Anger can range from mild irritation to out-of-control rage.
When anger is managed well, it can provide a healthy release, a motivator for change, or a self-empowering strategy. Anger also is a protectant from underlying feelings of pain, fear, guilt, or shame. It is a normal human response, an indicator of hurt, and promoter of transformation.
When anger reaches an elevated state, the pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain is hijacked by the amygdala, the emotional, instinctual part of the brain that induces the fight-flight-freeze response. New information can no longer be received and defenses rise, demands persist, criticism overtakes, or vented venom leads to violence. It is at times when anger reaches an uncontrolled state of mind that a deliberate plan of action must take place.
What is uncontrolled anger?
Uncontrolled anger is an unrestrained fuel of fire with raised voices, yells of derogatory names, and can lead to physical violence; i.e. throwing dishes, shaking of your partner viciously, pushing, and beating. If an interaction has reached this point, stop, take a deep breath, walk away, and reconvene when you have calmed down. It’s important for the mutual interest of a committed relationship to talk in a normal tone all the while staying away from criticizing, demanding, and defensiveness.
What happens when the brain is angry?
An angry brain is overtaken by the limbic system. The limbic system located in the lower part of the brain awakens the amygdala, a small structure that stores all emotional memories. The amygdala decides if the new information coming in warrants the fight-flight-freeze response or should continue on to the pre-frontal cortex. The depending factor is whether the new data triggers enough of an emotional charge or not.
When the pre-frontal cortex is hijacked by the amygdala, the stress hormone cortisol is released. The process can last several minutes to several days but on average continues for twenty minutes.
When too much cortisol is freed, cells in the hippocampus short-circuit. The misfiring of neurons stops new information from being received and makes it difficult to organize and obtain the full memory of the triggered event.
Emotional and physical responses also occur during anger. The heart beats faster, the lungs hyperventilate, blood pressure rises, and nerve endings on the skin spring into action causing sweating and the hair on your body to stand tall. Since the pre-frontal cortex is overridden by the amygdala, all thinking, assessing, or problem-solving skills come to a halt. Thus it is important to learn techniques to manage extreme anger.
Seven tips to cope with anger:
- Time Out
Take a time-out. Knowing the pre-frontal cortex shuts down during times of intense anger, there is no point to continue talking. Therefore, it is impossible to come to a compromise or any solution.
Create a cue or a predetermined symbol for yourself while you are in a calm state of mind that notifies the person you are angry with that you need a break.
If you are by yourself and you notice penetrating anger, name what you are feeling, the trigger, and then take several long, deep breathes to soothe your tension and give your self permission to let it go.
- Get Physical
Move your body. Go for a walk, a jog, do yoga, or lift-weights. Find an activity that you enjoy and get your physique moving. Bodily activities release soothing endorphins to help calm the brain.
- Bring Awareness to Your Thoughts
Notice and observe your thoughts. Shining light on your inner-experience helps to ease the feelings. Name the feeling to tame it. Then get curious. What triggered the onsite of your anger? How can you look at the event from different viewpoints? Put yourself in their shoes? Act like an investigative neutral party to the incident. The shifts in perspective can open up the narrative you’ve created in your mind that caused the anger.
- Expand Your Awareness
Magnify your sense of awareness to bodily sensations. Pay attention to where the anger resides in your body and then take several deep breathes. Breathe in through the nostrils and slowly exhale to release the tension of the part of your body where you feel the anger the most.
- Learn Acceptance Tools
You are not your thoughts or your feelings. You are the observer of your mind that chatters negatively and creates stories that trigger and feed the intensity of your feelings. You are not your anger and as with all feelings, this too shall pass. It is important to remember all feelings are temporary.
- Social Support
When you are calm, share your insights and experience of the event that triggered your anger. Call a friend, a family member, or any trusted individual with whom you feel safe and comfortable enough to express your thoughts and feelings. While expressing your anger calmly, use “I” statements and stay within the confines of the rules of no criticizing, no demanding, no defending, and no vented anger. Social support is essential for calming and letting go of anger.
- Seek a Professional
If you are having difficulty managing anger on your own, a mental health professional can teach you coping skills to manage rage. It is important to learn techniques to control outbursts so that you can have healthy relationships, lower stress, and decrease physiological symptoms such as high blood pressure.
Anger doesn’t have to reach a point of explosion. There are many techniques to control anger outbursts. Taking a break, increasing your awareness of triggers and bodily sensations, getting physical, and talking to a friend all can help alleviate unwanted anger. It is possible to maintain a sense of calm every day. It begins with awareness. Give yourself permission to pay attention and watch the changes that manifest.