Knight of the Living Dead

When my husband comes home from a stressful day at work, he likes to play shoot-‘em-up games on his phone. He says it relaxes him. I’d like to connect and talk before he goes into his mental man cave. Also, when he’s into a game, it’s annoying even to ask what he wants for dinner. Your advice?
— Gaming Widow

A stressed-out woman wants to talk about her feelings; a stressed-out man wants to gun down 87 slobbering zombies on his phone in hopes that his feelings get bored with him and go away.

It turns out that in dealing with emotional stress, men and women have some different neurochemical overlords.

If men’s had a name, it would be The Earl of Overkill, which is to say men tend to react neurochemically to social stress as they would to being chased through the woods by a maniac with a crossbow. First, there’s a surge of epinephrine and norepinephrine, neuromessengers (aka neurotransmitters) that are the bandleaders of the brain’s “fight or flight” reaction. These kick off survival-promoting changes in the body, like the heart beating faster, the release of the energy-mobilizing stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, and blood coursing to the arms and legs (all the better to punch or run!).

Meanwhile, systems not needed to fight back or scram — like digestion and higher reasoning — get powered down. Yep. That’s right. Higher reasoning goes all lights out; nobody’s home. So trying to “connect and talk” with a stressed-out man is like trying to have an existential debate with a vacant warehouse.

It’s even worse from the man’s end. He’s gotten chemically and otherwise physiologically mobilized to bolt or do battle. But when there’s no crossbow-wielding dude to run from — just a bunch of social stress — there’s no use for all of these bodily resources that have been mustered up.

Psychologist John Gottman calls the effect from this “flooding,” explaining that men feel very physically uncomfortable and get extremely frustrated that their access to the brain’s departments of insight and witty bits is blocked. Not surprisingly, what makes them feel better is mentally checking out until these uncomfortable feelings go away — in lieu of access to a zookeeper’s tranq gun to shoot themselves in the thigh.

Unfortunately, the thing that makes men feel better is in direct conflict with what works for women. Psychologist Shelley Taylor finds that women’s reaction to emotional stress is mediated by oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that facilitates emotional bonding. This leads to what she calls a “tend and befriend” response: self-soothing through caring for and emotionally engaging with others. In other words, women tend to deal with emotional stress monsters by gabbing them down to size.

But, good news. You can have what you need if you just wait for your husband to have what he needs: time to calm down and reset so his brain’s higher reasoning center is no longer in “Hello, my name is Cinderblock!” mode. Decide together how much time that needs to be — half an hour, maybe? After that, he should put down the flamethrower and “advance to the next level”: spoken-word communication, and not just the sort where you ask him, “Is that ‘mmmph’ to steak or ‘mmmph’ you just ended World War III and saved the galaxy from Nazi zombies?”


Little Photoshop of Halos

Though the guy I broke up with recently was, ultimately, a pothead with zero ambition, I can’t stop thinking about all the sweet moments. This feels better in the moment but just keeps me pining. How can I have a more balanced mental picture?
— Selective Nostalgia

Nostalgia is like crime-scene cleanup for your head: “My, what lovely new tiles. You’d hardly know there was once a triple murder in this kitchen.”

We’ve got tons of information back in storage in our long-term memory (picture rows of shelves and old steel file cabinets going on for, like, forever). However, we can only bring out and reflect on a few pieces of information at a time — probably four, according to memory researcher Nelson Cowan.

Predictably, we gravitate to memories of ourselves as, say, a beloved partner who made smart choices — as opposed to one who jumped in without looking and then upcycled the growing pile of red flags into dog beds to sell on Etsy.

You need a virtual drone cam to help you see the whole landscape at once, and it’s called “an index card.” On it, list all the bummer stuff about your ex that you need to keep in mind. Maybe save a photo of it on your phone. This should help you keep those pesky upsides in perspective, like how he was always so attentive to detail — if that’s what you’d call smoking tons of pot and spending several hours monitoring the hair on his left arm.

 

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