The 60-Second Anger Experiment
Can you make yourself feel angry without a thought driving it?
Posted February 2, 2020 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Let’s take a closer look at the interconnection of thoughts and feelings by performing a little thought experiment. Try this out—really.
Here’s how it works:
Take a minute to make yourself feel really angry while keeping your mind completely blank. That’s all. But your mind must be completely blank. You can move, tighten your muscles (but not so tightly that you might hurt yourself), or jump up and down (carefully), with eyes open or closed, just so long as you keep your mind a blank canvas. Ready? After reading this sentence, step away from the screen and just let yourself feel anger while keeping without thinking any thoughts or picturing any images in your mind. It’s your turn now. Let me count down, 3, 2, 1, now GO.
Were you able to do it? Really do it? Feel free to reflect. I’ve got time...
Were you truly able to feel anger, real anger, while keeping your mind blank? Were you able to hold feelings of anger for more than a passing moment? Perhaps you tried to keep your mind blank while clenching your fists the way you might if you were really angry. Or perhaps you tried to recapture the feeling by furrowing your brow, gritting your teeth and breathing heavily. Perhaps you were successful in recreating some of the physical attributes of anger. But did you really feel true anger or did it seem like you were just going through the motions of pretending to be angry? Did it seem like there was something missing?
Thoughts Trigger Emotions
What was missing, of course, were the thoughts that give rise to anger. Anger is directional; you need to be angry about something to feel angry. And having something to be angry about comes down to perceiving that someone or something (the object of your anger) provoked you or treated you badly or unfairly. Without the connecting thoughts as bridges to your emotions, the feeling simply fades away.
You might be thinking, "But I did feel angry when I clenched my fists and tightened my jaw. I wasn't thinking about anyone in particular." Yes, some sense memory of anger can be brought into awareness by recreating the physical attributes of anger. Perhaps you tried to summon anger by clenching your jaw or anxiety by shaking your hands and arms to induce a trembling state. It's doubtful, however, that you could hold a feeling of anger—or any other emotion—for very long without connecting it to a reason for feeling angry. Without an angering thought, all you’re left with are sensations that accompanying jaw clenching and hand trembling, but not a true emotion.
Let’s Try It Again, But This Time...
Now, if you permit me, let me ask you to try it again. This time, however, try to bring to mind any thought, image, or memory connected to an angering experience in your life. After reading this paragraph, try to feel angry for, say, 30 to 60 seconds using whatever means you like, short of physically harming yourself or others. You may let your mind focus on any thought, mental image, or memory, to summon feelings of anger and hold it for a few seconds. Okay, please begin—really, try this out, starting now.
... How did it go? Were you able to feel anger? Maybe not as intensely as the actual experience you brought to mind, but I expect the feeling of anger was more genuine than it was during the mind-blanking experiment. How were you able to do this time around? While not everyone can vividly recreate a strong emotion simply by focusing their imagination, I expect most readers are able to experience some degree of anger. Did your anger become more vivid when you allowed your thoughts to focus on an experience in which you felt that someone or something treated you unfairly or unjustly?
Just summoning a mental picture of an antagonist from your past might be enough to create feelings of anger. You’ll discover there’s a method actor lurking in us all, that simply thinking angering thoughts can make you feel angry, while thinking scary thoughts can make you feel fear. And yes, thinking happy thoughts can make you feel joyful for a moment. These experiences are fleeting, as manufactured experiences are mere shadows of bonafide feelings of anger, fear, or joy. Nevertheless, this thought experiment illustrates an important principle, namely that behind every disturbing emotional state lurks a triggering negative thought or thoughts.
Controlling Self-Angering Thoughts
You can control anger by changing how you handle angering situations and what you say to yourself under your breath when you feel you have been wronged. No one can make you angry (or make you feel any emotion) unless you let them. You get angry because you say angering things to yourself (“That S.O.B., I’ll show him he can’t talk to me that way!”) So all anger is really self-anger, and therein lies the potential we have to control it. We may not be able to keep people from doing stupid or angering things, but we can control how we respond to them.
By learning to control anger, you learn to regulate your bodily responses to angering situations without lashing out physically or verbally, or pumping out stress hormones during times of anger that can damage the cardiovascular system over time. Rather than getting angry and staying angry, you can assertively act to resolve confrontational or aggravating situations.
The earlier posting on this blog (scroll down on the blog), “Thoughts That Go Bump in the Mind,” lists a number of angering thought triggers. Another entry on this blog, "A Minute Therapist Guide to Managing Anger,” offers some de-angering suggestions you can put into practice in about a minute’s time. But importantly, you’ll need to identify your own thought triggers and find rational alternatives you can replace them with.
Feelings are difficult to ignore. If I ask you what you’re feeling at this moment in time, you can probably describe your feeling state without much difficulty, reporting that you are feeling sad or happy, relaxed or anxious, and so on. And yet, when we ask people who report feeling sad, angry, or joyous during the past week or so to report the thoughts they had experienced at those moments, they often draw a blank. Thoughts are fleeting things that dwell in the ever-changing present. Trying to capture one is like catching a moving target that always seems to be one step beyond our reach. Let me ask you: What were you thinking a moment ago? Hmm. I shouldn’t be surprised if you draw a blank. But next time anger bubbles up, try pulling into awareness the thought or thoughts you were having at the time. Take a moment and ask yourself, how can I change that thought?
(c) 2020 Jeffrey S. Nevid