“Don’t Panic” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has these famous friendly letters written on the cover to help your roving hitchhiker manage pretty much any situation as they rove around the galaxy. Panic, though, has its uses. When a threat exists that requires an immediate response without thought and cogitation, panic has a fair chance of keeping you alive. Panic attacks are when this goes wrong.
Fear is an integral part of our survival mechanism. If we had no fear, we would do things that would harm and probably kill us. That isn’t a good way to pass on your genetic material to the next generation, and from a biological perspective, that is the point of life. Passing on genes doesn’t require joy, contentment or comfort – merely survival.
When we see a threat, we need to work out if we it can be ignored (passive, passive aggressive), we can overcome it (assertive, aggression) or not (hide, run). When we react to the threat we can compare our reaction to the actual thing and work out if we have over or under reacted. If we over react, we waste our personal resources, if we under react, we may not overcome the threat – and that can be fatal. As you begin to address the threat you can also assess how effective your strategy is. If it is working, you can reinforce it; if it isn’t, you can change your strategy.
An important ingredient to this is control. You may not have chosen the threat (sometimes you do), but you can choose how you are going to defeat the known threat. Continual assessment of success against the threat allows for continual choices to be made. It might be scary, it might be dangerous, but we feel we can defeat it. We feel in control of the threat.
Adrenaline junkies are people who deliberately go out of their way to do something that is known to be dangerous, but in such a way that you are intellectually certain you should survive, even if your feelings are telling you that you shouldn’t. These people thrive on this conflict in the brain and the thrill of the act that brings the fear reflexes to the fore. This is then followed by a satisfaction that they have faced and defeated a threat. The satisfaction can be very addictive.
Let us take a look at the difference between the intellectual assessment and the feeling assessment. The adrenaline junkie works on creating conflict between the two, yet that is conflict in the same brain. Surely this should be impossible! Yet it is not. In a simplified manner, the basic threat assessment that triggers the feeling of fear is all in the hind-brain. If you cup your hand to the back of your head, just above the neck, you are encapsulating the area that contains the amygdala, thalamus and hypothalamus. Some people refer to this region as the hindbrain, primitive brain, the monkey brain or the lizard brain. Of course neuroscience is far more complex than this simple representation – but this will help you get your head around the idea of separate processing in the same head.
The intellectual part of your brain is at the front, the cerebrum. Put your hands out in front of you, palm up. Now put your hand together so your palms are still up and your little fingers are now touching, your thumbs are pointing away from each other. Place the heel of your hands just above your eyebrows and the little finger join goes up your head until the tip of your finger touches the crown of your head (ish). Wrap your joined hands around your forehead. This region of your skull holds the frontal regions of your brain. There are two halves, the left and the right. Mostly they do the same thing with a few very specific “one side does this bit and that side does that bit” specialised processing. They communicate via a chunky bundle of communication neurons about the diameter of your thumb called the corpus callosum that connects one half to the other.
The intellect can take abstract ideas, facts and feelings and turn them into predictions of the future. Once we have these predictions, we make management plans. This is how we are going to manage that threat. This is what we will do if it doesn’t work.
Our hind brain isn’t concerned with the management plan the intellect will eventually get around to making, it needs to know if you are going to survive right now. It looks at the current knowns – this is here, that is there, in the past we did this, in the past we got hurt by that. It tries to work out the timeline of harm from the known threat and either handballs the problem to the intellect to solve (low to medium threat) or takes over and hits the panic button RIGHT NOW.
Fear has three immediate survival defaults. Flight – we can’t fight it, it’s seen us, get out, go – run away! Freeze – we can’t fight it, it hasn’t seen us, don’t get noticed, don’t be a tall poppy, stop painting that target on your back! Fight – we can fight it, or we can’t outrun it so what they hey, either fight or die. Based on the perceived threat, your hind brain decides to pick the most likely survival option and either triggers that reflex if the threat is immediate, or offers that reflex to the intellect if there is some perceived time between threat and consequence.
This is what makes you flinch from the incoming sports ball you didn’t know you saw, or step back from the curb to avoid the oncoming truck, or brace for the unexpected attack. Your hindbrain has quickly processed the environment and yelled “watch out” and taken over. Afterwards your intellect catches up and goes …. whoa.
The hindbrain is a quick and dirty calculator. It doesn’t really have good information, nor does it make logical conclusions. It sees the world as raw data and samples just enough to get an early warning. It is frequently wrong in how it perceives the world. Biologically speaking, if the hindbrain gives you 9 false alarms to 1 real alarm, it has done its job. Responding to the 9 false alarms doesn’t kill you, while failing to respond to the 1 real alarm might. Alive and uncomfortable trumps dead.
When the hind brain responds to clear and present danger saving you from harm, it is exactly what we need in this complex world. This is a fear response to a real event. When it hits the internal alarm button and there is no clear and present danger, we call this a panic attack.
There are two main ways the hindbrain can get things so wrong. One is that the automatic process has been miss-trained, the other is that it is being fed bad information by the intellect.
We know that the universe is about 14 billion years old, which seems incredibly old. A brief history of the universe goes thusly: Before the Big Bang is unknown and unknowable – time is the passing of events, that is change. If there is no change, there is no time. “Prior” to the Big Bang, there was nothing to change, so there was no time. Then there was something. The entire observable universe existed in a spec smaller than an atom as we know it now, and it got really big. Within a fraction of what we call a second, the observable universe expanded to the size of about a grapefruit – approximately half a litre. While this doesn’t seem big from our standards now, if you consider the change in scale, this was the biggest and fastest expansion of the universe in relative scales in the entire history of the universe. We call this expansion the Big Bang. We tend to think that it happened in the past and we compare it to an explosion.
A slightly trippy thing to consider is that this is what we know about the *observable* universe. That first bit is really important. The bit outside the observable universe could just be more universe, or it could be nothing. As we observe the edge of our observable universe, the distribution of galaxies seems even and more or less uniform, implying that on the other side of that event horizon is just more universe. So at the point of the big bang, there could have been an universe the size of our observable universe of the start conditions. This can be a bit hard to visualise, so imagine the universe is flat and just an ink dot on an elastic sheet. Zoom in until all you can see is that dot. Now stretch the elastic sheet and zoom out at the same speed so that you can still only see that dot – the ink dilutes as the space expands. That is what we see. Now start again, but realise that the entire sheet of elastic is filled with ink, not just one dot. Consider how big our universe has got from that dot smaller than an atom to our current scale – 90 light years across – and apply it from a starting point of not less than one atom, but to Big Bang Stuff 90 light years across. And we will never know what it is out there.
About 300 million years after the Big Bang, the universe cooled down enough that matter formed and light was impeded. This is the first point where we can observe things – that is, matter. This is when our own Galaxy, the Milky Way (so named, because it looks like a milk road on the sky – blame the Romans) first formed. We have a few stars in our system that are still burning from that first coalescence of matter. Hydrogen was the first atom to form and it clumped together to form the first stars. These stars are very, very pure. All stars that have formed since have some impurities (known as metals when they aren’t hydrogen or helium – even though chemists don’t call those elements metals).
Our own Earth is about 4.5 billion years old – it came into creation about 2/3 of the age of the universe ago. Traces of life in the form of fossils have been found on Earth that date to about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled down after the late bombardment period. The Earth started as a big ball of molten rock, then it cooled down and formed a crust. Earth then cleaned up its orbit and got hit, a lot, by asteroids and other bodies (including Thea, a mars sized planet which ended up splitting proto-Earth in two – our Earth as we know it, and our Moon). Finally it cooled down again to form a new mineral rich crust and life formed almost immediately after it. This is about 3.8 billion years ago.
This life forming as soon as conditions were approximately right gives me great hope that life exists on any planet that conditions are approximately right.
Zoom forwards a few billion years and life leaves the oceans and populates the land. Viruses and Bacteria were first, followed by plants, then followed by the insects that evolved from crustaceans. Eventually vertebrates follow (evolved from fish). That eventually evolved into us humans (modern humans are about 200,000 years old) and every other form of life we see on the Earth. Life is continuing to evolve, ensuring that no niece that can be exploited for energy (food) remains untapped. This includes bacteria evolving to eat stuff in nuclear reactors. On the scale of life, if all of life on Earth were scaled to be 1 day, humans are about 4.5 seconds old. Soon that scale is going to be useless, so let us convert instead to 1 year. If life on Earth were scaled to exist in 1 year, then modern humans are 28 minutes old.
Recall my earlier note that as soon as life could form on Earth it did? The earliest that life conditions (as we understand it) could form in the observable universe was around 12 billion years ago (give or take a billion). If life took the opportunity to start then, just like it did here on Earth, then there has been life in the observable universe for 12 billion ish years. That is pretty cool. If we do our year scale, humans are 8 minutes old.
But we haven’t got to the best bit yet!
Eventually our sun will die out as we know it, leaving behind a red dwarf. Don’t panic, we have about another 5 billion years before that will happen. We have much more immediate concerns to weather – like the weather. Anthropogenic (human caused) Climate change will make the Earth uninhabitable by humans in only a few hundred years (unless we fix it – hint, hint). If we survive that, the sun will have grown to the point of being too hot for us in about 100 million years, moving the “Goldilocks Zone” past our Earth. We can potentially engineer a few solutions to that, or become space faring to escape the ever increasing heat.
