production and sit in your dressing room until my tantrum is over?”
“Yes,” sniffed Mostel.
Brook straightened up, stood silently for a few seconds, and then announced, “My tantrum is over.”
Your Magic Reset Button
Here’s a simple – although peculiar – method for returning quickly to your emotional baseline. I call it the “emotional reset switch.”
To “install” your emotional reset switch, choose a spot on your body that you can touch conveniently and in a socially acceptable manner. My favorite spot is on my forehead, between my eyes and just above the brow line. You can do this while looking into a mirror if you like.
Now, touch the tip of your index finger on that spot, and at the same instant conjure up in your “body memory” the sensation of feeling calm, at ease, and in control. This familiar, non-anxious state is your emotional home base. It’s the place you want to come back to after any provocation.
Practice touching or pressing this magic, imaginary button many times, each time associating it with the neutral baseline feeling.
The next step is to start training your internal observer – your “observing self” – to get your attention during an emotional episode, to remind you that you’re out of your peaceful zone, and to invite you to return. You have to realize you’re off baseline first, before you can decide to come back.
Now, as soon as you realize you’re off baseline, simply acknowledge that understanding – without rancor or self-condemnation – and just touch your magic reset button with your fingertip, calling up the preferred state of feeling.
What makes this simple trick work so well? It's because the brain is easily distracted. It’s like a computer that’s constantly monitoring many input channels, and programmed to react to the one that’s delivering a high-priority input.
When you press your reset button, you instantly distract your brain from its undesirable state of arousal, and you require it to pay attention to this new physical stimulus. In the process, it begins to forget what it was doing. In a sense, you derail the signals that activate your amygdala - your emotional fire alarm.
If the emotional episode is very strong – extreme anger, for instance – you might need to press the reset button again, and yet again. Just be sure to conjure up your positive feeling state each time you do. This method can also work very well in reducing anxiety, such as you might experience going into a job interview or giving a presentation to a group.
Let’s remind ourselves that techniques like this one are only useful if we use them. If you simply read the explanation above, nod your head, and go on with life, don’t expect anything to change. But if you take a few minutes to actually “install” your own personal reset button, practice activating it, and mentally rehearse a few situations in which you can actually use it, you might be surprised to discover how much more control you have over your emotional states.
Over the next few hours, a full day, and a full week, try to keep your internal observer awake and on the job. Notice your reactions to the situations you experience. When do you become angry, annoyed, or irritable? What signals, or triggers, are you responding to? How soon can you decide to let go of the afterburn and return to baseline? How well does your reset button actually work?
If you put your reset button on your forehead, it will be easily accessible, and probably you can touch it in a natural manner that doesn’t call the attention of others to what you’re doing. If you like, you can camouflage the movement with a natural gesture, such as tilting your head downward, bringing your fingertips to the bridge of your nose, and touching your forehead with the tip of your index finger.
If you prefer, you can put your button somewhere else – the palm of your hand, your ear, or your knee, for instance. Or, install several buttons, and use them all from time to time.
It might feel a bit peculiar at first, or even a bit foolish, to be pressing your reset button. But the more often you do it, the better it will work. The effects on your mental health could be remarkable, and your immune system will probably thank you.
Games People Play. Eric Berne. New York: Dell, 1964.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.
He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.
The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.
Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.
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