It seems like a day does not pass where there are not several news reports about people losing their tempers and, as a result, suffering serious consequences. Society appears to be becoming less tolerant of aggressive behavior as evidenced by changes in workplace and school policies regarding personal behavior. Is it possible society is setting up conditions that encourage denial of angry feelings by disowning angry parts of self which are an integral aspect of one’s identity? If so, would such a disavowal of identity escalate angry feelings? Dr. Richard Pfeiffer, a founder of the National Anger Management Association, asserts people will have to engage the disowned parts of themselves or it will engage them “in some very unpleasant ways.” (Pfeiffer, 2012, p. 60) More so than at the turn of the decade, the desire of people to punish, get even, or hurt when provoked seems to be escalating. Simply stated, people seem to be getting angrier and to be less inclined to refrain from acting on impulse. Part of the escalation of aggressive behavior may result from the tendency of people to treat anger differently than they do other emotions, or not to recognize that anger, in and of itself, is neither bad nor good. It is simply an emotion like any other emotion.
Sometimes provoking situations appear to warrant immediate action only to result in legal or disciplinary measures when acted on. Even laws like Stand Your Ground lend confusion to the matter. Parents also are challenged by zero tolerance school policies. They may feel caught in a double bind when their children are bullied at school and sometimes think they can do little more than warn their children, “Don’t hit back. You are the one who will get caught and get in trouble.” Not infrequently, the child retaliates and is the one whose actions were observed, interpreted as aggressive rather than protective, and then is given consequences for the inappropriate reaction. How does a child process being disciplined or punished for her survival response to defend herself? Most of the time, she cannot because rules and guidelines that work well on paper often do not account for inequities encountered in daily living. Children need the guidance of a mature adult to help them develop an appropriate and healthy understanding of how to manage their thoughts, feelings, and actions in the face of social inequities. They simply do not have the wisdom or experience needed to sort through feelings such as anger that are part of a well-ingrained survival skill meant to defend against threat of harm.
Anger and the Brain
As part of a social group, angry behavior tends tobe frowned on. Yet, it is human nature to want to defend or retaliate for perceived acts of aggression, whether such assaults are physical or emotional. The desire to retaliate, punish, or get even arises from a less evolved area of the brain, called the primitive brain that functions on impulse and instinct. (Pfeiffer, 2012, p. 16) This is an area of the brain that houses structures comprising the limbic system. The limbic system functions to enhance survival through recall of sensations and memories associated with pleasure and pain. It does not reason with words and logic. It does, however, understand physiological and sensory messages. The limbic system codes certain sensations as pleasurable and others as unpleasurable. It encodes situations and people as helpful or unhelpful based on previous experiences. The limbic system is responsible for initiating a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals as it calls the body into action when danger is perceived. Anger is a helpful emotion for protecting against danger and getting needs met. As such, one might say anger serves as an effective early warning system (Pfeiffer, 2012, p. 17) that can contribute to proactive conflict resolution. A proactive approach occurs when anger cues are integrated with the more highly evolved brain functions of logic, reasoning, values, and understanding to resolve issues prior to their escalation to conflict. Ignoring problematic situations increases the probability of reactive behavior and tends to short circuit opportunities requiring higher ordered brain functions. A mindful application of skills reduces the probability of physiological reactivity which inhibits a thoughtful response. This is the function of anger management training – provision of effective anger management skills, not the elimination of anger.
Who would have thought the sage advice touted by parents and grandparents “to take a deep breath and count to ten” when feeling provoked is relevant to the practice of anger management, and is borne out by scientific research? One possible reason for the beneficial strategy of pausing and breathing before responding may be found in studies of brain function. Regarding the role of the amygdala and anger, Pfeiffer wrote about research conducted by Joseph LeDoux who found that the information collected and transmitted to the brain splits into two streams of data. The stream directed to the amygdala transmits nearly twice as quickly as the stream of data directed to the cortex, 12 milliseconds and 25 milliseconds, respectively. (as cited in LeDoux, 2012) In short, LeDoux’s research found that the amygdala, a less evolved brain structure in the limbic system, receives fewer cues (less information) from the environment but at a faster speed than more evolved areas of the brain responsible for reason and logic. (as cited in LeDoux 2012) It appears that by following grandmother’s advice of counting to ten before acting, the more evolved brain has a better shot at interpreting incoming signals from the five senses in the context of the situation at hand. This provides more of an opportunity for a responsive decision based a culmination of the information at hand, knowledge from previous experiences, and projected outcomes for long term success.