The sun won’t really be dead in 5 billion years though, because it will become a type of star called a red dwarf. That red dwarf will burn for about a trillion years. That is 1,000 billion years. Consider that our entire observable universe is only 15 billion years old. If we turn that trillion years of age into 1 year again, modern humans are 6.3 seconds old.
We still haven’t got to the best bit. Red dwarfs degrade into white dwarfs, whose lifespan is measured in a conservative quintillion years (1×10^18 years). That is a million times longer than a red dwarf. The estimated upper limit to the lifespan of white dwarfs is a number I can’t write down that makes any real sense – between 1×10^30 years to 1×10^200 years. And then the white dwarfs finally break down to black dwarfs. We don’t know how long they will last. White dwarfs are the last point that we can conceive of life as we understand it managing to live, after that, there isn’t sufficient energy distribution. Philosophical question: if the universe exists and there is no one there to appreciate it, does it matter? If we use the conservative number of the white dwarves lasting about a quintillion years, and we scale that to our year, then modern humans are about 6.3 micro seconds old. That is, a million microseconds pass to get to 1 second. We haven’t really happened.
This assumes that the Big Rip, or something similarly universe ending, doesn’t happen first. We are looking at how long the universe can go for. The Big Rip is where the accelerating expansion of the universe (confirmed and verified), fed by Dark Energy (seems to be an emergent aspect of space) gets so powerful it rips everything apart faster than it can form. Estimates on when this might happen vary from as little as the universe being aged 20 billion (whe our suns turns into a red dwarf) to 80 billion. That range tells you that we really don’t know. If the Dark Energy is an emergent property of space, and space continues to increase, then Dark Energy will continue to increase and lead to the Big Rip – where the space between things is so great that matter no longer has access to other matter. If it is not an emergent property of space, the universe won’t rip apart and we are down to the lifespan of black dwarfs.
Ok, so the universe is going to get really, really old. What of it? Remember how we were looking at our current human age compared to the scale of universal time and it started to seem very small…? 15 billion years seems like a long time when we are here at the 15 billion year mark, but compared to the projected lifespan of the universe, it is nothing. It started in an explosion and pushed outwards. Our universe is still expanding.
If you think about an explosion – like a hand grenade (named after pomegranates – blame the French) where you pull the trigger, it goes bang and sends shrapnel everywhere – that’s us. Very shortly after the reaction that started the explosion of the hand grenade, one of the bits of shrapnel formed life which became us, which became you, reading this. When we project where the pieces of the explosion are going and how long it will take to get there, and look at our place on that scale, the grenade just went bang, and we are in it – we are in that explosion riding a bit of debris.
The Big Bang was not a long time ago, it is now, and we are riding it.
At its most basic level, the universe seems to be made up of small packets of vibrating stuff, collectively known as subatomic particles. The things we consider to be matter are made up of quarks (we have found 6 types) and they don’t have mass. Three or more quarks of different types combine together to become neutrons or protons and now, for some reason, they have mass. Several different types of particles called leptons (which also comes in 6 different types – the most well known being the electron), gauge bosons (4 types, the most well known being the photon aka light) and the scalar boson (the recently discovered Higgs). We learn in high school science that the universe is basically protons, neutrons, electrons and photons (a simplified model, and good enough). Protons, neutrons and electrons have mass… but where did that mass come from?
None of these particles are alive.
[By MissMJ – Own work by uploader, PBS NOVA , Fermilab, Office of Science, United States Department of Energy, Particle Data Group, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4286964]
All of that above stuff is 4% of what we think the universe contains. There is another 26% of a similar but uncounted chunk of stuff that accounts for the extra gravity we see. It is made of something else and we call it Dark Matter (because we can’t see it directly, we can only see its effects). The universe is expanding for some reason, and that takes lots of energy. We don’t know what this energy is, so we call it Dark Energy (because we can’t see it, we can only see its effects – and because some physicists have pretty poor imaginations).
So far as we know, that Dark stuff isn’t alive either. Watch this space though – because one day we will figure out what it is and then we’ll have a much better understanding of whether it is alive or not. Right now, we just don’t know, but we assume not.
Using our high school understanding; protons, neutrons and electrons combine to make atoms. There is no life here. Atoms combine to make molecules. There is no life here either. Molecules can become quite large and do some interesting things, pretty much being nano scale machines. We don’t think there is any life here. Groups of molecules can be clumped together in things called viruses, which we also don’t think are alive per se. While they have a way to reproduce themselves, they need an external mechanism to complete that, thus they seem more machine like than life like. They are no more alive than a lever is. A lever can’t make more of itself, but it can trigger an external process that does. There is, of course, debate about this point. I can’t make more of myself without the help of another and without the help of other things… so, am I a virus? (The Matrix movie makes an argument that humans are bacteria…)
When we look at a cell in our body, we consider it to be alive. The difference between a living and a dead cell is quite noticeable. Yet each part of that living cell is dead. The cell is made up of not-alive stuff. The cyanovirus, a molecular machine, can turn a dead cell back into an alive cell that makes more cyanovirus, so the difference between the dead cell and a live cell seems to be some kind of on/off switch. The difference in how we measure a live cell and a dead cell is that the live cell does stuff while the dead cell doesn’t. That seems like a sloppy definition.
Tardigrades are fascinating micro-animals. They were first discovered in 1773 by the German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze. Tardigrade is a phylum describing over 1,150 known species, averaging 0.3 to 0.5 mm in length, however some species get up to 4 mm in length. The most complex have about 40,000 of the above mentioned cells making up an individual mirco-animal. Tardigrades have been found pretty much everywhere on Earth that can contain life, and often places where other things can’t live. You can literally freeze them to near absolute zero, put them in a vacuum, heat them up to 150 degrees Celsius, and they’ll just keep on going. When they go out of their comfort range, they will desiccate themselves and seem dead. When
conditions return to reasonable, they re-hydrate and come back to life.
Come back to life.
An interesting phrase. When desiccated, they are basically dead. The cells do nothing. When they re-hydrate, they reanimate. Just like when the cyanovirus reanimates dead cells.
Archaea and Bacteria are the first orders of life that we consider living (remember that viruses are still controversial on whether they should be considered living or not). Both of these will move towards edible resources and away from threats. That suggests a level of awareness of their surroundings. However we can program machines to do this – so are these really alive, or just coincidentally programmed complex molecular machines?
Humans have consciousness. We are aware of ourselves, aware of our surroundings, can plan things in the future and dream up novel methods to overcome imagined problems. Some argue that this last bit – the imagination to dream up solutions – is what separates our particular species from all other life. Many “higher forms of life” have demonstrated the ability to solve present problems with novel solutions, but have not demonstrated the ability to solve problems yet to be presented.
By the same token, it is kind of hard to ask them when we don’t speak their language. We have taught some primates how to speak human language. Koko, who recently passed away, was a gorilla who was taught sign language and demonstrated some level of reasoning and emotion to circumstance (especially when her kitten passed away). However in her conversations, everything was very much in the “now”, with little to no examples of past and future tense, and has been reported to be similar to that of a very young child. Koko didn’t seem to look forward in time, however it could be argued that her grieving for her kitten shows an ability to look at the past.
Please note, racoons frequently break intelligence tests by solving problems in ways the experimenters didn’t expect them to be able to do. Racoons are probably the smartest creature on the planet.
Consciousness is more than solving problems though. It is an awareness of doing a thing. You are reading this. You are now aware of reading this. You are now aware of being aware that you are reading this. Some of you might even be aware of being aware that you just became aware of reading this… That awareness is different to a random problem solver, such as evolution. Evolution solves lots of problems by introducing a random generator and rewarding a type of success with survival and punishing a type of failure with death. We wouldn’t call evolution conscious or intentional – it solves problems, sometimes very elegantly, but it makes lots and lots of dumb mistakes too.
Assuming we do have consciousness and awareness, perhaps some other animals have it too. At what point do animals not have it? There are some very complex math problems to do with travel and networking. When bees were tested with this math problem, they came up with a very close to perfect solution. A solution that most humans would have difficulty figuring out. This wasn’t an individual bee that solved the problem, it was the whole hive of bees that solved the problem.
When we look at our bodies, we can’t point to which cell has intelligence, which cell harbours the seat of our consciousness. We have worked out that the organ called the brain is what makes decisions. Which brain cell is us? No individual brain cell seems to be it. The answer seems to be the collection of cells. If the hive is intelligent, that intelligence isn’t in any single bee, and if the brain is intelligent, it isn’t in any single brain cell. It is the collective. Kill a few bees and the hive continues mostly unaffected. Kill a few brain cells and the brain continues on, mostly unaffected. However kill enough bees and the hive collapses, and similarly kill enough brain cells and the human dies.
If you ask a single person in a farming village to estimate how much a cow weighs, that person has a chance of being accurate, but a much greater chance of being wrong. If you average the answers of the whole village, the cow is weighted pretty exactly via the collection of estimates. Are we like bees in a hive, having a much greater collective intelligence than the individual unit? When we look at human knowledge, it certainly seems that way. Humans know lots, while individual humans are pretty stupid. Believe me, I’ve met a lot of them.
