Emotion Inflammation | The Effects of Pre-Existing Vulnerability Factors
Treja entered the coffee shop with great excitement. It had been such a long time since she had made time for a social life. She was finally grabbing a few minutes to meet with her new friend, Sonya. They had met a few weeks back at her cousin’s birthday party and had met almost weekly since. Today is their first time meeting for lunch, a fantastic way to break up her monotonous day!
Arriving spot on at twelve noon as they had agreed, Treja chided herself for nearly being late. Expectantly, she scanned the room to see if Sonya was there yet. A slight twinge of irritation flitted through her as it became evident she hadn’t. Perhaps she’s in the bathroom. With that thought, she brushed her feelings away and occupied herself by looking at the bakery display, struggling to decide which scrumptious item to choose.
What felt like forever passed and, delaying as long as she could without looking odd, Treja finally made her order. She paid and then moseyed over to a seat in the corner that had a clear view of the entryway. The door being opaque, her head jerked up in anticipation at its every movement. One person. Two people. After the third person walked in, the rumblings in her head began full force.
“Where is she already? Doesn’t she know I’ll worry? Maybe she isn’t as considerate as I thought.”
Her heart rate increased, and a slight pounding began at her temples. The familiar grip of anger took hold in her chest and abdomen. She fought the urge to scream. How can people be so incredibly inconsiderate?
Finally, the door swung open and her smiling friend waved vigorously and pointed at the coffee counter, indicating she would place her order before coming to the table. She mouthed an “I’m sorry,” and when she arrived at the table, she apologized again and explained there was a construction jam on the road leading into the parking lot and she felt pulling over to call would have delayed her even more. Seeming to feel amends had be adequately made, she chatted on about how cute and quaint and what a wonderful choice the coffee shop was.
Feeling foolish, Treja berated herself for being so bothered. Sonya had not been late before, and it was only 12:10 pm.
Why was Treja so very upset at such a minor infraction? Can you relate? What’s going on here?
First, a bit of back story. When Treja was growing up, she had a sister who was always late — and I mean late, sometimes not even showing up at all to the meetings they arranged. Early on, Treja would fret and worry, fearing the worst. After several experiences, though, the concern morphed into anger. When her sister would finally arrive, she would act put out when Treja complained, leaving her feeling unimportant and resentful. Over time, the siblings drifted apart. To this day, Treja hates to wait.
Difficult experiences such as these, especially ones that are repeated, are known as pre-existing vulnerability factors. These can range from acts of inconsideration, such as with Treja and her sister, to outright traumatic events. Pre-existing vulnerability factors (PVFs) are experiences that make unhelpful or maladaptive responses more likely to happen when faced with similar situations. PVFs wreak havoc on our emotional state and cause what I call, “emotion inflammation.” Some of the ways emotions are affected are:
Frequency — An emotion happens too often or not often enough.
Intensity — Emotions are too strong or too weak
Duration — The sensation of an emotion lasts too long, not long enough, or may be absent altogether.
Direction — The source of the emotion is A but you focus it on B.
These types of exaggerated or minimized responses are common. Most of us experience one or more of these sometime in our lives. I have grown to think of them in terms of, “A bazooka at an ant,” (over-reaction) or a, “Band Aid™ for a heart attack” (under-response).
Whenever you notice these types of reactions, you can be fairly certain PVFs are the culprit. Take yourself and your character off the blame hook — you do not experience this because you are bad, flawed, or a failure. You experience them because you are a human with a brain that works mostly on association.
“Okay, great!” you say, “So, what do I do about it?”
So glad you asked!
The first thing you must do is become aware of destructive pvfs. Now that you have the four reactions mentioned above, you can go to work noticing them in your life.
Once you identify a pvf, the next thing to do is create a plan to accommodate it. In Treja’s example, she could create a phrase to say to herself, such as, “When people are late, it triggers me. Sonya is not my sister. This situation is different.” She might pair this with a deep breath, a fiddle with a fidget tool, or any other grounding technique (an action that brings you in full contact with your senses and mental processes).
Awareness of and accommodation for inflamed emotional responses takes time and effort. Here’s some good news: Reading this article has taken you a fair way down the awareness road. Keep going! Noticing and responding with patience and consideration to your PVFs will improve your relationships and self-confidence. It is worth the effort! Give it a try!