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.
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
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?
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.
Feel -> Inbuilt recommended action -> Reaction
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.
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.