Deconstructing Your Blow-Ups: The Psycho-Geology of Emotional Volcanoes

A volcano makes a good metaphor when it comes to people who blow their tops in a fit of rage, but it’s a bit oversimplified. For one thing, pressure building up in people isn’t always about anger. It can come from the fermentation of any raw, unprocessed emotion or thought, from the breach of trust by your partner last year, to the cumulative effect of all of the everyday little indignities you suffer.

A volcanic eruption is also just the final outcome of a long battle between two opposing forces: hot magma pumping below, seeking the path of least resistance like any other fluid, and solid rock above, keeping it in its place. The spectacular explosion tends to get all the attention, when it’s the action below the surface that’s the real culprit.

Eruptions aren’t inevitable, either. Take the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, for example. Seen on a geologic timescale, sure, it was bound to blow up, as it had many times before. But it could have erupted 100 years sooner or later. It may not have erupted in your lifetime . . . and neither may you. You have little control over many of the things that happen to you, but how you manage them makes all the difference in whether you maintain a smoothly-functioning emotional metabolism, or allow your vitality to be converted to a plume of inert fluff.

For months prior to its eruption in May 1980, scientists had been monitoring the signs of increasing volcanic activity at Mt. St. Helens. Earthquakes came more frequently, and toward the end a bulge appeared on one side of the mountain. Just days before, it was symmetrical, like a volcano you might see in a Tiki bar. By bouncing lasers off of it, they were astonished to learn that the side of the mountain was expanding outward at the rate of five feet per day.

Imagine that: a mountain being filled with such a volume of pressurized magma that the solid rock was being inflated like a basketball. If you’d stopped for a rest on that slope during a hike, you could have practically felt the mountain ballooning up beneath you. As the molten rock neared the surface, with less and less heavy rock lying above it, the sulfuric compounds in the lava came out of solution. The vapor hissed and smoked from surface cracks as the mountain tried to hold itself together.

What the scientists didn’t find out until afterward was that the mountain’s rock, while solid-looking, was not at all what it used to be. Over the 140 years since the last major eruption, ground water and precipitation found its way into the deepest layers of rock, to the magma, where it had been heated, and then rejected—sent back up through the rock column. Being repeatedly scorched by these extreme temperatures had changed the chemical composition of the rock, and it had become brittle. The mountain had rotted from the inside, and wasn’t able to contain the flow anymore.

So, the stage was set for one hell of an event. When the weakened bulging rock could take no more, it fractured and came loose. One side of the mountain slid down to its base, in what is believed to be the largest landslide in recorded history. Then the eruption began.

The mountain sent a mushroom cloud of smoke and ash into the sky, to a height of three Mt. Everests. Then, it exploded sideways, sending hot gas, dust, and rocks as big as cars through the air at more than 300 miles per hour and ejecting enough ash to bury New York City one mile deep. Today, the surrounding slopes are still littered with the remains of fallen trees, lying side by side, their trunks still pointing directly back to where the trouble began.

The things you wish wouldn’t happen to you are like the water seeping into your structure. You’d hope that it would gradually make its way through the layers of rock, and emerge from the bottom, cool, filtered and purified, and ready for a bottle. In order for that to happen, you need to be permeable; to absorb, process, and let the water keep moving. When it’s obstructed, it gets caught up, fouled, heated, and circulated back into your bones, weakening them in fundamental ways even as they maintain their integrity at the surface.

The structural failure starts to become evident in little behavioral puffs: a flash of anger behind the wheel here, a compulsive behavior there. Trying to use substances as a shortcut to cooler, cleaner water, perhaps. Maybe just the gnawing sense that something is missing in your life. They are signs that something corrosive is churning below the surface, but they might go unnoticed. Sometimes it isn’t until what you thought was a rock-solid foundation starts blowing up like a balloon that you begin to realize something isn't right.

This deep psycho-geological process is happening all the time, and it’s not the heat that’s the problem. An active system is going to have some heat. Frustration, annoyance, and pain will arise, as will hope, forgiveness, joy, and resilience, and their interplay causes friction. Their arising, passing and rubbing against each other keep you molten and fluid inside, just as your living body is warm. The trick is to keep your circulatory system functioning, and not let the water get trapped, ignored, or refused, making you brittle and unable to accommodate inevitable change. Mt. St. Helens was back to rejecting water as steam as recently as 2008. How are you doing? *

* I didn’t think this much when I was a kid, of course. Back in the summer of 1981 I was eight, and my family took a cross-country road trip from Illinois to California, to go to Disneyland. We stopped to see the sights along the way, including a stop in eastern Washington to collect a souvenir sample of ash. It wasn’t hard to find. It had fallen like snow in 11 states. All that energy, lost to the winds. I remember scooping a bit of ash into a little cup, thinking it was like moon dust. I lost it on the way back home, somewhere between Texas and Oklahoma, and never really missed it. 

Jim Hjort, LCSW

Jim operates a psychotherapy practice, helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a Right Life® coach, and appears at speaking and teaching engagements. He studied Sociology and Abnormal Psychology at UCLA and holds an MSW from USC, with a specialization in Systems of Recovery from Mental Illness. He has also been awarded the Certified Mindfulness Facilitator designation from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. 

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