One day we may leave our planet and join a federation or empire of other space faring intelligent species. Will our unit (humanity) join the bigger collective of intelligence? Destroy a single species and the collective continues, destroy enough of the collected species and the collective collapses?
It is interesting that the things that make up matter have no mass, but matter does. The things that make up life are have no life. The things that make up intelligence have no intelligence. The things that make up consciousness don’t have consciousness.
A common question in physics is “where does the mass come from?” while a common question in biology is “where does the life come from?”, and a common question in neuroscience is “where does intelligence come from?” and finally we also ask “where does consciousness come from?”
And the emergence of these aspects – mass, life, intelligence and consciousness – awes me.
We see the world in colour (or shades for those who are missing a set of cones). You are reading this from a screen that is projecting coloured light at you, it goes through your eyes and hits the cones and rods in your retina. That triggers a chemical reaction thanks to rhodopsin which uses 11-cis-retinal and light particles to form all-trans-retinal and an electric charge, which sends an ionic signal (that is, not electrons, but charged particles) to the brain.
The brain then looks at these chemical ions and interprets them into what you think you are seeing.
The light particle has a particular frequency which we interpret as light, and an amount of energy we interpret as brightness.
The colour we think we see does not actually exist. You made that up in the hallucination your brain creates that you call vision.
If we examine the light particle (photon) itself, it has no colour, just a certain frequency of vibration in the photonic layer of reality (we think). These frequencies are a certain type of energy amount, but there is no colour. Our eye has several different receptors that react differently depending on what frequency the photon has. The cone we call “red cone” will react to a certain level of strength to different photons around a certain wavelength (the flip side to frequency – they are inversely related). If the photon is dead on the right frequency, it fires at full strength, if it is further away, it fires less vigorously, and if it is too far away, it ignores the photon. So frequencies we call red, orange and yellow will trigger the red cone, but blue won’t. Also infrared won’t. The green cone is also triggered on these frequencies of photon, less for red, lots for green and a bit for blue.
The amount of these signals falls into a certain amount of red, green and blue being sent from that part of the eyeball (the image on your eyeball is upside down) and your brain assigns a value to that combination we call colour. At no point does the red or the orange or the yellow photon have the colour you think you are seeing. That assignment is similar to how computers interpret colour. We assign a level of red, green and blue in number levels, where [0,0,0] is black (no colour) and [full, full, full] is white, [full, 0, 0] is bright red. Do you see it? No? Neither does your eye or your brain.
You navigate the world via a hallucination that you made up based on these values, prompted by some clues out there, that doesn’t look at all like the thing you are fantasising about.
Prompting me to wonder, does the red apple I see look the same to you?
To the best of our ability to know, the red apple triggers a similar pathway and stimulates similar parts of the brain in both of us. That is, a similar part of the brain gets the photon with [full, 0, 0] for the brightest bit of the red apple. What we have no idea is if the conception you have for it is the same as mine.
Consider different languages. I speak English fairly well, so I understand words in English and a word will trigger a meaning in my brain. When I hear a word in a language I don’t speak, it registers as meaningless human speech. The pathway for the English word is fairly well known. The same pathway is travelled for the word in the other language for someone who speaks that language. Yet the meaning they have will likely be different because it means a different thing. We can’t see this bit.
If we had telepathy and I could look in your brain, would you be seeing the equivalent of a different language? Much like speech in different languages also travels a similar pathway and triggers similar parts of the brain for two different people, but is incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t speak that language. We kind of think this is how it works.
So, the colour you see is not real. You made it up.
Anger as the emotion that tells you something is wrong and that you may have to do something about it. Sometimes that feeling is wrong – either it should be something else, or it is too big or too small. In this post we look at what to do when your anger is out of place, or your response is not wise.
In previous posts we have looked at different parts of anger.
We have previously looked at anger as the emotion that tells you something is wrong and that you may have to do something about it. The angrier you are, the more you feel you should do something to the source of the anger.
The stronger your feeling, the more immediate you feel the solution needs to be and the more tempted you are towards an aggressive response. The question is, is your feeling correct?
Anger is a feeling, and feelings are quick shortcuts our brain uses to try to guess at evaluating a situation and predicting an outcome. We are prediction machines – we catch the ball because we calculate where it is going to be and get our hand to that point before the ball gets there. If we responded to the world in real time we would always be behind. We also need to process what we see, so we would be even further behind. Thus we predict the future to interact with that predicted future which makes it real time. If our hand gets their too early, we grab before the ball arrives, the ball will bounce off our closed hand. If we predict too late, the ball is already past our hand.
Predictions aren’t always right and our quick shortcut process can be fooled by simple illusions.
Take a look at this illusion:
In this illusion, vertical red bars are on top of black radiating lines. Your brain is taking a shortcut to process this picture. The inner two red lines (in the middle) look quite bent. Yet they are vertically straight. Take a known straight edge to the screen and check for yourself.
Even knowing that the lines are all straight, you can’t help but see that lines as bent. If you were born sighted, this illusion works. If you gained sight after you were born (corrective surgery), this illusion won’t work. The shortcut your brain uses to interpret straight and is making this error is over ruling the part of your brain that knows it is straight.
In a similar way, your feeling of anger may be making a mistake about its prediction of the environment you are in. Even when you know it is wrong, the feeling (or bent lines) don’t go away. Yet if you needed to, you could use those red lines as a straight edge despite your feeling that they are bent. You know they are not.
Now that we know our feeling can be in error, it is important to look at how we feel. At what scale do we feel anger? What has triggered this anger? Is the feeling correct, or is it an illusion?
Faulty Triggers and Misreported Levels
Sometimes we misinterpret the source. Some trigger event has prompted an anger response in us.
Our in built shortcut is based on a combination of previous experience and hard wired responses. Your brain perceives your environment and compares it to your experience and hard wired responses and spits out a result – anger X/5. If X is 0, we aren’t angry. If it is 1, we are annoyed, 2 is frustrated, 3 is angry, 4 is ropeable , 5 is enraged.
If our brain misinterprets this event as similar to a previous event that harmed us, it will report a higher level of anger than the situation deserves. Once we recognise that an anger level has been tripped by an event, we can pause for a moment and ask ourselves “does this event actually deserve this level of anger?”, that is, “how bent is that red line anyway?”
Bad Instinctive Solutions
Once we have triggered the anger feeling, our brain suggests a solution. It will base this on the action that allowed us to survive last time. If it was destruction, then the default suggested physical response will be destructive; or if it was passive, the default suggested physical response will be passive.
Our brains are only wired to give us good enough survival solutions, and if we survived last time, that is good enough. Our emotion response centre doesn’t care that we lost a leg, or destroyed a family, it cares that we were alive. Our high brain does care. We want a less destructive and more comfortable solution.
As such, it is worth looking at our brains suggested default physical reaction and deciding if this is going to lead to an outcome that we want, beyond mere survival.
Slow down and Take a Moment
In the section above we looked at analysing our feeling – is it the correct feeling considering the trigger and is it the right strength?
To evaluate this we need to build in a gap between feeling and reacting.
This Pause phase is vitally important to changing your habit – your reaction. The first part of the Pause phase is to assess for Clear And Present Danger. If it exists, do the default. If not, you have time. If you have time, you need to calm down.
Making A Choice
Now that you have assessed your anger for how valid it is – the trigger event and the strength of your emotional reaction – it is time to choose. Do you go with the default recommended reaction (such as in the presence of a Clear and Present Danger) or do you make a wiser choice (when it is not)?
To be able to make a wiser choice requires you to calm down and make a plan.
Nowhere in the history of humankind have the words “calm down” been effective at calming someone down. It is the difference between being asked if you would like a drink compared to being told you will drink now. The instinctive response is to fight against the domination of the other, and being told to calm down is one of those dominations that we fight against, especially when we are angry.
Yet we must do this for ourselves. It is quite different for the self to recognise the need to calm down and do something about it. When it is an external source, it seems adversarial and it seems necessary to defend the self by digging our heels in and being even angrier. If the external source of calming down is a trusted someone, we will give them more heed, but even still, it is hard. A better external method is for that person to ask you to make your own assessment – “do you need to calm down?” or “you seem angry…”. Self evaluation prompts are much better.
Once we have identified that we need to calm down, there are some nice and logical steps we can take that will help us achieve that. First though, it is important to look at what is going on inside us.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
Once the brain has decided a situation requires anger it looks at the worse case scenario. We might have to fight our way out or we may have to run away. While other options to anger exist, if they fail, it defaults back to flight or fight.
Reporting this to the higher brain and waiting for confirmation takes too long, so it hits the bodies alarm button first, and reports – indirectly – to the higher brain that the system has gone on to high alert.
The Flight/Fight Response is an automatic process that pushes the body to be on the verge of instant action. To save time, the same process does both running preparation and fighting preparation. The process is a little different in every person, but there are some commonalities.
Our eyes dilate at night time or become pin pricks in the day time, the better to see the threat. Our blood leaves our outer skin layers, making us look paler, to pool into the muscles and inner organs – making cuts less dangerous and prioritising our muscular system. We want to evacuate our digestive system through throwing up and going to the toilet – which makes us both lighter and less desirable to eat. We dump a whole heap of chemicals into our bloodstream to dampen pain, sharpen senses and empower our muscles – fine motor control is out, gross motor movement is prioritised. Our heart rate accelerates to get the blood around our system faster while at the same time our breathing rate goes up to get rid of excess carbon dioxide and breath in oxygen to power the whole system.
