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Anger

A Framework for Understanding Anger Arousal

A powerful tool to foster mindfulness to the experience of anger

Anger is a total mind-body experience. It is tension-filled and based on the interplay of feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions within our body. How we manage anger – our quickness to anger, the situations that trigger our anger, and how we respond to anger—are based on habit. It’s the result of our biological makeup as well as our life experiences and their combined impact on the neuron pathways in the brain. As such, cultivating healthy anger management involves adopting new habits and a commitment to practice them. Meeting this challenge begins with expanding self-awareness.

The use of anger logs has often been a part of a cognitive behavioral approach to foster such awareness, especially with regard to understanding how thoughts can impact feelings and behavior surrounding anger. More specifically, this tool has been used to help foster cognitive restructuring–learning to identify and dispute irrational or maladaptive thoughts known as cognitive distortions, such: as all-or-nothing thinking; over-generalization; and catastrophizing (Burns, 1980). Used in this manner, the log helps individuals recognize how their appraisals of a situation can play a major function in anger arousal.

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Based on my years of research and clinical practice surrounding anger management, I have developed an anger log that is far more comprehensive in focus (Golden, 2016). Completing it helps individuals increase mindfulness to all of the details of their internal landscape–thoughts, feelings and sensations–as they impact the course of anger arousal. Additionally, it helps them to identify expectations that make them vulnerable to anger and core desires that may fuel their expectations. Completing the log is intended to help individuals understand a past episode as well as provide a template for mindfulness with regard to future potentially triggering events.

Anger arousal occurs within seconds and can be overwhelming. From the moment the emotional brain registers a sense of threat, to the escalation of visceral tension, culminating with an urge to act upon it–anger arousal can be overwhelming. It can quickly hijack our capacity for more rational thought.

The framework described below is a model for recognizing the different components in the subjective experience of anger arousal. It’s a framework that offers a lens to explore the moment-to-moment trajectory of such arousal.

Source: 2017©Bernard Golden

​The anger log outlined below is based on the framework.

2017©Bernard Golden
Source: 2017©Bernard Golden

​Completing the log fosters emotional mindfulness, thought mindfulness and sensation mindfulness. The more frequently clients complete such logs, they gain understanding of a specific episode and, most importantly, become more mindful in real time when facing new potentially triggering events. Additionally, completing the logs helps them to recognize “hot buttons”, personal sensitivities that make them prone to anger. Such recognition offers an opportunity for choice rather than reaction.

I begin by presenting the following guidelines:

Recall an incident that triggered your anger and envision it as if it were on a video-recording, including all aspects of the scenario: the setting, the people involved and their behaviors. Make it as detailed as possible. This video also allows you to observe what occurred in the situation, including your inner experiences during this episode–your thoughts, feelings and body sensations.

I direct individuals using the framework to work backwards, beginning with mindfulness to the moment of anger. Clients are asked to rate their anger on a continuum in which “1” reflects slight irritation and “10” reflects the most severe, intense anger. I then support their gradually “rewinding” the “video” in an effort to identify the various components of the framework–first noting negative feelings that precede their anger.

I provide those completing the log with a list of feelings, as the task of identifying feelings is often daunting, especially when influenced by a history of denying, minimizing or ignoring them. In this manner they are helped to recognize anger as related to a threat as well as a reaction to, and distraction from, other negative feelings. I then help them to review their body reactions, inner dialogue and images that accompany such feelings including anger.

By using this framework, clients are assisted in recognizing appraisals: the meaning, implications or conclusions they form as knee-jerk thoughts immediately following the event. In doing so, they are helped to recognize cognitive distortions.

Additionally, however, a major task of anger management is distinguishing between expectations that may be realistic and those that are overly influenced by emotion–in effect, those that based predominantly on wishes and hopes. Completing the log helps individuals to understand that rigidly holding on to expectations of how others “should be”, may only contribute to their anger.

For example, it is unrealistic to expect all drivers to be courteous and cautious. It is unrealistic to expect a four-year-old to behave like an eight-year-old, even though he has the vocabulary of an eight-year-old. And, it is similarly unrealistic to expect a spouse to be on time, when a fifteen-year history would suggest otherwise.

Most importantly, this framework offers clients a way to identify key desires that may feel threatened–such as the desires for safety, trust, connection, love or respect. In this way they are helped to become more mindful to those key desires and values that are most meaningful for them.

The following is a sample of a log completed by a young woman after a conflict with her boyfriend (These are not there real names). Beth and James had been dating for almost two years. She had become increasingly concerned about his lack of commitment, reflected by his unwillingness to discuss getting married or purchasing a home together.

Bernard Golden
Source: Bernard Golden

Beth had brought the issue up several times during the past year. Each time she did so, James indicated he wasn’t quite ready to discuss the issue. She broached the issue four months after her last attempt, only to have him once again shut down. On this last occasion she became enraged, both cursing and demeaning him. She also threw a shoe at him and threatened to end the relationship.

Beth began to recognize that, while it was realistic to expect a boyfriend to engage in such a discussion, the expectation of her boyfriend was unrealistic. He was not available for a variety of reasons to discuss commitment, yet alone make one. She realized that, once again, she was quick to blame herself. This reaction further contributed to the intensity of her anger. Ultimately, Beth acknowledged, at a deeper level, her sadness and frustration that she had to end the relationship.

Completing the log requires mindfulness, taking time to sit with and explore whatever is observed to be a part of the experience. As such, I encourage individuals to complete the log when they are calm–and with an attitude of open curiosity and self-compassion. Such spaciousness allows for recognizing and making peace with how irrational the emotional mind can be. It supports expanded openness to acceptance of their humanity—including non-judgment and the acceptance of weaknesses and flaws.

Most significantly, using this log helps clients to recognize and practice using the first experience of anger as a cue to look inward, rather than outward. It is a prompt to better understand one’s own role in anger arousal and the core desires behind it.

I have also used this log with couples, in order to aid their self-awareness as well as increased empathy and compassion for each other. I suggest they individually complete a log following an episode of conflict. When encouraged to share their logs, they are often startled by the responses. Quite often partners respond comments such as “I had no idea you felt that way!” “That’s what you expected?” and “It was not at all my intention to hurt you!”

Completing a log shines a spotlight on the internal landscape of experience. Coupled with other strategies that include relaxation exercises, mindfulness and mindfulness meditation and skills in compassion, it is a model for directing attention inward to sit with and become self-soothing during the moment of anger arousal. Completing this log offers increased wisdom and supports nonidenfication and compassion as it frees individuals to respond rather than react to their anger.

D. Burns, (1980) Feeling Good. New York: HarperCollins

B. Golden, (2016) Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work. Balimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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