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. 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 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. Lowering stress levels, and then practicing both calming techniques 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. We all have a part of us that needs our attention.
• Awareness of the feeling of anger in your body, before it is overwhelming. Where do you feel it? Awareness includes mindfulness: building a relationship with one’s feelings, thoughts, and sensations in an accepting, curious and compassionate way versus fearing them. Where did they come from? What are they there for?
• 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, 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 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 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 a power struggle. 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 it.
Improving response to triggers uses stress reduction techniques, calming techniques and self-talk to reduce perception of threat. Before anger, create a reminder for yourself to use self-talk when angry.
- Don’t do anything right now.
- Keep your breathing even.
- Is it worth it?
- Anger is a huge energy drain.
- This too shall pass. Will this make a difference tomorrow?
- What am I really afraid of?
- How can I understand and care about my needs?
- How can I understand and care about the other person?
- What are my options?
The brain uses mirror neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex to develop empathy, which is the opposite of anger. Anger is about your needs, empathy is about the other person’s needs. There can be a balance between the two. By developing the part of the brain that is able to integrate multiple points of view we are able to go online with other brains. Our brains are designed to be social. We can upset each other and we can calm each other. Empathy absorbs tension. 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.
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.
Further information can also be found in the book “What’s Good about Anger?” by Lynette J. Hoy and Ted Griffin, or through an anger coach.