This helps to explain why we feel nauseous, shaky, look pale and breath oddly. A variation that is not uncommon is blood rushing to the cheeks to advertise our state of mind to others – the looking red aspect of anger. Being social creatures, we often emote our feelings to inform those around us what we have perceived in order for them to wordlessly work as a whole.
Once our system has triggered the parasympathetic nervous system, it is just a case of hold on while it happens. You have no conscious control of this part. It takes just a few moments for the whole process to kick in – quite literally seconds.
But once those seconds have passed, it is now time to choose. Default or Retrain.
If it is default (because of Clear And Present Danger), then keep going. Do the default. If it is that clear and present, then you don’t have time to mess around. Survive first. However, consider after the fact – was it really clear and present? How often are we in a real fight or flight situation?
If your choice is to retrain, then we need to know how to tell our bodies to stand down. I liken this to a body guard who detects a threat to their employer – they have to be ready for action, just in case, but they also have to assess the validity of the threat. They have to decide whether to shoot or not. Most often the answer is “no”, at which point they have to stand down and return to relaxed vigilance, or manage the threat in a less violent manner.
We have to do this too.
The ramp up of the flight/fight response is automatic, and eventually the ramp down will be too. However that “eventually” takes an awfully long time.
Take another look at the common list of things that your body does to ramp up. How many of those things do you have any control over when you are calm? Can you manually change the dilation of your eyes? Can you manually change the flow of your blood? Most people are going to answer no to this. There is something that you can easily change.
You can change the way you breath. The Flight/Fight Response increases the speed of breathing and due to the digestive tract’s urge to clear, that breathing is shallow in your chest. In effect, you pant. So let us change that.
Four Second Breath Cycle
Try practicing this breathing exercise now.
Put one hand on your belly button, flat, so that your belly button is in the middle of your hand. Breath in deeply so that your hand on your belly button moves first, then your chest second.
Now, breathe out moving your belly button hand first, then your chest.
Now breathe in using the above method for a count of four seconds. Actually count the seconds as you do this. At the top of your inhalation, hold your breath for the same four seconds. Now slowly breath out as we practiced above for four seconds. Now hold your breath again for four seconds. Repeat this paragraph four times. Remember to actually count these in your head.
If you feel light headed, you breathed in and out too quickly – switch to five seconds or more.
How do you feel?
This works by manually overriding the breathing our automatic process has triggered, prompting the primal brain to reassess the situation. By manually counting we give the brain something to think about other than “we are going to die!!!”
Mammalian Dive Reflex
Mammals can’t naturally breath underwater. Our biology knows this so has a few tricks up its sleeve to manage this problem. This is the Mammalian Dive Reflex. We have water detecting sensors on our cheeks that alert the brain to the high likelihood that we have just dived into water and are now cut off from oxygen rich air.
The brain registers this message and slows down the heart to conserve oxygen and ceases the breathing to avoid damage to the lungs from water. Along with a decreased heart beat, the muscles switch mode from fast muscle twitch to slow muscle twitch, a less strong but far more efficient muscle method. This is the difference between sprinting (high energy fast run) marathon running (low energy jog).
While we have no real conscious control over the Flight/Fight Response, we also have a similar lack of control over the Mammalian Dive Reflex. When we pit these two reflexes against each other, the Mammalian Dive Reflex wins – drowning is now, preparing for a fight is later.
By splashing cold water on our faces, we override the Flight/Fight Response.
You can’t drink and breath at the same time. Humans have only one pipe travelling from the back of the throat down the neck and then splits off to the lungs and stomach. Similar to the Mammalian Dive Reflex, when you sip water, the liquid going down your throat automatically prompts your lungs to stop until the airway is clear. Then it takes this opportunity to take in or expel some air.
You can manually override your breathing by choosing to sip. Increase the length of the sip to decrease the breathing, space the sips to adjust how much air you allow in. This reflex has an ongoing change to your heart rate. Your heart is tied to your breath in a process called Respiratory Sinus Arrythmia (RSA). As you breath in, your heart rate decreases, as you breath out, your heart rate increases. It is thought this is tied to the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange with your blood.
Holding your breath for short periods of time (while sipping) when in a heightened state will momentarily increase your heart rate, but the presence of water will decrease your heart rate… either way, you end up feeling calmer.
Note that while tea can increase calm, the extra caffeine in coffee may have an adverse effect. Alcohol will initially also promote calm because it is a liquid, but a sufficient quantity will start having other effects primarily because of the intoxication the alcohol can bring.
Try this sipping exercise and see what the effect on you is.
Once we have started the calm down process it is tempting to retrigger ourselves to justify how much anger we had. We look back at the event with the same filter that triggered us in the first place, enhanced by having just been agitated with a Flight/Fight Response. Re-triggering hits the Flight/Fight Response button all over again, forcing us to have to calm down all over again.
To avoid this, we can disrupt the behaviour.
Above we talked about counting in the Four Second Breath Cycle. The counting is really important as it gives our mind something else to focus on other than the initial trigger which we have already assessed as not being an immediate Clear and Present Danger.
Other hand distractions can be reciting the colours of the rainbow, the order of the members of your family or other easily memorable things that have a moderate level of complexity. Try counting backwards from 100 in 9’s. 100, 91, 82, 73 … Or 7’s, or 3’s. These are all tricky enough to be distracting without being something to retrigger the anger reflex.
Keying in other senses can also be of great benefit. Consider the colours of the rainbow – it starts with red, so look for something red, then orange, now yellow, green, blue, indigo and finally violet. Listen to the loudest sound you can hear, now listen for a high pitched sound, now a low pitched sound and finally what is the quietest sounds you can hear? What do you smell and or taste? Can you feel your finger nail on another finger pad?
The above sensory exercises are examples of self soothing, or stimming. These are tools that some cognitively diverse people use to help promote self calm that work on all people.
Do you have a smart phone? Add an app that requires you to think about bit that seems like fun. Ideally a quiet game that takes a few minutes to complete. When you need a distraction, play the game. This technique has been found to be highly effective for people struggling with PTSD. Instead of focusing on the trauma, you focus on the game, untying your physical response from the memory.
After we have disconnected our feeling from our body reaction, we still feel like we have a physical something we need to do. The easiest and highest recommendation I have for this is walking. Start off with a quick walk to get the feeling managed, then slow it down. You only need to go for a couple of hundred meters (yards). The urge we are resisting is combat simulations – things that mimic the Flight/Fight Response – such as running, boxing or breaking things. We want enough physical stimulation that we feel we are doing something, but not enough that it reinforces Flight or Fight for anger.
Absence is the Better Part of Valor
If the trigger for the anger is still present and still triggering, it is wise to move away from the trigger. Excuse yourself to the bathroom/toilet, or go outside for a breath of fresh air. Whatever it takes to walk away without looking weak or vulnerable. Once you have regained your composure, it is important to go back and try again.
This trains your brain to step back from being overwhelmed, but to step back in once self control has been established. If you don’t go back in, you train your brain to run away – that flight is the best answer.
What we want to do is promote Assertion – an adult negotiation with another adult. That means going back and trying again. It is also important to recognise when the other person lacks the insight to be able to negotiate like an adult. We looked at Insight in Part 1 of Helping an Angry Person [Link].
Recovering From Anger
Sometimes we fail to manage our anger well. Remember that there are two parts to anger – the feeling that is informing you of the environment and the action you take because of that feeling. It is possible to feel very enraged and take no action.
Our actions affect others. Sometimes those actions do not produce good results. It is tempting to try to justify our anger and our actions in the face of evidence that the result was bad. This is time to person up and take responsibility for at least a share of the outcome. Nothing is 100%, but fair is fair. If you did the action, then *you* did the action. Maintaining control of your actions despite your mood is your responsibility.
I can tell you to stand and you can refuse, because you deny my words. I can demand that you stand, and you can refuse. I can threaten dire consequences if you refuse, and you can refuse. I can physically lift you to your feet, but who is standing here, and what happens when I let go? My words and my desire have no means to make you stand. Now substitute me for your feeling – it can suggest, cajole, threaten with dire consequences… – but until you chose to act, it has no power over you.
So own up to your actions and work on ways to make a different choice next time. It is hard. You have a lifetime of habit supporting your default choice. The only way to change that habit is with effort, practice and lots of mistakes.
The other person you affect with your choices is you. There may be emotional, cognitive, social and physical repercussion to what you have or have not done (sometimes aggressive action is necessary after all, and if we chose not to do it when it is needed, that too has consequences). Address the harm done as best you can.
Now it is time to review – how did this round of anger go for you? What were the triggers? Was that the real trigger, or is something else driving you to higher levels of anger? What did you chose? What would you now chose with more insight and a more level head? What calming methods worked well for you, and what didn’t?
By reviewing how you went with a level head, you give yourself better options for next time – so long as you also practice calming methods when you aren’t agitated.
So practice being calm, practice reviewing your performance, until anger management problems are but a distant memory.
This is in no way an exhaustive list of how to manage your anger. This is just a tribute. However you can use this as a primer for how to go about managing some aspects of how you response to the anger feeling and decreasing the harm you may be causing.
