What's All the Anger About?

Taking the first step toward healthy anger

Posted Jul 19, 2016

What’s All the Anger About?

“Breaking News” screaming at us from cable stations, our daily newspapers’ headlines, blogs and comments on social media–all reveal the many faces of anger. Warriors’ basketball player, Dreymond Green, is arrested for assaulting a fan at a bar; fights develop amongst an angry electorate supporting competing candidates; and the tragedies such as those in Orlando and Baton Rouge are just a few examples of such anger.

In an effort to make sense of such news, we reflexively ask, “What’s all the anger about?” We search for a backstory to understand the context and meaning of such events, perhaps to prevent them in the future or just to assure ourselves that they are not random. And while the question is useful to expand our understanding of others, truly impacting our collective anger requires that we first ask it of ourselves. In effect, we can overcome destructive anger when we use our first awareness of our anger as a signal to direct attention inward and ask ourselves “What’s all the anger about?”

Learning to pause and reflect on anger, rather than reacting to our anger, is the greatest challenge we face: as individuals, as groups and as a nation. Whether or not we contribute to “acting out” anger, individually or collectively, depends on our shared capacity to cultivate this ability to pause, sit with, self-soothe and reflect on the true meaning our anger.

We know that anger is a powerful and challenging emotion, an all-encompassing mind-body experience that is tension-filled and based on the interplay of feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions within our body. How we manage our anger–our quickness to anger, the situations that trigger our anger, and how we respond to anger–becomes habit. It’s the result of our biological makeup as well as our life experiences and their combined impact on the neuron pathways in your brain.

Anger arises out of perceived threat. It is also a reaction to and a distraction from some form of inner pain, feelings that may include fear, shame, anxiety and powerlessness. My many years of clinical practice have led me to the understanding that anger originates as an act of self-compassion, an urge to alleviate inner pain. When our emotional pain is informed by self-reflection, it is possible to respond with “healthy anger,” but when we are not self-aware or do not have self-compassion our anger becomes destructive. Destructive anger can lead to poor work performance, a stalled career, relational conflict, social isolation, substance abuse, depression, and excessive guilt or shame, as well as heart disease and high blood pressure.

“Healthy anger” calls for reflection rather than a knee-jerk reaction, especially when distinguishing real and immediate threats from those that are not. When pausing we can ask ourselves: Is my conclusion accurate? How realistic are my expectations with regards to the person or situation?  Are my personal “hot buttons” contributing to my reaction?  What inner pain am I experiencing–in my emotions, thoughts and physical sensations–that may be pushing me into anger? What key desires do I feel are being challenged or thwarted–such as my desire for security, connection, or recognition? And, perhaps most importantly, how might I constructively make use of my anger? Only by pausing can we more fully recognize that our anger tells us more about ourselves than it does about the person or situation that has contributed to our anger.

“Healthy anger” entails reasoning firmly rooted in our rational brain rather than relying on our “child logic,” thinking overly influenced by our emotional brain. Without such reflection we become subject to the “old brain,” that part of the brain responsible for alerting us to “fight or flight”.

As revealed in recent years, the good news is that we can alter our habits. We can literally impact our brain’s structure when we repeatedly engage in new habits. Doing so increases the number and strength of connections of our neuronal pathways regarding our thinking, feeling or behaving and, ultimately, increases the likelihood that we respond in these new ways.              

Anger itself leads to narrowing our perception, paying attention to some details of what we observe and neglecting others.  And every time this occurs, we become even more likely to look through this lens when facing new, potentially anger-triggering events. During moments of anger aroused in personal relationships we may attend only to anger as we momentarily ignore the bigger picture.  Similarly, through this process we can easily become polarized in our thoughts and actions regarding others, whether in regard to their ethnicity, race, religion or political beliefs.  We rely on minimal information to convince ourselves we fully know them. Invariably, the more frequent and intense our anger, the less we engage our rational minds to solve the challenges that we face–and the less available we become to see the uniqueness of each individual. It is through this lens that we can easily demonize others and cultivate hate rather than compassion.  

It is often easier for some of us to cultivate anger and hate rather than compassion, especially when we have long-standing wounds that we may not have fully grieved. We may find it easier to be angry than to fully acknowledge and accept the inner pain resulting from such wounds. Maintaining this perspective often leads to the belief that personality is fixed and that “I am who I am.” Similarly, it is associated with the view that man is inherently aggressive. This view, however, neglects the fact that we also have the capacity for connection and cooperation, and the compassion on which both of these actions are built.

Efforts to better understand our anger call for cultivating compassion, in our thoughts and actions, with others and ourselves.  We require this as individuals, as groups and as a nation if we are to thrive.  So I was delighted to read, this past week, that the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, took a bold step in identifying mental and emotional well being as a priority of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The site lists the following recommendations:

1. Promote positive early childhood development, including positive parenting and violence-free homes,

2. Facilitate social connectedness and community engagement across the lifespan,

3. Provide individuals and families with the support necessary to maintain positive mental well-being, and

4. Promote early identification of mental health needs and access to quality services.

Meeting these objectives can have a very direct influence on how we view and manage anger. So it is quite remarkable that these recommendations are elevated in importance to healthy eating and active living as priorities for our national concern. Most importantly, Dr. Murthy identifies very specific strategies to help achieve these objectives, actions that can be initiated by government, businesses and employers, healthcare systems including clinicians, educational services from early learning centers through colleges, the community, non-profit and faith-based organizations, individuals and families.

We need to recognize not only the emotional, but also the health and financial costs of not helping individuals to develop an increased capacity to respond to anger rather than react to it. We need to instill within ourselves the capacity to ask “What’s all the anger about?” as our first response to our own anger.

This is my first blog. In future blogs I’ll discuss specific strategies and understanding that support and encourage the practice of “Healthy anger”

References:

Kandel, E. (2007). In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind.New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing Mind New York: Guilford Press

http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/priorities/prevention/strategy/mental-and-...

Bernard Golden, PhD, is the author of Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016) and Healthy Anger: How to Help Children and Teens Manage Their Anger (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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