Anger Management – Part 3

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.

Part 1 [Link] looked at what anger is for.

Part 2 [Link] looked at the responses to anger.

Now we are going to delve into what you can do about your own anger.

In another post series [link], we looked at helping someone else with their anger.

Managing 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.

Managing anger comes in four parts

  • Assessing your anger
  • Making a choice
  • Calming down so you can act
  • Recovering from anger

Assessing

Anger exists in a gradation of levels:

Annoyance -> Frustration -> Angry -> Ropeable -> Enraged

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?

Angry looking eyes
How angry are you?

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:

Vertical red bars on a background of spiral black lines make the red bars look bent even though they are straight
Which are the most bent red bars?

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.

Red button with don't push me written on it
Resisting temptation

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.

Feel -> Inbuilt recommended action -> Reaction

versus

Feel -> Inbuilt recommended action -> Pause (Assessment & Plan) -> Action

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.

Calming Down

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.

Text written under a crown that says keep calm and carry on
Keeping calm is the objective, but we need to learn how to calm down first

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.

Dog rearing up in surprise at an angry cat indicating flight or fight response
Flight and Fight Response – what to do?

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.

Dilated Pupil
Pupil Dilation

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.

Defusing

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.

Breathing.

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.

Excellent.

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.

Woman diving into water
Diving into water prompts you to hold your breath – we can use this

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.

Drinking Water

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.

Person drinking water from a bottle
Slowly drinking water resets the breathing pattern

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.

Disruption

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.

Distraction

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.

Redirection

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.

Exit sign
Exiting a situation is sometimes the smart move

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.

Conclusion

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 Management – Part 2

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.

A series of responses to anger
Understanding the Anger Responses

Passive

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 - Dog submitting to the more powerful wolf
Passive – Dog submitting to the more powerful wolf

Passive Aggressive

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.

Sabotage

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.

Wooden shoe called sabot, the origin of the word sabotage
Sabot – a wooden shoe. The origin of the word “Sabotage” from “saboter” – to walk noisily, to make damage.

Transfer

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.

Scared child
Transferred anger – Sometimes we miss the harm we do

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.

Debrief

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.

Two people talking
Talking can be useful – to vent, to solve, to get help

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.

Self Harm

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.

Drug Paraphernalia
Self harm – substance abuse

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.

Assertive

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.

Businessman closing powerful fist
Being Firm – Personal power helps being assertive, be confident with what you are and can do

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

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.

Fists
Aggression is the use or threat of violence to force your agenda forwards

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.

Posturing

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.

Woman standing with hands on hips, showing domination
Powerful stance postures dominance

If this bit is done successfully, the fight is over before it begins and you won.

Vocal Threats

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.

Broken plates and cups
Local destruction and noise can scare the danger away

Violence

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.

Bengal tiger fight
Bengal tiger fight

Indirect Threats

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.

It isn’t.

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.

Next time

In the next article [link], we will look at what you can do to manage how you feel.

Anger Management – Part 1

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).

We have looked at how to help an angry person (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

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.

Understanding Anger

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.

Angry child's face
Anger

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.

Powerlessness

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.

Man standing in front of tanks in Tienanmen Square - a depiction of power
Man vs Tank – an interesting depiction of power

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.

Culture

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.

Person being handed a phone, list, pen and writing pad indicating stress
Too many stressors

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.

Disgust expression then triggers anger
Disgust can often trigger 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.