If this is not enough help for you, it is time to go to some professional help. In Australia, at the time of writing this, that means going to your General Practitioner (local Doctor) and talking to them. Tell them you have having troubles with anger and would like a referral to a counsellor.
Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).
Last time [link] we looked at understanding anger – what is the feeling for and how do we judge what it is trying to tell us.
In this post we look at our responses to anger.
In the next post [link], we will look at what you can do when you realise your anger is not helping you.
Responses to Anger
Belo is a diagram model that helps understand anger responses. As the threat approaches (crossing boundaries) we should have an escalating response to that threat.
Passive means no direct action is taken. This phase is preparing for a worsening of the event and induces mild stress to the self.
Generally we have a passive response when we feel that it will take more energy to fix the problem than the problem deserves, or that the problem will leave on its own, or that we just simply can’t actually do anything that would have a positive outcome.
Passive aggressive also means no direct action is taken to the perceived threat, however indirect action is present. This phase is trying to non-directly tackle the problem or vent off stress to manage the self.
Either a perceived power imbalance between you and the threat exists (eg the boss is telling you to do a rotten job) or the effort required to fix the problem (quitting) seems worse than putting up with the problem or there is some other reason not to directly address the perceived threat. Yet the stress has built to the point where something needs to be done. This introduced the idea of venting.
When we feel powerless against the problem, we will find ways to demonstrate power in some way, even if that is going to penalise us later. We will do the task poorly, or promise to do the task and not do so, or undermine the thing in some other way. This gorilla tactic is about non-direct confrontation to prove that we have a say, even though we don’t.
So I can’t yell at the boss, because the consequence of that would be me losing my job and I really need my job. I can, however, take it out on Alex, who has done something that I can justify venting my aggression at. Alex, of course, doesn’t feel they deserve this. And they are right, because the thing that I am actually upset with isn’t anything to do with Alex, and the excuse of my aggression is a flimsy lie to justify my action. I have transferred my anger at my boss to an innocent bystander.
Often we take out work aggression on family, or family aggression on friends. A key element of who we pick to transfer our anger to is that they seem less powerful than the source of the anger, and we feel that we have a safer venting ability with them – that is, the consequence to our action will be less. We either hope that the victim of theis transferred aggression will understand, or feel sufficiently powerless that they will just put up with it.
Debriefing is about talking about the problem to anyone and everyone. This is actually somewhat useful as a mechanism as it increases the chances of finding a solution that we haven’t thought of. There is also a chance that someone that we grumble to will directly fix the problem for us.
Often, though, we aren’t looking for solutions, we are looking to vent our frustrations in a non-aggressive way. We are not receptive to solutions, only sympathy.
When we grumble to someone else and they fix our problem for us, we learn that we can’t fix the problem ourselves. Instead when next we have a problem, we grumble yet again. When this doesn’t work, we feel trapped and helpless. We have accidentally taught ourselves learned helplessness.
When we can’t grumble, don’t dare transfer aggression, or do a gorilla tactic to sabotage the problem, we may find ourselves trying to release stress in another way. We can’t direct the damage out there, so we internalise it.
Self harm can be done in a number of ways. It can be substance abuse, diet abuse, tissue damage, social harm, financial harm and so on. The common element to all of these is it is bad for the self.
This harm expresses or relieves the internal pain in an external way that isn’t supposed to affect another. The worse the self harm, the more it indicates the stress that the self is under such that this is the way to vent that strain.
On the one hand this is a useful way to relieve the stress before it becomes explosively bad – suicide or murder – but on the other hand it delays actually solving the problem such that self harm is not needed. One should not stop self harming if the trigger problem still exists and no ameliorating actions have been put in place. Also note, this is not black and white – go see a professional and get good advice about your situation, how to reduce the problem and how to reduce your self harm.
Being assertive is all about having the confidence to be forceful and powerful in your position and pushing a solution forwards in a non-aggressive way.
This should be the first method of resolving the problem use employ.
If the cause of your anger is another person, then surely they should be intelligent, capable and willing to resolve the problem with you. This “surely” has a number of assumptions built into it – assuming the other person has the capacity to understand the problem, the insight to recognise their share of the responsibility of the problem and the willingness to do something about the problem.
When this assumption is correct, then working with the other person to resolve the problem is relatively simple and effective. However the other person may not be as willing as you are to take on their share of the burden, or willing to acknowledge how big of a problem there really is, leaving you to be the one to shoulder the solution and the consequences of it.
Assertiveness is used to not allow the other person to shirk their responsibility. Clearly you need to have a good idea about what is your responsibility and what isn’t, what you should do and what you shouldn’t, and what you are willing to accept and what you aren’t. Knowing these things allows you to more confidently confront the other person and push your agenda forwards.
It is important to remember that you are supposed to be working collaboratively with the other person towards a solution rather than finding ways to blame the other person for everything that has gone wrong. There is a big difference between recognising an error and finding fault in a person.
“When you did this thing, the result was bad” versus “you are bad for doing this thing”.
If you are too passive in your approach, you permit the other person to make the problem yours and therefore the solution yours to do. If you are too aggressive, the other person may try to resist you or will leave out of fear. Assertive is that bit in between being passive and being aggressive (not to be mistaken for the passive aggressive phase) where you stand up for yourself but are also willing to acknowledge that you can change things too.
Beware of losing focus on the problem. If the other person is manipulative they will seek to find fault in you about things that are not relevant to this problem to distract from the things they have done that have contributed to this problem. So while it is important to recognise that you will need to make some changes to resolve this problem, it must be focused on this problem and balanced with what the other person has done and will do about this problem.
I’ll write a post about more on this soon.
When the cause of the problem is a non-animal, such as a defective item, then calming down and finding a logical solution to the problem is highly effective. For example, computers don’t respond well to violence. They just break or ignore your swearing. However a logical solution will exist- replace a part, try a different command, re-install the program, upgrade the machine etc.
If none of these work, then consider a new plan. For example, I may be frustrated that it will just take too long to get from this part of my holiday plan to a thing that I want to see. No logical solution will fix that – some things are just not feasible. So either I need to sacrifice some of my holiday elsewhere to make this work, or give up seeing this side line thing.
Aggression is the solution to solving problems when we can’t reason with the cause of the problem, or can’t find a reasonable solution. It is a solution that either threatens to use or actually does use violence.
Aggression should be the last ditch effort to solve a problem, or a solution born of desperation.
Direct Physical Threats
Previously I talked about a dangerous dog attacking. Passive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Passive aggressive won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Assertiveness won’t work – I’ll get bitten. Aggression is my solution.
There are stages to aggression.
The first part of aggression is looking like we are ready to do violence. This means seeming bigger (standing taller, hands on hips and elbows out, puffing out the cheeks slightly), sounding more menacing (deepening the voice, being louder), using threatening body language (raising a hand, looming over another, getting into their personal space) and some other body language means to communicate that you are not only ready for violence, but that you will win.
If this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins and you won.
Using the dangerous dog example, using my angry voice I scream at the dog. This comes out more as a roar than a high pitched scream. The roar indicates ability to do harm, the high pitched scream indicates being a victim. This is still about bluff.
Humans respond more to promises of harm. If the other person believes they will be hurt and tunes into that future pain, they may rethink their action. This is about bluffing the person into believing the fight is not worth their effort, that they will experience more harm than the good they are hoping to achieve.
Again, if this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins.
Demonstrations of Violence
Demonstrating violence on things around you show your ability to do harm if needed. This can be foot stomping, banging on things, breaking an item near you, slamming doors or knocking furniture over. This shows not only a willingness to create damage, but an ability to do so as well.
As a worst case scenario, you are in for a fight. You have not managed to fend the dangerous dog off with threats of violence and it is actively trying to bite you. Now you need to use your body to minimise harm to yourself and cause harm to another. There are excellent self defence courses you can go to in order to learn the most effective ways to remain safe, do escalating damage to another and stay within the legal limits of the law for self defence.
I am certainly not going to cover that here.
If the threat of direct physical violence to you is not present – there is no dangerous dog or human – then aggression is not your solution. But it may feel like it is.
We often substitute a feeling of powerlessness with aggression. If a bit of effort doesn’t resolve the problem, then more surely will. We want to escalate the effort until the thing is fixed. Consider trying to get a thumb tack into the wall. If the wall is harder than expected, then the thumb tack doesn’t go in by just pushing it, so we want to get a bigger thing, like a hammer, to hit it in. If that doesn’t work, we reach for a bigger hammer.
Often the solution isn’t try harder. It is try smarter. The smarter idea for the thumb tack is not to use a sledge hammer (you’ll just squish the thumb tack), it is to instead pre-drill the wall. Perhaps a thumb tack isn’t the solution you should be using on this wall.
Working with government agencies can be a nightmare of red tape and powerlessness. We think the solution should be simple, but we have to fill in form after form after form. We do all the things we are told, despite the contradictions, and still get nowhere or are told we are ineligible. We have tried to be passive (comply with the forms), assertive (work with the front desk staff) and now we feel aggression is our best answer.
The temptation is to yell, be belligerent and create a problem.
The actual solution is that you need a new plan. A bigger hammer won’t solve the thumb tack in the wall. Instead, using a smarter tool or change the thumb tack. In this case, go to the complaints line and then the should that not work ombudsman. Becoming aggressive to the front desk staff just won’t work.