Healthy and Unhealthy Anger
When appropriately managed, anger provides energy and motivates people to change themselves or to address social injustices. It is apparent that anger, healthy anger, is at the root of positive social changes. It bears an instrumental role in the founding of this nation. Without some degree of anger about the disrespectful behaviors people exhibit towards each other, would there be a need for laws and rules, a need for courts, a need for defense against genocide, or a need for ethical codes? Yet, the pages of history are replete with names of people who felt healthy anger and then worked towards helping society change, names like Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai. How could they not have been angered by the injustices against which they advocated? Each had the opportunity to allow their feelings to go unchecked, but each chose to walk a different path that eventually garnered the attention and respect of governments and nations culminating in prosocial change. They were not perfect, but they were like proverbial mustard seeds who moved mountains. They allowed their anger to motivate and energize them to change their world.
Although Malala Yousafzai came to the world stage at a young age, she learned to manage angry feelings and resolve conflicts in a healthy manner early in her life. The manner by which Malala learned to live life is similar to the manner by which most people learn how to live life, even people who have anger management problems. People learn how to manage their environment, to resolve conflict, and to manage angry feelings from their parents or their primary caregiver. If parents are unable to model healthy anger management skills, irrespective of the reason, their children often struggle with resolving conflict and managing angry feelings. The lack of appropriate social skills to get our needs met tends to compound angry feelings, which may be managed in one of two ways, stuffing or escalating (Pfeiffer, 2012, p. 4).
Pinpointing examples of people who exhibited a tendency to escalate their anger is relatively simple. Charlie Sheen, Chris Rock, Mel Gibson are just a few celebrities who have been identified in news and the media as having difficulty managing their anger appropriately. Rosie O’Donnell is another celebrity identified as having anger management problems later attributed to a hormonal imbalance (Macatee, 2011), a call to take note that emotions are influenced by health. Perhaps one of the most damaging aspects of reports about celebrity aggression is how it seems to sensationalize the negative aspects of anger while neglecting equal coverage on the benefits resulting from well managed anger. Aside from illness, other factors may contribute to angry feelings. These include financial issues, work or family pressures and stresses, relationship issues, conflict or confusion over spiritual/values, lack of assertiveness skills, personal history, genetic influences, and victimization whether physically or socially. While it helps to understand the reason for inappropriate behavior, seeking treatment for the underlying causes is responsible healthy behavior.
Through anger management training people learn to recognize and become aware of their anger cues as well as the intensity of stress, irritation, and frustration. They also address the unresolved pain contributing to their anger, as anger tends to anesthetize painful feelings and provides an illusion of control, power, and strength. Examples of situations that may benefit from anger management therapy include the mother who yells at her young child, the man who ridicules his spouse, the adolescent who shuts down and stonewalls his parents. Each of these people have unmet needs – and likely feels angry. Scenarios are plentiful of how angry feelings may explode when needs are perceived as being disregarded and unmet. The need to be respected is a common complaint of an unmet need verbalized by men who feel angry. Women often complain about feeling unheard in their relationships, also an unmet need. The shutdown adolescent may be experiencing multiple conflicts but does not have the skills needed to open a dialog with his parents and assertively express his needs. Underlying these disregarded needs may be numerous false beliefs arising out of painful past experiences and feelings of shame developed early in life. These feelings of anger may vary in intensity, from mild irritation or annoyance to more intense frustration or rage depending on the nature of the unmet need and the presence of a painful history around the need. While no two people experience anger exactly the same way, some people with anger management problems say they go from a calm state to a state of rage instantaneously. Even though it feels instantaneous, this simply does not happen and is usually related to a lack of awareness of building physiological tensions, called anger cues. Through anger management therapy, people learn skills to identify their physiological anger signals, to manage stress and reduce feelings of victimization, to improve a sense of personal empowerment through processing painful feelings of shame, to improve thinking skills and assertive communications skills, to improve conflict resolutions skills, and to suspend judgments, criticisms, and control. Anger management therapy teaches people basic mindfulness skills to manage sensory bombardment and to improve the quality of their thoughts. Regardless of the issues underlying one’s anger, Dr. Pfeiffer emphasizes the more important issue is to see the big picture and to consider how the needs of all parties might be accommodated. (Pfeiffer, 2012, p. 25)
MacAtee, R. (2011, Sep 7). Rosie O’Donnell: How hormone injections saved my life. US Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-body/news/rosie-odonnell-how-hormone-injections-changed-my-life-201179
LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self: How our brains become who we are. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.
Pfeiffer, R. (2012). Anger management workbook and curriculum: Evidence-based and clinically proven practices. Tucson, AZ: Growth Publishing.