How do you put the brakes on chronic anger?
Anger is a natural emotion designed to help protect us from real (or imagined) attacks against our physical or emotional well-being. When used appropriately, anger can be used as a tool to motivate us into achieving goals we would otherwise be too afraid or lazy to pursue. In this way, anger may not be a big problem. However, if you find yourself fuming when someone cuts you off in traffic or your blood pressure spikes when your child refuses to cooperate, anger might be a challenge for you.
In the throes of anger, we are inclined to do things we bitterly regret later. What seemed like a reasonable response when angry becomes shameful as we calm down.
A recent news report showed a man caught on camera punching a fellow pedestrian whom he felt took his unauthorized photo. Once the video was released, the accused voluntarily came forward to Police apologizing for what he called his uncharacteristic behaviour.
Whether it is a result of stress, the state of the economy or a variety of other complex issues, I think we are becoming too reactive.
How anger affects our brain
Anger can be addictive. Unlike anxiety, shame or depression, anger often drives us towards the object of our arousal.
During anger the left hemisphere is strongly activated, meaning that a kind of simplistic logic is used while the context-processing right hemisphere is all but dumped in the moment. As a result, It seems logical to lash out. (if any thought is involved at all.)
Like any addiction, chronic anger promises real rewards, however, just like an addiction, it takes more than it ever gives. Some get a buzz from the excitement anger provides in an otherwise dull day. Testosterone increases, as does energizing adrenaline. Some get hooked on the intensity even though for many it feels deeply unpleasant – even scary – to feel so angry.
In chronic anger, we may find a fast-tracked means of receiving attention from others: a kind of status elevation as people constantly monitor us to see how we’ll take things. “Is he/she going to be okay with this?” When used in this manner, anger takes on a bully persona.
Extreme anger causes us act in ways we may come to bitterly regret. What seems like a good idea when we are angry can feel really shameful once we calm down.
When strong negative emotions kidnap the thinking brain, our IQ drops like a stone. Even the brightest minds among us, when enraged, appear scarcely more coherent than a wild animal.
Reality comes to be seen in simplistic, good-or-bad, all-or-nothing perspectives. Other people come to be seen as ‘stupid’ or ‘evil’ should they dare to have differing opinions.
5 Strategies to help you tame the beast
Anger is a conditioned response. If you have been angry with a specific individual a few times, you can become conditioned to feel anger towards them automatically – whenever they show up. Soon, just hearing their name produces a shot of irritation. In this way, becoming angry can work just like a hypnotic trigger, kicking in automatically before ‘we’, in our logical mind, even recognize it happening.
So, the first strategy in taming the beast is to spend some time developing awareness of the triggers so you can practice switching them off when they pop up.
Explore when anger becomes a problem for you
Are you over-tired; feeling under time pressure; or disrespected? Have you been consuming alcohol or feel like someone drop the ball with their customer service? Are you fatigued by those who fail to be accountable in their role and responsibilities?
Count, breathe and shift your posture.
Before reacting to a tense situation, take a few moments to breathe deeply and count to 5 before responding. Get your eyes up towards the ceiling to help bypass the amygdala in the brain. The amygdala is the “awfulizing” center of the brain and the one that has a tendency to blow events out of proportion. By lifting your eyes, toes, nose and thumbs, your brain can actually activate the hippo-campus and bring some much-needed endorphins and context to the party.
Use rehearsal to help yourself embrace a broader perspective.
Anger narrows our focus and becomes a destructive emotional trance. When I am enraged, I see reality only as all-or-nothing and miss the shades of grey. Thus, the more black-and-white our view, the more controlled by anger we become. We begin to see ill intent in others when in fact they may have simply made an honest mistake.
Since angry emotions swing like a hypnotic trigger, we can use some of the principles from hypnotherapy to counteract the wave. Just like an athlete preparing for the big game, a bit of rehearsal is needed for this to work well.
When I work with angry individuals in my practice, I invite them to recall a situation where they felt triggered to extreme anger. Right on cue (mostly because angry individuals are very good at focusing), these clients start getting all worked up. From this moment, we can practice breathing and rehearse different responses. Since our brains do not distinguish between fantasy and reality, we can design new responses through imagination and repetition. In other words, imagine a calmer more curious response to the event that precipitated the anger response.
Lean on the emotion of curiosity.
When you feel the anger response, interrupt the emotion with a few critical questions:
“What is another way of looking at this?”
“Is it possible I could have missed something?”
I’m reminded of a friend who once spoke angrily to a neighbour who never seemed to reply to her attempts at polite conversation. Her anger evaporated when she discovered… he was stone deaf.
Learn to humanize.
Anger makes us see other people as objects to be acted upon rather than human beings to be interacted with. We become angry with someone when we feel they are preventing us from getting what we want. In that state, other people become mere obstacles to us. And, because we objectify other people when we become enraged, we are more likely to be violent because, after all, objects can be removed or punched (or run down in a car!). Angry people need to see the objects of their ire as… people … with their own needs, fears and problems.
Anger happens fast (and that speed will no doubt cause us to forget all these tips), so it’s a good idea to rehearse replacing anger with calm ahead of time so that the response to future triggers is no longer disruptive anger. If you (or someone you love) needs more help controlling your temper, give me a call.