There are times to tactically lose your shit. That is, snap a bit, look dangerous, clearly regain control of yourself and be reasonable again. This shows the other person that you are pissed off, but trying to be reasonable. Now is the time to say something like “I get that you can’t help me, and I know you want to, and clearly this should be a reasonable thing. So, what can I do now? Where further can I take this?”
Sometimes it is important to relay to the other person just how angry you are. However if they fear you, you are probably not going to get what you want. Instead it is about appropriate levels of display. There is a huge difference between a clear and crisp swear word, a pause and a retry versus knocking the staff members monitor off the table. Don’t do the latter.
Anger is the feeling we have that tells us that something is wrong. That wrong could be a threat, an inefficient thing or a situation of powerlessness. This feeling can prompt several different responses, a spectrum of inaction (passive, passive aggression) to action (assertive, aggression, getting out).
This post series is about how to manage your own anger, which on the one hand is easier because it is you, and on the other hand is harder, because it is you.
First we will understand what the feeling of anger is about and how to measure it.
In the next post [link], we will work on understanding what our responses to anger are likely to be and how they are useful to us.
Lastly [link], we will look at how you can change your anger and manage it when you realise the automatic feeling and response aren’t useful to your situation.
Humans have a range of emotions that help us to identify a situation and come up with a valid response. It takes far too long to manual perceive everything around you and manually process what it means and then manually go through your decision tree of actions to remain safe in a timely manner. We use feelings to automate a lot of this process and prepare the body for calm, flight or fight.
The Anger feeling is triggered when our feeling assessment part of our brain (mostly thalamus, hypothalamus and amygdala) recognises a situation that indicates that something is wrong and to our detriment. You don’t get angry when you win a door prize of $100, but you do get angry when someone tries to take that $100 away.
Impact – judging threat, consequence and boundaries
Something that goes wrong that has little impact upon you will only prompt a small reaction, while that same thing that goes wrong that has a big impact upon you will have a stronger reaction. The impact of a the event is based on our perception of the threat and the strength of the consequences that event has.
Because the feeling of anger is based on our perception of the event rather than the reality of the event, how we interpret the situation and its consequences is key to how angry we get. Anger is personal rather than objective. The same event can affect different people in different ways.
We all have boundaries which vary from situation to situation. They may be physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, social boundaries, conceptual boundaries, intellectual boundaries and so on. Boundaries indicate the edge of where someone or something else affects you, and each progressive stage of affect until it is actually you that is harmed.
If someone is far distant they are not a factor to your safety. As they cross your first boundary line, you become aware of them and their potential threat, as they come closer you become more ready to act depending on who they are and what they represent to you. If they are a trusted loved one, those boundary lines are much closer, if they are a dangerous looking stranger, those boundaries are further away.
Each progression past each boundary that heightens threat increases our anger level if the perceived outcome is negative.
In therapy, power is defined as the capacity one has to affect change. If we perceive ourselves to have a great deal of capacity to affect the change we want, we feel powerful. If not, we feel powerless.
Once an event has occurred that affects us, we feel the need to address it. If we can do so without much effort or risk, then we feel we have sufficient resources and ability – capacity – to fix the problem. While we often don’t feel powerful per se, we do note the absence of power – that is, when we can’t fix the problem.
Power is a strange concept. Every time we succeed at a task, we generally dismiss it as easy and not really worthy of notice – we minimise successes. If we have put a huge amount of effort into it, then we can feel accomplished and powerful.
We supplement our effort with anger. This form of anger is often secondary to the initial event as it has to do far more with ongoing consequences to the event than the initial reaction to it. More on that later. However it is important to note that the more powerless we feel to an event, the more it angers us and the more we want to be aggressive to compensate.
Different cultures have different ways to display anger, defining suitable methods of addressing things that provoke anger and what is a transgression of a boundary that should prompt you to be angry.
Some cultures include displays of mock aggression to symbolise social stature, or actual aggression to enforce social stature.
Respect is a concept that can either mean authority, recognition of capability or fear. If the definition you are using is recognition of fear, then you will use aggression to try to inspire respect from another person. For the person who sees respect as recognition of capability, they may fear you and disrespect you. Culture can have a strong foundational part of which definition of respect someone uses.
Treating another human as equal to you is a relatively new concept that is slowly propagating around the globe. There are cultures who still view “others” as lesser, or a part of that countries population as lesser. Each country has a sub-culture that suppresses another group. If you find that you are easily angered at someone for who you identify them as rather than what that person is actually doing, then you are practicing cultural suppression – an ism of some kind. Racism, sexism, ethnicism etc. You see that group as less than you, or a threat to you. This ism often ties into subcultural stereotypes and the disgust emotion.
Stressors and Compound Anger
In physics, stress is a force applied to a material and the effect that force has on a material. In psychological stress, the person feels a force acting upon them – work, arguments, hunger – and experiences that effect as stress. Some ongoing low level stress is good for us, and occasional large amounts of stress are also beneficial, so long as that force applying the stress doesn’t break us or last for too long.
The more stress we feel, the shorter our fuse is with anger and the more prone we are to react with aggression. Suppressing the aggressive reaction to anger is stressful and so compounds our shorter fuse and our aggressive response.
This plays into one of our responses to anger – passive aggression / transference. More on that later in Part 2 [Link].
Primary and Secondary Anger
When anger is informing you that something is wrong and needs to be addressed in the absence of other strong feelings such as fear or disgust, then it is the primary feeling. The trigger may need to be addressed or monitored (more on this later).
Often anger is secondary to an initial emotion. This is common in some subcultures where feelings are represented by either good or anger. Feel happy? Translate to good. Feel comfortable? Translate to good. Feel surprised? Translate to anger. Feel disgusted? Translate to anger. Feel scared? Translate to anger. Feel sad? Translate to anger.
Sometimes the correct fear response is aggression – if I a see a big nasty dog coming to bite me, I should swell up, raise my voice and scare the dog so it doesn’t bite me. I need to be ready to fight the beast if this fails or face the consequence of being harmed by it. This aggressive fear response is going to trigger anger as a secondary feeling. After the event, where the dog has been fended off, I will continue to feel anger because I was scared and had to defend myself. I may look for reasons to feel angry to justify my secondary emotion.
Often the anger I feel towards a thing isn’t well balanced. If that is the case, then it may be that my anger towards this thing is secondary to a problem I have somewhere else.
Part 2– helping someone who is aware of their anger and its consequences
And now on to helping someone with no insight.
When our angry person doesn’t have insight as described in Part 2 [Link], some different strategies are required. This is primarily because the angry person doesn’t accept responsibility for their feeling or actions, either due to an inability (too young, poor cognitive abilities, disability) or cognitive dissonance (the idea that they are responsible is at odds with a foundation idea of self such as narcissism, culture or self esteem phobia). The person will not adjust their actions to the environment.
Therefore the environment has to be adjusted for them.
Understanding the Mindset
Angry People without insight are very sensitive to feelings of power and threat. By power, we mean the ability to choose and implement that choice to have a good outcome. Imagine a scenario where you need to solve a problem to avoid an electric shock. If you can easily solve the problem you feel you have defeated the scenario, if you have no hope of solving the problem you feel powerless to defeat the scenario. That feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness at the inevitable shock triggers anger, which the insightless person automatically responds to with aggression. The more they feel they have no choice, the more aggressive they become, and transversely, the more they feel they can affect positive outcomes, the less aggressive they become. This is the “hit it with a bigger hammer” solution mindset – if a small hammer doesn’t budge the thing, get a bigger hammer. After a while, the person just reaches for the bigger hammer first – the aggressive response over the sutble response.
Another factor to consider is the perception of threat. A perceived antagonist who has little effect on you is not very threatening, while an antagonist that has a large effect on you seems very threatening. The bigger the perceived threat, the bigger the aggressive response.
Little Dog Syndrome [Link] is another important concept to get your head around. People who need to be seen as powerful are generally secretly very insecure. There is a condition known as “Imposter Syndrome” the feeling that you don’t really belong and the attached fear that others can tell. A person struggling with Little Dog Syndrome wants to be seen as a Big Dog / Boss Dog, but fear you won’t buy their act. So they get more aggressive to compensate for their feared small stature. The threats are people who don’t see their act as real.
Keeping in mind the above mindset, take a look at your angry person’s triggers. What things are happening to decrease their perception of good choices, to be a threaten to them, or destabilise their ego perception of themselves? Which of these can you moderate and ameliorate versus what have you no influence over either?
Putting some energy into subtly ameliorating situations can help an angry person feel less out of control or threatened, and thus need to less need to use aggression. The risk is that if the person catches on that you are making them safe, you may be perceived as invalidating their ability and undermining their show of strength, triggering their ego perception problem – where they think that you think that are a little dog.
Oasis of Calm
Consider the times that you are stressed – you are late to work, you’ve just spilled coffee on yourself which is both hot and messy and now you have to get changed, you have that big meeting to explain that thing. You go out to get to the car after getting changed and cleaning up the mess and there is someone who has just broken down, blocking your driveway with their car. The chances are that your reaction won’t be friendly and understanding, it will be angry and aggressive. Even if you contain yourself from an outburst, your temptation to be temperamental will be much higher. In effect, the stress around this last incident aggravates this incident.
