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Mid-life rage and teenage drugs

Dear Dr Ash,

I used to be an even-tempered, tolerant sort of person, who tried to defuse tense situations. But in recent years – since I turned 50 – I’ve become increasingly short-fused and angry. I find myself rushing into confrontation. If someone chucks litter in the street, I bellow at them in rage. If people try to push their way onto a bus, or try to jump a queue, I can’t stop myself from protesting. And I increasingly can’t resist the temptation to walk into people who don’t move aside to give others space when they’re exiting a train or walking along the pavement. I’ve started yelling “wanker” at people who drive too fast in my 20 mph residential street and have even thrown stuff at them. Last week I swung my heavy shoulder bag into another woman because she tried to shove past me. My teenage daughter says my behaviour is “crazy” and she’s worried I’m going to get hit or arrested. And my husband says he won’t go shopping with me if I carry on like this. You’d imagine I’d try and rein it in to spare them embarrassment, but the problem is that a big part of me enjoys being less buttoned-up and British. What do you think?

Angry, Bristol

When we buy into the story of our rage, it becomes toxic

Dear Angry,

I was thinking about your letter as I biked through the city this morning, dodging malicious taxis and swerving around bumbling pedestrians on the way to a meeting. A short while later, I found myself swearing at an aggressive cyclist when I was the pedestrian, bumbling around replying to a text on my phone. I am struck that we are always both the agents and objects of our own misery.

Emotional life is full of contradictions like this because the mechanisms of emotion are themselves paradoxical. We perceive distinct emotional states like anger, fear, love and jealousy, but in the brain these are all just flavours of the same basic process of emotional arousal. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a distinguished neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston, has used this paradox to argue that emotional states are constructed: we learn to interpret a certain flavour of arousal as anger and another flavour as fear, and therefore the the boundary between these emotions is quite blurry.

The idea that we learn to perceive our emotional states is one of the more important lessons I have learned from decades of studying the brain. Instead of feeling that my emotions are real, I try to recognise that my arousal is what’s real: I am feeling activated, possibly even provoked – but the flavour of my emotion is an interpretation I make afterwards.

You are describing rage. You might otherwise describe it as fear in response to a threatening situation, or even excitement at your new feelings of power and agency in the world. Or a mix of all these things, and more.

This view of emotion may also allow you to realise the potential of your anger as a positive force. It’s a highly activated state, and in your case it sounds as though in at least some instances it motivates you towards the pursuit of justice. Rage like you’re describing is an autonomic response, a flush of anger that dies away quickly. It’s when we buy into the story we invent about our rage, when we ruminate on that story and make it part of our identity, that anger becomes toxic.

So my advice to you is to celebrate your newfound rage. It may be due to changing hormones, it may be due to a change in the weather, or it may be due to statistically more wankers driving through your neighbourhood at high speed. As long as you don’t become fixated on any one particular story that explains the emotion, you will be able to let these things come and go like passing storms.

Best wishes,
Dr Ash

Dear Dr Ash,

My seventeen-year-old son has become very withdrawn and moody in the last year. He leaves the house a lot, doesn’t tell us where he is going and returns seeming spaced out. When I’ve rummaged through his room for clues, I’ve found Rizlas and a bong, so it’s clear he’s smoking a fair bit of dope. I suspect he’s taking other drugs too. I’m not the world’s greatest expert on this, but I experimented with a few things when I was at university in the 1980s and so I recognise the signs. I’m worried on a load of fronts. He’s not studying hard and his grades have fallen (he used to be ambitious to go to a good university) and he split up from his girlfriend, who struck me as a good influence. But what’s worst of all is that he seems to have lost his zest for life and his sense of humour. I don’t want to come down too hard on him, but I also don’t want to be the kind of laissez-faire liberal parent who doesn’t intervene and then watches their child become a total drop-out.
Advice please!

Worried, Hereford

Marijuana in a teen brain causes cognitive dulling

Dear Worried,

I read your letter this morning at a café where they were playing distorted ambient flamenco music and my request for a plain black coffee elicited a menu of variations including the ominous-sounding “nitro” process. Rattled by this frantic pace of change in what was once a simple morning ritual, I found it reassuring to read that pot-smoking teenagers still trouble their beleaguered parents.

My response is not without reason. Although modern cannabis tends to be much more potent than the pencil-eraser shavings we experimented with when we were teenagers, it’s also ubiquitous. Decriminalisation together with the increasing use of cannabis and cannabinoid products for everything from appetite stimulation during chemotherapy to facial moisturising, or treating anxiety in dogs, means that smoking dope to get high is just about the least controversial thing you can do with it.

This ubiquity helps to explain why many teenagers hardly consider marijuana a drug at all. But, of course, it is one. THC, the psychoactive component in marijuana, binds to endocannibinoid receptors in the brain to produce its cognitive effects. During childhood and adolescence these receptors are concentrated in the brain’s mesolimbic system, a set of structures that are crucial for memory, attention and drive. Frequent or excessive use of marijuana downregulates these receptors, producing what scientists call “amotivational syndrome”, a state more widely recognised as a stoner.

In adults, the distribution of endocannibinoid receptors becomes more widespread and marijuana has a less pronounced effect on memory and motivation. While smoking pot still causes cognitive dulling, the adult brain tends to recover more quickly. Marijuana in a teenage brain is functionally a different drug from marijuana in an adult’s.

So while I think you’re absolutely right to be concerned about your son’s experimentation with drugs, I don’t think you need to choose between permissive and draconian responses. Teenagers have fully mature powers of perception, reasoning and analysis but what they lack is experience and wisdom. These are what you can offer. If your son knows how you feel about drugs, he can take that as a reference point for his own decisions. He may not agree with you and certainly will not obey you, but he should know what you think.

Lastly, I will just add that sometimes changes in behaviour in the teenage years are just part of adolescence, but sometimes they really do signal deeper issues. Mental life for a teenager is complicated and chaotic and it can be difficult for any teen to know whether or not they are ok. Again, this is where your wisdom and experience can help. Keep the channels of communication wide open, and make sure you’re receiving as well as transmitting.

Best wishes
Dr Ash

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June 2023, Life, Mind Over Matter

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