By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
One person put it this way, “You know the feeling, the rush when you feel taller than a mountain and stronger than superman, every single muscle and nerve is on red alert, you tingle all over and you believe that you could take on the whole Green Bay Packers team and win!” (Carole J. Thompson). Adrenaline in your brain triggers a cascade of biochemical reactions and natural opioids in the brain. Adults and kids feel the rush and the power of a fight, either verbal or physical. In this state you can feel powerful, and justify anything. Someone else is always to blame. You may know you have a problem, but cannot resist it. In between binges of verbal or physical aggression you may apologize and promise it will never happen again, but it does.
Now that we can peer inside the activity of a brain we know a lot more how it works, though research is just scratching the surface. Without naming parts of the brain and their functions, I will quote one summary of the brain: “Think of the brain as a survival machine, and anger as a survival enhancing emotion” (Ron Potter-Efron, in a 2012 lecture). This means the brain uses emotions to enhance survival and prepare for threats. Fear and anger run along the same pathways in the brain, also known as the fight or flight autonomic nervous system, or sympathetic nervous system. Our brain can generate instant energy in 1/20th of a second, far before we can even realize it (at 1/2 of a second), sub-consciously pre-directing our behavior. Anger is an emotion it produces. Aggression, however is defined as a behavior.
Before you even feel anger, signals in your brain prepare your muscles for instant actions, and then a flood of stress hormones trigger instant responses in your body. Heart rate and blood pressure increases, airways in the lungs expand, and blood flows away from the digestive system. Fight or flight, the sympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest and digest system.
Furthermore, the process of an adrenaline rush instantly overrides the conscious part of our brain that is able to put on the brakes, see the impact of one’s behavior and words on others, switch gears, see options and other points of view, and accelerate toward appropriate course of action. It also disrupts short-term memory. Emotions are feedback, and emotions fueled by stress hormones are intensified leading to a perceived need for instant accelerated action.
Over time, the brain selects memories that are the most intense as a guide for future action. So, over time, events colored by anger distorts accurate recall and may inaccurately predict the future. You may think you are perceiving threat where there is no threat. Defensiveness becomes automatic. Over time your brain becomes wired for anger, both attack and defense.
Other causes of an angry brain include neurotransmitters, hormones, epigenetics, brain injury and family and cultural training (Ron Potter-Efron, 2012). Anger and stress hormones are related to lowered immunity, cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, cancer, pain, and substance use. Contributing factors can include ADHD, depression, anxiety, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, substance use, fatigue, low blood sugar, hyperthyroidism and other medical conditions.
Since anger is associated with perceived threat researchers have found that a sense of safety is the best anger inhibitor. Creating a sense of safety involves a number of strategies. The process of anger starts before we realize it, so we can’t stop it, but we can work on prevention, identifying and rethinking triggers and slowing down our reactions. If we can slow it down enough, we can “press pause” and engage the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain that allows us to “fast-forward” in our mind to foresee the outcome of our behavior and better options. We can’t do this unless we have already put on the brakes of our sympathetic nervous system and be able to switch gears. All of these actions can be attributed to different parts of the brain.
Starting with prevention, we can identify sources of stress and triggers. Sources of stress are too many to list, but often are associated with pressure and conflict at home, academic or work pressures, unknown medical, diet and sleep issues, sensory issues, history of trauma and abuse, loss, mood disorders, anxiety, attention-deficits, and substance use. Reducing these stressors and effective coping strategies may be the most important step in reducing anger and aggression. It is stabilizing for an individual to have their own sense of accomplishment, connection to others, enjoyment, and self-care, memorialized by the acronym “ACES.”
Next, once anger is triggered, we need something to slow it down. What calms you down? Each of the following ideas will not work at first and will take practice. When angry, practice refocusing each time your mind wanders away, to one or more of the following:
• Awareness of the feeling of anger in your body, before it is too late. Where do you feel it? Awareness includes mindfulness: awareness of one’s feelings, thoughts, and sensations without reacting or judging them. With practice, strong feelings, thoughts and sensations will not alarm you. This can bring peace of mind.
• Breathing techniques include belly breathing, deep breathing using your diaphragm. Many do not realize they the hyperventilate, which leads to emotional reactivity, insufficient carbon dioxide, and a higher pH level in the blood. To lessen the intake of oxygen and balance with carbon dioxide, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. Breath out slower than you breath in. Your stomach should extend, not your chest. For kids, you can also use balloons, bubbles, or “hot cocoa breathing” (pretending to smell hot chocolate and gently blowing it so that it cools).
• Calming Techniques employ the five senses to relax the body. Sounds include music or relaxing sounds. For sight, pictures, moving objects or toys can be used. Did you ever stare at something beautiful and became mesmerized by it? For touch, objects or toys of different textures can be used, or a shower or bath (with lavender). Tastes include favorite flavors and textures (sweet, crunchy, spicy, and sour). Even focusing on pleasurable scents can be relaxing.
• Distraction Techniques are anything that effectively holds your attention for some time until the adrenaline can metabolize. Walking or counting backwards seems especially helpful, drawing blood flow away from the brain’s alarm system.
• Expression Techniques is expressing anger appropriate to your desired outcome. One example may be to state “I feel ___ when you ___. Would you___?” Exercise or other activity can put the adrenaline to good use.
One way to test whether or not you are calm is the following “prefrontal cortex” test. This part of the brain helps put on the brakes, see options and select a new behavior. Becoming calm and thinking clearly can take up to a half hour, unless you are re-firing the anger and stress hormones by ruminating on the problem.
• Can I see the consequences of my actions?