The idea of the Oasis of Calm is to try to remove likely stressors that are increasing aggravation to our angry person. When they are showing signs of stress is not the time to discuss finances, to challenge their behaviours or to start renovating the TV room. Timing, as has been said previously, is really important.
This can leave you thinking that there is no time to tackle tricky things because you might trigger aggression. Communication, as also has been indicated in earlier articles, is key. Ask your angry person – “Hey, I want to talk about X, is this a good time?” Depending on their response you can either go ahead and talk about X, or ask “when do you think would be a good time?”, or as a worst case scenario back away slowly and carefully.
Having a space that is seen as safe allows the angry person to retreat to that room when they feel unstable. While this does require a level of insight for the angry person, it doesn’t need much and people can often be subconsciously trained into certain actions. For example, in the dinner room we never talk about tricky things – that is only in the lounge room. After a while of this consistent rule being acted out by you, the angry person will find themselves automatically going to the dinner room when they want to avoid a confrontation.
If Angry Person continually says “not now” and doesn’t commit to discussing touchy topics, if you keep trying to keep the calm and go out of your way to defuse everything, or change your values to the ones they espouse then perhaps you have started enabling their aggression. In essence you’ve made it okay for them to be aggressive, to use violence and threats to avoid them having to deal with certain issues and or to train you into the shape they want you to be.
Sometimes enabling is an important safety strategy. Agreeing that Other Person is being unreasonable, or ensuring the dishes are done because angry person gets petty when they aren’t can be a way to minimise certain types of harm. As with all of this, we aren’t dealing with black and white, we are dealing with situations case by case.
The risk of enabling is when you do more and more to smooth the friction, to decrease the aggression and lose who you are and your position in the relationship. Picking your battles to push back, when safe, keeps the boundary of how much aggression they display at manageable levels, otherwise you risk them running roughshod all over you. It is important to say “no” occasionally, but pick those moments when it is safe.
Knowing When to Get Out
If you find that you are losing yourself, that you are alway scared or that you are visiting hospitals because of domestic violence injuries it is time to get out.
Leaving isn’t always easy. We talked about why people chose to stay in Part 2 [link], and these are some excellent reasons to stay. However if the violence is too high, or the risk of losing your own self is too high, then those reasons need to be re-examined.
For example, finances may be complex and a reason to stay and minimise harm. However if the harm is not being minimised, then that part of the reason for staying may now be invalid – the level of harm has exceeded the complexity of the finances prompting you to stay. There is no point holding on for a fortune if you die or spend the rest of your life in hospital.
Keeping other family members safe is generally the most common reason people stay despite harm. This self sacrifice seems totally worth it to keep another loved one safe, but it is actually a carefully crafted illusion perpetrated upon you by the angry person. Call domestic violence help lines to get help to save the whole family, to get out with some financial support or if being deported is the threat keeping you in the relationship.
Clearly state you are in a domestically violent relationship, the victim and need help to get out. Sometimes you need to call from a safe place on someone else’s phone.
Children and Cognitively Impaired
Children under the age of five have little enough personal awareness that they can’t easily understand the feeling of anger, power, choice or rationality. Trying to explain to your child that they are being irrational in their aggression is often not as effective as we would want. In this case, the child lacks the insight to discuss their situation and make wiser choices.
As a guardian, it is your role to inform the child that they are feeling angry, that they are using aggression / violence and that this is not right. If the child cannot ameliorate their behaviour, it is your job to contain them until they regain enough composure for them to explore whatever problem triggered their behaviour.
Containing a child should start with gentle verbal cues, such as “I need you to calm down”, “everything is alright so you can stop doing that”, or “go to your room”. Escalate verbal tone and sharpness of command if this isn’t successful, such as firmly stating “stop” or “don’t do that”, or commanding “go to your room”. It may be necessary to raise your voice quite a bit to startle your child into listening.
If necessary physically restraining your child by holding the offending digit (the hand that is being used to create violence) especially if that is being used to harm a human or animal. It may be necessary to further immobilise your child by containing all of their limbs in a great hug or other fashion such that they can’t create harm. They will initially fight against this, but once they fail to make progress they will calm down. It may take a few minutes for this level of calm down to occur – but it will happen. It is important to calmly keep saying “shhh” or “I need you to calm down”, or “I love you, but this is not acceptable”. This calmness in your voice, combined with painless immobility will signal to your child that the aggression is not going to succeed and another strategy is needed.
The goal of this bit is to disrupt the aggression, achieve a state of calm that is enough to more rationally deal with the actual problem. When the feeling is too high, the child cannot rationalise. Even preverbal children will calm down and understand the “no” cues you are giving.
I have also found an effective technique getting ice cream or some other sweet out and eating it in front of them. Ask them if they want some, and let them know that they will need to be calmer to have some. If you have a good carrot, it beats a stick any day.
I have never found it necessary to strike a child. The signal that is sent when striking a child is that aggression is used to meet aggression, while the signal that we want to send is that aggression is not the best or only answer.
These same techniques work on people with intellectual disabilities, however some of the physical restraint methods need to be tailored to the strength of bigger children or adults.
Once the person is calmer, look back with them (as they are able) or on their behalf (if they are not) at what triggered them. Go back up and read the trigger section for some inspiration about the types of trigger situations to look for. Was the person denied a choice, felt out of control, threatened or startled? These are things that can be adapted around – give a choice, even if it is limited to safe and feasible options (it has to be a real choice); did the person know what was coming next and have enough but not too much time to adjust their thinking to the new thing?; what was the threat and how can that be managed, or what was the point of startle and how can that be managed?
Remember the four D’s – delay, distract, disrupt and go drink some water.
The Illusion of Control
It is very important to consider your awareness of how effective you can control a situation where you are not the one having the emotion or chosing the physical actions of that emotion. You are not in control of what happens. While there is some effect you can have on their affect, it is limited and second hand.
The Theory of Mind is used to explain how we assume things are happening internally to someone else, that is, that they are thinking, feeling and reacting to things just like you. There is no proof of this. We cannot look at someone else and actually know what they are thinking, we can only guess. Guessing introduces error due to assumptions and lack of direct knowledge. The more errors we have, the worse our conclusions and plans are going to be. At the least, this means we have no actual ability to factor in all the elements to control our angry person. Heck, they can’t control themselves, what hope do you have?
Part 3 is not about curing an angry person, stopping them from being angry, or removing aggression. It is all about tempering their emotion with environmental control and de-escalation techniques. It is about recognising the need for you to be safe, when to get out and the limited things that you can do if you stay.
If you find yourself concerned after reading all of this, please, go to your GP and get a referral to a counsellor, call the Domestic Violence Helplines, or talk to a level headed and stable friend. There is a limit to what you can do on your own.
Managing your own anger is hard enough, but what do you do when you need to help someone else? After all, you don’t really know what is going on in that person’s mind, and you can’t change their actions. All you have is some minor influence based on second or third hand knowledge of their situation.
Last time [Link] we covered a basic understanding of anger, assessing the risk/severity of anger, how insight plays a part in someone’s ability to change and when to leave.
Why you might stay with an angry person
There are several excellent reasons to stay with an angry person. Four of the most common reasons are:
If the person is coping poorly with a temporary stressor – such as the end of a work contract, poorly managing grief, or a conflict with a family member – then the anger should resolve when the temporary situation does.
Once the situation has resolved and the anger dissipates it is time to have a serious sit down talk about what happened and why that reaction was bad due to how it affected other people. Remember to include in part of this discussion avenues for better managing anger so as not to create aggressive consequences. If this happens semi frequently, then the person should probably see a counsellor about their anger management problem.
Abusive partners use fear to keep their victim controlled. When the victim (measured by who is scared of the other in the relationship) tries to leave, the perpetrator will frequently escalate their violence (various methods to create fear – such as physical assault, sexual assault, intellectual and emotional abuse, destruction of property etc) in an effort to reassert dominance and control. The risk of murder increases significantly at the point of or shortly after leaving.
This is not to say that all angry people are perpetrators of domestic violence, or that if they are that they will intend to or accidentally kill their victim.
The risk increases and the victim may not feel safe to leave without a good exit strategy. This leaves the person trying to de-escalate the aggression and violence of their perpetrator.
On a side note, I have mostly tried to leave this section gender neutral as it is often assumed that men are not victims or that perpetrators cannot be women. This is not true, however it should be noted that most harm is done by males and that is mostly against females. It is also important to note that most males are not abusive, nor are most females.
The angry person has insight into their anger and the consequences of it and don’t like the effect. In this case people will often stay with their angry person in the hopes of either the return of the person they fell in love with, or an evolution to a new relationship.
As life is not binary – black or white – there is no stay or don’t stay advice for this. Each case must be assessed on its own merits. If your safety is reasonable and the angry person is making good headway into changing – attending counselling, communicating, making actual changes – then staying can be good.
Signs that it is not good are that you seem to be the source of anger, the person is making token changes that don’t actually make a difference and once you back off they return to their previous behaviours or the risk to you becomes too high.
Dependency comes in two permutations that are not necessarily exclusive. On the one hand, you may need the angry person due to financial, social or some other factor. Leaving them may seem to be more harmful to you than good.
