A person is sitting beside themself in a car. On the left they are a big angry green monster. On the right they are driving carefree and listening to music.

Epilepsy and Anger: Calming the Incredible Hulk Within Me

Last updated: January 2023

My mom had a nickname for me during my teen years, but she didn’t mean it in a doting way: "Dr. David Banner." Some of you are familiar with that man's hidden identity as the Incredible Hulk.

Perhaps the single most severe trigger in my past – and prelude to my most dangerous incidents – was not having control over my ANGER. Triggers "Anger" and "Stress" are buddies because anger builds up stress in your body that can be catastrophic if muscles aren't properly relaxed and breathing made steadier. Plenty of things make people angry. Even worse is the fact that some of our medications create temper disorders, thus leading to even more seizures. Ugh!

Anger and tantrums as a child with epilepsy

I've been epileptic since the age of 2 but didn't start any pharmaceutical treatment until I was 7 in 1970. That was phenobarbital. Whether it was the medication or my adolescent changing hormones, I became prone to temper tantrums. When my parents told me to be quiet, I'd snap, "Go read the 1st Amendment [to the US Constitution]: I can say whatever I want! Freedom of speech!" If they told me not to go somewhere with somebody, again, I'd order them to read the Constitution because, "Freedom of assembly!"

Fortunately for our family, I was a good student and responsible boy, and in our farm town, there weren't dangerous gangs selling drugs to make me a juvenile delinquent. But the point was that Mom noticed that within 2 days of me having a temper tantrum, I'd have a severe seizure. There was a 2-week rhythm to the explosion of the tantrums.

A pattern: anger triggered seizures

God bless my Mom's patience. My freshman year in high school, CBS Television started a prime-time show starring Bill Bixby and champion bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno as the Incredible Hulk (based on the comic book hero). If you're unfamiliar with it or today's Marvel Movies, Dr. David Banner accidentally gave himself an overdose of radiation while researching hidden strengths within the human brain. Consequently, whenever he was angered, he would turn into that scary, green monster. Mom observed that, "Dr. David Banner's problem sounds a lot like you!"

We tolerated my tantrums throughout high school and college, and I maintained that entire biweekly ritual. Happiness, explosive anger, a 48-hour delay... Seizure!

Managing my anger = managing my epilepsy

It wasn't until I was beginning an investment sales career in Chicago and took some courses in goals and self-management when I realized my anger wasn't common. I learned about the importance of relaxing, pacing my breathing, self-hypnosis, and how those things are essential to personal and professional success.

My nerves routinely got stretched during the daily commute home on Chicago expressways, but discovering how relaxing the drive was by simply playing gentle classical music (baroque) on my radio excited me! As soon as I got home, the ritual continued with the music – getting comfortable in my reclining chair and focusing my eyes on my fish aquarium for 30 minutes.

This self-conditioning got so good that seizures became only monthly and usually in bed. About 2 years later, my mother came from Central Illinois to stay with me while her sister, who lived in Chicago, was sick. While she was there, I was laid-off of from a job, America was in an economic recession and another job seemed impossible, my savings was about depleted, and my favorite aunt and grandfather were both dying.

My calm behavior through all of it was distressing to Mom. She speculated I was "out of touch with reality" and needed to see a psychologist. She staggered when I laughed at her remark. My jubilation was from this proof that I had conquered my Incredible Hulk so well that the person who knew me best was wondering why he wasn't making an appearance!

Using tools to manage my anger

I've remained on medications that irritated my stress and anger, but at least I had learned of steps to control myself. Currently for me, walking several miles a day and stationary biking at least 3 hours a week are part of my routine.

You've heard that "laughter is the best medicine"? I LIVE that by watching one episode of my all-time favorite sitcoms a day without my telephone.

Applying tools to my relationships, too

For any of you who are married, I bet you'll agree that maintaining a good marriage is less a matter of romance than one of patience and self-restraint. I married my wife Yan (who is Chinese) at a time when she was new in the U.S. Even though we'd already had a 2-year relationship in China, we quickly learned that words and phrases we said might seem to be offensive to the other and ignite bitter arguments.

Yan and I used a method of clarifying a statement before we would let ourselves get angry, one that journalists are taught. We would find 3 ways to ask the same question of the other person, wording statements differently each time. If the other's answer seemed the same all 3 times, we agreed that we had a reason to be upset. With that determined, I would excuse myself for a 15-minute walk around the neighborhood.

It wasn't a matter of me running out on my wife, instead, it was a matter of "cooling down" to have a calm and objective discussion once I returned. She understood there was a relationship between my anger and seizures.

Keeping the Incredible Hulk (and seizures) away!

I am proud to say that during 18 years of marriage, I haven't had a seizure following any disagreements with my wife, and my daughter's only seen the Incredible Hulk in the theater – and not in ME, anyway! People who didn't know me until 30 years ago don't have the slightest clue that within this laughing, happy-go-lucky guy lies a giant monster that could show his face in an epileptic seizure.

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