“The big problem isn’t anger,” says professor Charles Carver who specializes in anger studies at the University of Miami, “it’s that it leads to action.”
In spite of his wise words, the problem does simply seem to be our anger. There presently appears to be a relentless upsurge of it, with no obvious explanation for why so many of us are so angry. But we are. From head-on road rage to Facebook rants, you can be assured that we are having a hard time managing and controlling the many faces of -irritation, displeasure, annoyance, rage, fury and ANGER!
The reason why anger is so challenging for us as humans is because of how it arises in the brain. The science behind anger suggests that it is a low-road brain process, and can literally overtake us. In fact, some can even claim that they have no memory of what happened when they were angry.
While some of our emotions like disappointment or envy can be altered with good reasoning, anger – especially the type that leads to violence – has a rapid response rate and is easily triggered. It is an amygdala-based emotional experience, that floods our body with the stress hormone cortisol and makes us alert to danger. When the amygdala is activated, its purpose is to keep us alive since it helps to process information important for our survival. Scientists believe that persons who are [prone] to anger have a hyper-active amygdala and therefore see danger where there is none.
Actually, the neuroscience of anger focuses mainly on two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex. The amygdala senses the danger and the pre-frontal cortex puts the brakes on the emotional system and any subsequent actions. These two globs help each other out. It is for this reason that when it comes to anger, if we can pause and re-frame situations that trigger us, the pre-frontal cortex has ample time to stop us in our tracks and slow us down.
Anger is not a lone emotion. When anger rears its head, it does so with a mixed bag of other emotions like disappointment, sadness, fear, disgust and surprise. By turning the heat down and cooling off, we can begin to identify the other strong underlying emotions. This simple act of taking a time out also helps our brain to shift gears away from an explosive response occurring in a primitive region, to a higher more reasoning one.
Anger management training often focuses on making this shift happen. It is where we learn to start identifying how we are feeling, what our triggers are and to look at how we can change our reactions to situations. However, there is new evidence to show that we must look beyond these tried-and-true techniques, to other methods which employ emotional transformation, anger management based on personality or the more recent Brain wave optimization.
One school of thought believes that anger should not be suppressed but transformed. Then we open ourselves up to a greater emotional range. Therefore, a negative emotion like anger can be changed by a positive emotion like contentment since the joy of contentment aids in faster cardiovascular recovery from an angry experience. The researcher Greenberg (2012) hopes that when we dampen anger with joy, we usher in the development of a wide expanse of emotions which in turn will lead to more awareness and responsibility for how we think, feel and act.
Further evidence suggests that suppression of emotions like anger, can open the floodgate to more negative emotions, greater stress and increased problems with physical health. In the long run it can lead to us becoming even more sensitive to stressful situations as well as high blood pressure and hypertension. It takes an enormous amount of mental effort to suppress one’s anger and it is often better to time out and talk it out with someone who can help with another perspective.
With the focus on violence in our society, we need to start asking the hard questions about how many of us need anger management and how many of us are ok without it. There is no shame in asking for help in order to get one’s life back on track. You should seek anger management, if and when anger has taken over your life to the point that it affects your relationships, work and overall positive mental health. When you are too often explosive and or verbally abusive to those around you in a way that it’s taking a toll on your interactions, then you need anger management. If you find yourself relying on substances such as marijuana or alcohol and the like to cope with your anger, then you are in need of anger management.
Anger, like any other emotion, is important for us to acknowledge and express. It storms through us with such intensity and force that it can not and will not be ignored. However, if it is impacting on your life in a way that is sapping your sense of joy and peace, it’s never too late to take a look at enlisting some professional help to find more constructive ways of expressing it.
Clinical Mental Health Counsellor & Expressive Arts therapist
Gaia Creative Arts Counselling