• Can I challenge my thinking?
• Can I think of multiple ways to solve the problem or am I stuck on my way or no way?
In addition to prevention, triggers need to be identified. It may be possible just to avoid a trigger, but if not, new habitual thinking patterns need practice. Triggers are identified by an external event along with your interpretation of that event. Triggers are perceived as unexpected, preventable, and intentional. Events that run counter to our expectations turn into triggers. If you expect to be stalled by a traffic light, chances are you will not be triggered. However, if you do not expect to be cut off in traffic, you may be triggered. So adjusting expectations to ones that are more realistic may help reduce triggers. A second common component of triggers is that triggers are seen as preventable, therefore change can be demanded. This involves a belief about right or wrong, some form of a “should”. Right or wrong does exist, but if expectations are demanded they can create resistance in others. The last common feature of a trigger occurs in the perception of threat. This thinking process of turning events into triggers may be a magnification of threat, making it worse that it really is, or result in minimization of your ability to handle the threat without anger.
This thought-process needs attention. Our expectations, demands and perceptions of threat may need to be reconsidered. We can ask ourselves:
• Are my expectations realistic?
• Am I making demands?
• Am I making the threat worse than it is?
Triggered thoughts can be altered. We can change our expectations, we don’t have to make demands, and we can challenge the idea that we are doomed. If we are being threatened, we need to respond with strategy based on our desired outcomes. Write down your desired outcome, make sure it is realistic, and then list behavior and thoughts that contributes to the desired outcome and cross out behavior that detracts from it. If kids have the ability, they can do this.
Now, we can employ the “anterior cingulate cortex” test. This part of the brain uses mirror neurons to develop empathy, which is the antidote to selfishness. (Have you ever noticed that anger if often about your needs not being met?) Empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels. By developing the part of the brain that is able to integrate multiple points of view we are able to go on-line with other brains. Our brains are designed to be social. We can calm another brain with our calm brain. Empathy absorbs tension. (Of course, the opposite can also happen.) We can also use multiple points of view to solve problems instead of just trying focusing on our own needs. There is no cure for anger without empathy.
“Verbal Judo” is written by George J. Thompson and Jerry B. Jenkins. It is written by a police officer to train police officers to use the power of empathy to move with an opponent instead of direct opposition (as in the use of arguments). It then redirects energy toward the benefits of positive behavior or costs of negative behavior.
The goal of verbal judo is to create an ease with confrontation, without triggering the fight or flight system. It depends on one’s ability to read an opponent and redirect aggression. It bends rather than breaks. Thompson writes, “If an opponent upsets you, he or she owns you.” “When you react, you’re being controlled.” “Never use words that rise steadily to your lips, or you’ll make the greatest speech you’ll ever live to regret.” “The inner voice is almost always negative.” As the Confucian philosopher Sun-tzu put it: “To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill.”
Verbal judo techniques do not personalize attacks. For example, “Man throws spear at head, move head.” They ignore insults and springboard over them, i. e. “I appreciate that . . .”, or “I understand that . . .” or “Let me be sure I heard what you just said.” An opponent listens most when someone is explaining his own point of view. Another tactic harnesses an opponent by asking questions instead of criticizing. Respect means treating others how you want to be treated.
To move up the ranks in verbal judo requires insight. Old samurai used to say that if you don’t know yourself, you lose 100 percent of the time. To be prepared, know your buttons. Arguing and appearing defensive will only make your opponent believe he or she is right. What you are saying is almost irrelevant to body language and voice tone: slower and lower.
Self-talk is required when first learning the techniques. Here are some examples:
- Use reminders to use self-talk.
- Keep your breathing even.
- Is it worth it?
- Anger is a huge energy drain.
- This too shall pass. Will it make a difference in an hour, a day or a week?
- Acknowledge the other’s point. Don’t focus on right/wrong. Focus on needs.
- Explore options. Ask for what you want instead of arguing for it. Set boundaries on what you are not willing to do followed by what you are willing to do. Meet in the middle.
- If there is nothing you can do now, don’t react to the adrenaline. Say that you will think about it and come back to it later.
“CPR” for Relationship-Building
Calm first before problem-solving.
• Increase the amount of calm time spent together.
• Create routine and warn about transitions ahead of time.
• Expectations should not be too high. Take it step by step.
Practice the Positive.
• Positive interactions need to outweigh negative interactions.
• Spend time, talk, and show affection.
• Describe their accomplishments throughout the day.
Reinforce for Long-Term Results
• Negative reactions are powerful reinforcers of negative behavior.
• Long-term disadvantages exist for using fear, threats, and isolation.
• Make the right behavior get better results for each person.
Two additional forms of anger that I did not directly address is resentment and rage. Resentment comes from a passive-aggressive wall of anger built brick by brick. Taking down the wall takes time proportionate to the time it took to build the wall. It involves understanding of the hurt behind the wall, expression of remorse and dedication to rebuilding trust and a sense of safety. Rage involves a loss of conscious awareness of one’s behavior for a couple of minutes up to a couple of hours. That means there is an inability to explain what happened. One that rages is like an alcoholic. Too much alcohol and you “black out.” The key is to control the drinking at earlier stages in the game. So it is with rage.
Prepare- reduce stress, know your triggers, use self-talk
Pause – increase ability to stop your own reaction
Paraphrase – feel what the other person is feeling
Propose – “We need to sound as if we care, keep our egos out of it, sound as if we care, and present options that will have a powerful influence” (George Thompson).
Further information can also be found in the book “What’s Good about Anger?” by Lynette J. Hoy and Ted Griffin.