Violent and uncontrolled expressions of anger are some of the most threatening emotional, social and cultural issues plaguing our society. One of the especially frustrating aspects of anger is its explosive nature which may erupt without warning.
Fortunately, understanding some basic facts about the neuro-physiology and psychological functions of anger can help one to gain control over it.
To begin, anger erupts in a person when an expectation is frustrated or a threat or unfair treatment is perceived. Anger begins in a primitive part of the brain called the amygdale whose instinctive functions relate solely to procreation and survival, i.e. sex and aggression. Anger is a protective emotion designed to enhance our survival. Along with fear , anger is the other emotional reaction which, in a stressful situation, triggers either the fight or flight responses.
It is important to understand that, psychologically, the anger response is a secondary reaction stimulated by fear. The psychological function of anger is to to provide a sense of power and control to the person who feels overwhelmed and powerless over a threatening situation. When a person feels frustrated or panicked , they often feel small and inadequate to deal with an immediate stressor. Thus, the experience of anger gives the illusion of being powerful and more in control. For example, consider some of the common things people do when they are angry: They raise their voices to make themselves feel bigger and they make cutting remarks to make the other person look smaller.
A key factor in controling anger is increasing awareness of what is socially and morally permissible in a given situation. Learning to control one’s anger begins with realizing that not all situations are the same when it comes to anger. For example, if I’m working by myself and I accidently make a mess by spilling a bucket of paint, it’s okay to let loose with a swear word or two. In other situations involving other people, however, a more reasoned response is necessary.
Being able to imagine and reflect upon the likely consequences of inappropriate behavior before actually acting out can result in blocking most regrettable actions. As we have discussed before in other places, the initial anger impulse comes from the amygdale which has no sense of empathy or concern about consequence. Further, when a stress reaction generated from the amygdala is triggered, access to the cortex, the thinking part of our brain blocked. In that moment, we are unable to think or reason or imagine the consequences of our behavior or its impact on others. Our only concern is protecting our selves. There is no empathy in the amygdale.
In moments of distress when one feels out of control, it is important to regain some sense of control. Since our breathing is something we can always control, employing intentional, diaphragmatic breathing is a way to regain a sense of control, to calm the immediate panic and to restore access to the cortex. Therefore, first connecting with the cortex, is essential to responding reasonably and with empathy toward others.
Although it takes practice, a helpful skill to acquire to control the raw acting out of anger feelings is to delay the urge to immediately discharge the impulse . Using the mental image of a Tupperware container , along with breathing exercises, is an effective way to defer the immediate and unfiltered release of anger impulses and to allow time for a more reasonable response to be made .
Basically, the Tupperware technique goes like this: Metaphorically speaking, when a stressful or disappointing situation occurs and anger is felt, the first response must be to take the situation’s emotions, impulses and all and put them in a Tupperware container, “burp” it to keep it fresh and then put it some place safe.
After breathing and restoring access to your reasonable brain and when you have the time to, in a relaxed way, you can pick up the piece of Tupperware, open and calmly examine it, knowing that nothing about the experience has been lost or corrupted . From this composed perspective, you can think about both why you became so upset and what options are available for you to pursue.
Simply realizing that, in most instances, the alarm sounded by the amygdale is exaggerated and misleading, helps one to understand that angry urges do not have to be acted upon immediately. In fact, with practice, one will recognize that, by waiting until one has cooled down and has had time to reflect on and think through options, unfortunate situations can be avoided and the best response can be made.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC . Fellow AAPC 10 17 2019