Another key factor is they may be dependent on you. For example, if your under aged child has anger issues, you can’t just leave them. Instead it is important to work a way through issues with the help of professionals.
Other vulnerable demographics are disabled people and the elderly. Again professional help is generally available for these situations. If the person has insight they may chose to go to a facility, there are community supports available or perhaps they person has lost insight and can be moved to a suitable facility. See your doctor to gain options for your local area.
Once you have decided to stay, it is important to categorise your angry person. They either have insight into their actions (explained in the previous post) or they don’t.
If the angry person has insight into their actions and is motivated to change, then they will be willing to go to counselling to seek anger management. This can be done in group sessions or individual sessions. There will be more than one – it takes time and dedication to change a bad habit. Sometimes the counsellor is not the right one for the angry person, so they need to persist in finding a compatible counsellor/facilitator. Gaining skills to manage anger is a process.
You and/or they can read up on self anger management here [link].
That is great for what they can do to help themselves, but the question still remains – what can you do to help them?
Angry people are generally angry for a reason. Charitably they are angry because they feel threatened and unable to meet the threat in a dispassionate way, thus they escalate in aggression to meet the perceived threat. When someone is already feeling pressured or stressed, excuses can be made to vent out frustration, excusing their anger.
The assessment section is to try to primarily ascertain what is the cause, if possible, for the anger; and secondarily how strongly are they reacting. Ideally this is done via a conversation with the angry person.
Keeping lines of communication is essential to resolving anger quickly, but it isn’t always feasible. The angry person is likely already feeling threatened and may perceive questioning as a threat or an excuse to be aggressive.
Having a conversation with the person before they are angry about agreed upon signals to identify concern and ways they can assure a lack of anger, or a need for space is important. Remember that the last thing people who are angry want to hear is the phrase “calm down”. Instead ask questions, starting with short answer and working your way up to conversation. Start with an observation like “you seem a bit miffed/angry/peeved/frustrated [pick one]” and let them voice or indicate an affirmative or negative such as “yeah” or a head nod. If they affirm, then perhaps it may be suitable to ask “are you okay?” allowing for a short response. If that goes well, open a conversation with “what’s up?” or “want to tell me about it?”
Sometimes whens you are in a crowd it is bad form to ask “are you angry?”, so having a code phrase like “green light or red light?” where green indicates things are going okay and red indicates problems allow for you to support your angry person without alerting everyone to the situation. Your angry person may have a code phrase to tell you they need to go out and get some air. Having these codes available to you both that have been organised when they are feeling cool and level headed is essential.
Giving Space to Support Self Management
There are various methods to self manage. Often taking oneself out of a bad situation is a first good step, or doing a distraction to shift focus away from the source of anger, or helping oneself to a drink (not alcohol – that can fuel anger or detract from self control). Take a look at our Anger [Link] page to look at more self-management techniques.
When to Judge
While the angry person may not be responsible for their mood, they are responsible for their actions. It is more than possible to be furious and do nothing. It is important to challenge bad behaviours – aggression and passive aggression – and not take responsibility for the actions of another.
However it is important to consider timing. A calm discussion to explore the consequences to actions is civil and likely to have a good outcome, while pointing out the other person is being bad in the middle of an enraged temper tantrum is basically poking the angry bear. Keep in mind that as feelings become stronger, the ability to think rationality decreases.
Above we talked about communication and phrase words. Things like “you are scaring us/me” or “you seem really furious” or “is it punching bag time?” are observations and prompt the angry person to regain control of themselves. If this is ineffectual, then it is time to get out for a while to be safe.
Judging is not a bad thing. Holding onto that judgement despite newer facts is.
Managing one’s own anger is challenging, but managing another’s can seem impossible. While the common answer to facing someone else’s anger is to walk away, if you are in a relationship with them, that isn’t always the best solution. Here is some ways that you can help.
Understanding Anger – a Quick Recap
First of all, we will recap a bit about how anger works and operates. For a full write up on this, go here [link].
Anger is the feeling we have to tell us something is wrong, and by wrong we mean detrimental to our wellbeing. If someone gives you a $100 door prize, you don’t generally feel angry about it, yet when someone tries to take that $100 from you, anger is a fairly common response. If someone offers you a cup of coffee you don’t feel angry, but if someone tells you to drink that coffee, you do.
The first example was about loss resource and the second was about lost choice.
Anger comes in a spectrum of levels. Annoyance, frustration, seething, anger and finally rage. There are, of course, more versions – but let’s keep this somewhat simple.
When you can address the thing you are angry about and resolve it, you feel less angry. When you can’t, your anger rises. We can resolve problems by putting up with them (passive and passive aggressive), solving them (assertive and aggression) and avoiding them (running away).
It will take more resource to fix the problem than putting up with it. Waiting a while will likely mean the thing goes away.
It is still not worth fixing, or trying to fix it will make it worse. However there is a rising feeling of aggression that wants to be vented, so either sabotage the thing, redirect aggression to a safe outlet, or internalise the aggression in self harm.
Try to solve the problem like adults – it takes two to make this work.
Use force to make it fixed.
It isn’t going away, it isn’t listening to reason, you can’t use force to fix it, so get out and get away.
Primary vs Secondary Response
While anger is a basic feeling, one of the basic 6 feelings (Joy, Anger, Sadness, Fear, Surprise, Disgust), it may not be the first feeling you feel when presented with an event. If it is, then it is the Primary Response – that thing that happened really annoyed me.
Often, though, anger is a Secondary Response. The thing may trigger fear first and anger second. Trying to resolve the anger without addressing the initial fear well lead to resistance to calming down and potential retriggering of anger because fear is still present.
It is common for many cultures to channel any non joy basic feeling into a secondary response of anger. Disgust leads to anger, surprise leads to anger etc. This is often because we are not well versed in dealing with these other feelings, and or they are not perceived as allowable feelings, but anger is. This makes it particularly tricky to manage both the primary and secondary response to the event that triggered an emotional response.
A full rundown of this section on anger can be found here.
There is quite a difference between recognising your own anger and managing that versus understanding someone else’s anger and managing them.
First of all, from an egocentric perspective, you can look at your own feelings and triggers with much greater clarity than you can guess what another person is feeling and why. Secondly you can take direct steps to manage your own anger (walk away, breathing etc) but only indirect steps to manage the angry feeling in someone else.
Necessarily managing another person is tricky. You run the risk of either enabling their behaviour or triggering a greater anger response.
Sometimes your loved one is angry once in a blue moon, sometimes they are angry all of the time. Sometimes the level is mild and sometimes it is terrifying. Sometimes it is warranted and sometimes it makes no sense. All of this has an impact on you and others.
Frequency – How often a person is angry – infrequent or frequent
Level of anger – How angry does the person get? Minor irritable or explosive aggression?
Circumstances – Does it take a significant event to provoke anger, or is the anger waiting for any trivial excuse to be let out? Anger tied to circumstances can lead to predictability or unpredictable aggression.
These three aspects are the larger part of establishing the impact of another’s anger to others. For example, a person may be infrequently angry, but it is extremely explosively aggressive and seems to be at triggered by random occurrence. This makes the impact seem random and scary. This can leave people wondering what is going to trigger the anger and how bad it is going to be.
If someone’s anger impact is low to moderate, there is little call for an intervention. However if their impact is medium to high, then there may be.
Insight and Responsibility
The fact that you have recognised someone else has an anger problem is only a small fraction of the issue. They need to recognise it too.
Being aware of your own behaviour and traits is an important first step to actively doing something about it. Another key component of anger is recognising that it is an issue to other people – that is, their anger affects others, and that this is a problem.
We call this awareness Insight. If angry person is unaware that they are angry, then they can’t do something about being angry.
Once a person is aware of their actions and recognised that their actions are affecting others, they also need to acknowledge that they are responsible for what they do and that effect on others. Dodging responsibility often goes hand in hand with statements like “look what you made me do”, or “if you hadn’t done X I wouldn’t have to do Y”, or “Why are you so upset?”
A person who has insight and takes responsibility is primed and ready to do something about their anger and how their aggressive response is impacting other people. The best solution is for the person to go to therapy and get some anger management counselling. Remember, feeling angry isn’t the problem – it is how that anger is managed that is failing.
Managing Angry People
When the angry person doesn’t recognise that they are having anger issues, or that they are responsible for managing this and the effect is has on other people, then they are not going to manage themselves. You have two options: avoid them, or manage them.
Avoiding sounds easy in principle – just leave. Get out. Get a divorce. Get a restraining order if needed. Cut the heart strings to them and get on with your life.
In practice, though, it is much harder than that.
For a start, you care about them, you care about the consequences to leaving or are scared of what will happen once you are gone. Often you love the person who isn’t angry and aren’t sure of what to do with the person who is. You keep hoping that if you wait a little bit longer, plea a little harder, try a bit more, then they will change and become that person you knew.
The reality is that if the person has no insight awareness of their anger and its consequences, then the angry person is not likely to change. If you can safely leave, it really is the best option. Call the domestic help lines, either Men’s if you are male, or women’s if you are are not. Clearly identify that you are scared of your angry partner to get put to the right channel. Each country will have their own variant of this. This opens the door for your leaving.
Sometimes it really isn’t possible to leave. When that happens, you have to manage your angry other – we will deal with those options in the next post.