Anger is a natural emotion that helps protect us from real (or imagined) attacks against our physical or emotional well-being.
When used appropriately, anger can motivate us to achieve goals we would otherwise be too afraid or lazy to pursue. In this way, anger may not be a big problem.
However, if you find yourself fuming when someone cuts you off in traffic or your blood pressure spikes when your child refuses to co-operate, anger might be a bigger issue.
Extreme anger causes us to say and do things we often bitterly regret. What seems like a good idea when we’re angry can seem shameful once we’ve calmed down.
When strong negative emotions kidnap the thinking brain, our IQ drops like a stone. Even the brightest minds appear scarcely more coherent than a wild animal. We begin to see events through a restricted lens – good-or-bad and all-or-nothing perspectives. Anger leaves no room for objectivity – those who have a differing opinion from ours are viewed as stupid or evil.
Anger is a conditioned response. If you have been angry with a specific individual a few times, you can become conditioned to feel anger towards them automatically – whenever they show up. Soon, just hearing their name produces a shot of irritation. In this way, becoming angry can work just like a hypnotic trigger, kicking in automatically before we, in our logical mind, even recognize it’s happening.
Chronic, explosive anger can have serious consequences for your relationships, your health and your state of mind. If you have a hot temper, you may feel like there’s little you can do to tame the beast.
But you can tame the beast.
Develop an awareness of anger’s triggers so you can practise switching them off when they pop up. Explore when anger becomes a problem for you – are you overtired, feel under time pressure or feeling disrespected? Do you become most angry when you’ve been consuming alcohol or when someone appears to drop the ball with their customer service?
Anger narrows our focus and becomes a destructive emotional trance. When I’m enraged, I see reality only as all-or-nothing and miss the shades of grey. The more black and white our view, the more controlled by anger we become. We begin to see ill intent in others when they may have simply made an honest mistake.
Since angry emotions are hypnotic, we can use some of the principles from hypnotherapy to counteract the wave. Just like an athlete preparing for the big game, a bit of rehearsal is needed for this to work well.
When I work with angry individuals in my practice, I invite them to recall a situation where they felt triggered to extreme anger. Right on cue (mostly because angry individuals are very good at focusing), they start getting worked up. When the emotion begins, we can interrupt it with tactical breathing and rehearse some different responses.
Our brains don’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, which is why rehearsing works so well. We can design new responses using imagination and repetition. We can imagine a calmer, more curious response to the event that precipitated the anger.
We can also begin to develop greater curiosity as a decoy:
• What’s another way of looking at this?
• Is it possible I could have missed something?
I’m reminded of a friend who once spoke angrily to a neighbour who never seemed to reply to her attempts at polite conversation.Her anger evaporated when she discovered he was stone deaf.
Even if it feels like someone is pushing your buttons, you always have a choice about how to respond.
With a little insight into the instigators of your anger eruptions, as well as some effective intervention tools, you can learn how to express your feelings in more productive ways and keep an explosive temper from hijacking your life.
Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications.