A Bias Toward High Arousal

In emergencies, the sympathetic nervous system and certain areas of the brain becomes highly activated in preparation for danger. This is known as 'fight or flight' If the emergency is chronic or unresolvable, these nervous system effects tend to become persistent.

If one thinks of emotion as the type of music playing on a radio, then arousal is the volume dial. All emotions at very high volume are distorted and wreak havoc.

High arousal is sometimes described under the heading of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A much higher percentage of primary aggressors than general population 'rules in' for PTSD. Part of PTSD is a bias toward high arousal. People with high arousal often describe themselves, or are described by others, as 'intense'.

With a bias toward high-arousal, conflict and frustration quickly take on the false tone of life or death. In this highly aroused state 1) Empathy diminishes, even if the person is otherwise dedicated to a prosocial way of life. 2) Normal social conventions and the presence of other people lose their protective value, 3) Memory is laid down differently, interfering with learning from experience, and 4) Previous commitments and resolve go out the window, 5) It is difficult or impossible to 'do nothing', 'wait and see', or 'sleep on it', and so a great many impulsive actions are taken in the setting of incomplete information.

A person with chronically high arousal may have the following interpersonal difficulties: 1) Difficulty breaking off or ending any serious discussion, 2) Difficulty agreeing to disagree, 3) Quick escalation to aggression or violence, 4) Difficulty making 'fresh starts' in the short term, because reacting to what has happened seems paramount and proceeding independently of what has happened seems wrong, 5) Many requests of others for second chances or 'fresh starts' in the long term because past escalations are hard to reconcile with the person's basic goals and intentions, 6) Difficulty negotiating-- the more alternatives offered the more the upset because more alternatives are experienced as more ways or chances to be tricked.

High arousal can be changed slowly over time by bodywork and relaxation training. However, experience shows that it can be hard to let go of high arousal, even when the effectiveness of relaxation work is experienced. This perhaps comes of two reasons, 1) relaxation is associated with being victimized, and 2) high arousal actually is effective in getting one's way, because it tends to roll over people and situations.

Trying to control everything also tends to keep arousal high, because control is always tenuous, and so a primary aggressor is always vigilant and often responding to perceived breaches of control, as if at war.