If you want to know what someone is like under stress, put them on dial-up internet and see how they react. –Unknown
Have you ever been so angry you knew you were out of control but could not stop? Anger is one of the most powerful emotions you can experience. For some, it is a destructive force that wreaks havoc on relationships, jobs, and self-esteem. The movie The Pink Panther Strikes Again begins with former chief inspector Dreyfus unexpectedly meeting Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers). This scene (see video at end of post, from minute 6:16) portrays what happens when you get angry: a number of preconditions are met, and then, presto, you react. This usually happens very quickly. Like flipping a switch, the brain goes on autopilot and anger takes over.
As a basic emotion, anger is all about survival. Unfortunately, anger cannot distinguish between a fight with a wild animal, where instinctive reaction is necessary for survival, and an emotional exchange between people, where reactivity is the problem. The good news is that, with practice, it is possible to change patterns of anger and reactivity and meet life’s turbulence with the best of your inner being.
The emotional control centre responsible for anger is a walnut sized organ called the amygdala, located in the brain stem. The amygdala has a short-circuit function on thinking, so that fight, flight, or freeze reactions can unfold quickly. It sends out adrenaline and dopamine, and the automatic reaction powers us to deal with threats and save our lives. Heart rate increases, as does breathing. What happens next is important: even though the amygdala has an override function, it still must access the thinking centre of the brain (the prefrontal cortex, or executive control centre) in order to assess the threat and determine the best response. In the Peter Sellers movie, this is the point where Dreyfus decides he has had enough and attacks Clouseau. Understanding this sequence is the key to moving from reactivity to response-ivity.
The problem with “thinking” when angry is that the body is revved up and ready to go. Like an Apollo rocket waiting for the astronaut to enter, clouded by the rush of emotions and hormones, the brain says, “Okay, let’s do this.” We “think” that, if angry, we can resolve the “threat” by getting even angrier, which works even less, so we get angrier still. This is The Anger Mistake. When left alone, anger is time-limited and fades naturally, but when you collude with it, a negative spiral is created. This is why venting techniques like hitting a pillow or shouting actually rehearse anger, training you in aggression. Instead, like a good pilot who trains to respond calmly and coolly, effective anger treatment predicts when anger will arise, keeps attention focused on the present, and trains you to respond differently.
Good Anger Treatment Involves:
- Lifestyle Management: Think of the HALT acronym: when Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, your chances of reacting impulsively are higher. Much of the work of flying is keeping an airplane in good condition—fuelled up and repaired. Pilots plan for a smooth flight but are trained to deal with the worst conditions. Similarly, managing your lifestyle increases safety factors and helps you deal with stress. This includes having a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and building good social connections (people who will not talk you up when you are angry). This last one is important, for good friends are people you can turn to when stressed, and, in-turn, people you can help when they need a hand. Exercise too is essential; regular exercise makes it easier to return to your naturally restful, calm, and attentive state.
- Explore Anger’s Roots: Explore the invisible definitions that say it is okay to get angry and switch to autopilot. Childhood modeling, your unique personality make-up, life experiences, and expectations of self and others (like perfectionism) can all play a part in reinforcing the auto-anger switch. These factors determine how you interpret events and whether you feel angry reactions are justified or not. Exploring these roots makes it less likely you will allow anger automatically to take over.
- Anticipate: Predict what will happen and Rehearse different responses to typical anger inducing scenarios. If you have a pattern of yelling at your wife and children, on your way home visualize yourself walking in and finding the house a mess, crayon writing on the wall. Or, see your wife going out with a friend without telling you. Visualize yourself making an artist hat and joining your son in drawing a big mural on a giant sheet of paper to model how to use crayons. By rehearsing a different response, you avoid unconscious activation of anger.
- Use the “5 Year” Rule: Ask yourself, “In 5 years, will I still be upset over the crayon on the wall?” Using the 5 year rule helps slow down and pulls you out of auto-anger, reinforcing the pause that occurs as the emotional control centre checks-in for best course of action.
- Be Present: This is the most important skill. Anger switches you to autopilot; mindfulness hands the controls back to you. Connecting to your physical body is one of the best ways to be present. I teach clients to do body scans prior, during, and after stressful incidents. By bringing attention to tense or stressed areas of your body (like the jaw, neck, or arms) these areas relax, which in turn de-escalates angry thoughts. Focusing on your breathe can also be helpful. Bringing awareness to your breathe pulls you out of emotional reactivity and the escalating fantasies, and brings you back into the present. It will also deepen your breathing, whereas anger creates fast, shallow breathing. With your permission, you can have a friend photograph you when angry so you can see what your physical reactions look like. Checking your heart rate too can bring awareness to elevated blood pressure during anger.
Importantly, have compassion for yourself. Accept anger and own it rather than projecting it, but don’t beat yourself up, as this increases the chances of repeating the reaction you so dislike in order to avoid guilt and shame. Fighting yourself is actually ra ehearsal of anger. Thich Nat Han says, “We do not transform ourselves into a battle field, good fighting evil.” He suggests gentle self-talk: “Breathing in, I know that anger has manifested in me. Hello, my little anger.” And breathing out, “I will take good care of you.” Recognizing and accepting anger diminishes it.
Mindfulness works. Much of what we do during the day relies on automatic habits, or unconscious patterns. Our brains are energy intense, and it is more efficient to let autopilot (an area of the brain which stores habits) take over so the brain can rest. If every time you drove a car you had to consciously focus on each of the hundreds of micro tasks involved, you would be exhausted. Angry can involve both instinctive response and embedded patterns of reacting the same way (habits). Automatic patterns do not work well in emotional interactions with others, however, for they prevent you from being present, especially when angry. If you watch two angry people arguing, you may notice how little they actually listen to each other. With mindfulness, you can see how anger is pre-scripted and reactions seem canned. Recognizing these scripts makes it it is easier to see how unhelpful they are and how much more enjoyable it is to be fully present in your life.
In the Peter Sellers movie, Dreyfus’s problem was that he blamed Clouseau. He did not see himself as doing anything wrong. Anger is often rooted in unrealistic expectations and requires projection onto someone else in order to keep the emotion going. Clouseau is a better model of being human—goofy, quirky, yet deeply accepting of who he is; he does not get destructively angry. And, humor can’t hurt. If you can learn to laugh at yourself you can turn off the auto-anger switch.
See me for help in transforming anger at its roots and becoming the calm, responsive, caring person you are meant to be.
(See minute 6:16)
“He who has a thousand friends has not a friend to spare. He who has one enemy will meet him everywhere.” –Ibn-Abi-Talib