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 quickly justify your perception and actions. When you feel calmer you may be regretful.
Now that we can peer inside the activity of a brain we know a lot more how it works. 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, before we can even realize it (at 1/2 of a second), sub-consciously pre-directing our 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 your behavior and words on others, switch gears, see options and other points of view, and accelerate toward appropriate course of action. Creativity, humor, empathy, logic, and memory is compromised.
Over time, the brain selects memories that are the most intense as a guide for future action. So, over time, events colored by anger and fear distorts accurate recall and may inaccurately predict the future. You may be perceiving threat when there is no threat. This is commonly called a trigger and it leads to anxiety. In fact, anxiety attacks can be contribute to temper loss.
Other causes of an angry brain include neurotransmitters, hormones, epigenetics including family and cultural training, and brain injury. (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. Lowering stress levels, practicing calming techniques before getting angry, and responding to triggers differently is crucial.
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.”
Another way to reduce stress is calming techniques which require repeated practice. Anxiety can fuel anger.
• Awareness of the feeling of anger in your body, before it is overwhelming. Once it is overwhelming, often you just have to wait it out until it subsides. Are you able to stop and think about it? Could anger be protecting you from other feelings, like fear, helplessness, or sadness? Can you trust you could handle these emotions without anger? Self-awareness includes mindfulness: building a relationship with one’s feelings, thoughts, and sensations and responding to them in an accepting, curious and compassionate way.
• Breathing techniques include belly breathing, deep breathing using your diaphragm. Many do not realize they 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. Breathe 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. Just notice what you think about when your mind wanders and gently come back to your senses. Sounds include music or relaxing sounds. For sight, pictures, moving objects or toys can be used. For touch, objects or toys of different textures can be used, a change of clothes, a blanket, or a 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 express anger in non-destructive ways. Exercise or other activity can put the adrenaline to good use and a by-product is carbon dioxide.
In addition to reducing stress, triggers need to be identified. Triggers are identified by an external event along with your interpretation of that event as a possible threat. 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 may help reduce triggers. A second common component of triggers is that triggers are seen as preventable, therefore change can be demanded. If expectations are demanded they can create a power struggle. The last common feature of a trigger occurs in the perception of threat. Triggers may be a magnification of threat, making it worse that it really is, or a minimization of your ability to handle it.
How can you respond to triggers?
Is it worth it?
This too shall pass.
Don’t respond right now.
Keep your breathing even.
Anger is a huge energy drain.
Anger is most problematic in relationships. Four common styles of anger in relationships include chronic anger, the adrenaline drunk, the pleaser, and the avoider. The first two are more aggressive, and the second two are more passive-aggressive. Chronic anger is known for a readiness for a fight, looking out for number one, injunctives to get out of my face and out of my space, and they want to get even. Being adrenaline drunk additionally compromises the brains ability to use empathy, creativity, humor, logic and memory. Pleasers have difficulty saying “no” and sticking up for themselves. Resentment builds over time. An avoidant style puts up a wall in relationships to avoid conflict. Fearing that things could get worse, emotions are avoided.
Blame is an essential component of anger. We blame others or we blame ourselves. Empathy on the other hand creates a connection between two people. The brain uses mirror neurons to develop empathy. Empathy is about someone else’s needs, and anger is about your needs. Too much empathy and you can get run over, and too much anger and you do the running over. In any event, abusive relationships should not be given empathy or tolerated.
I can summarize how to minimize anger by referring to the five universal truths of human interaction according to The book Verbal Judo by George Thompson and Jerry Jenkins.
1. All people want to be treated with respect.
2. All people want to be asked rather than told to do something.
3. All people want to be informed as to why they are being asked or ordered to do something.
4. All people want options rather than threats.
5. Finally, people want a second chance when they make a mistake.
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