On Anger Management

Almost everyone has heard the term anger management. Some of you may have even seen the comical version of the term anger management, i.e., the movie by that name, starring Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler. For the very most part though, need I say there isn’t much room in real life for thinking about it in humorous terms.

In addressing the subject of anger management, let me first focus on the word anger, or a little more specifically, “angry.” The key here is that for many people, hearing someone sound and look angry implies that that person is being judged as being out of control (i.e., “flying off the handle” or “flipping out”). Yet for other people, the word angry may NOT imply being out of control. Instead, it may imply being frustrated or irritated–feelings which even if strong are usually perceived as the person still being in control of themselves. There also are many instances in which a person is perceived by others as being out of control–i.e., angry–yet NOT out of control in the eyes of the “angry” person himself/herself. And when this becomes a pattern of behavior, others may perceive that person as having an “anger management” problem, but the person himself/herself may not.

One postscript here. I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to someone having a pattern of launching into full-blown RAGE episodes, even that person will have to acknowledge that that clearly reflects a major problem they have controlling their anger!

Psychological Factors Surrounding An Anger Management Problem

People with an anger management problem are likely to have that problem for a variety of possible psychological reasons. Let me break these reasons down into 4 main categories: 1) feelings of betrayal, injustice, and entitlement; 2) parental role-modeling; 3) “masking” of vulnerability; and 4) feeling empowered.

1) Feelings of betrayal, injustice, and entitlement–The definition of betrayal that I use in my work (as well as in my personal life) is: any significant feeling of letdown, by someone important to you, based on what you believed you had the right to believe they would never do to you. Connecting this to problems with getting a handle on anger, it’s safe to say that the more someone feels either one huge betrayal or a series of betrayals that add up to a huge one, the more that person is likely to develop a storehouse of anger. This especially applies, I will add, to the feeling of betrayal being triggered by severe abuse, severe neglect, or outright abandonment. The sense of injustice that typically accompanies deep feelings of betrayal, combined with a strong sense of entitlement that the injustice be undone or eliminated only adds to the size–not to mention persistence – of that storehouse.

2) Parental role-modeling–Simply stated, a person is much more to develop an anger management problem if they had at least one parent who presented with this problem themselves.

3) “Masking” of vulnerability–While I see this issue as generally applying to men more than women, there certainly are exceptions on both sides of the gender coin. The basic point here is: suppose someone is having difficulty dealing with strong vulnerable feelings like, e.g., fear or anxiety, guilt, hurt, or sadness. The more that person judges themselves as “weak” for having much less showing these feelings, the more automatically if not reflexively he/she may display strong anger. This display of anger then “masks” those weak–i.e, vulnerable–feelings.

4) Feeling empowered–Many people who have an anger management problem, whether they acknowledge it or not, experience a surge of feeling powerful when they are angry. This surge can behaviorally manifest in what could be seen or felt stereotypically as “macho” behavior or “attack mode.” In contrast, and going back to the “masking” concept, when someone is feeling any of the vulnerable feelings listed above to a strong if not overwhelming degree, accompanying that negative self-judgment of “weakness” can be the opposite of feeling powerful, i.e., feeling powerLESS (consciously or subconsciously).

Brain Physiology And The “Highjacking” Phenomenon

To help you gain a further understanding of why impaired anger management is such a complicated syndrome, we must also look inside the brain. To keep this as understandable as possible, there are two main structures in the brain that have a great deal of bearing on anger management. The first structure is called the AMYGDALA (a-mig-duh-luh). This is the part of our brain that is centrally involved in the universal “fight/flight” response, where “flight” refers to fear or anxiety and “fight” refers to anger and aggression. In brief, when someone is stressed and resultingly develops a good deal of agitation inside, the amygdala actively fires away. If the intensity of the agitation quickly becomes intense, the amygdala can quickly become not just reactive but, more problematically, HYPERreactive. If the stressor triggering hyperactivity in the amygdala is fear-related, the person will likely develop a very high level of fear or anxiety. If on the other hand the trigger is anger-related, then the person is likely to become intensely angry.

The other key structure in the brain involved in anger management is known as the PREFRONTAL CORTEX (PFC). This is the crucial structure in the brain that is the seat of rational and logical thinking, including good decision-making, concentration and attention, and impulse control. Connecting this to anger (as well as fear too), the brain-based physiological general rule of thumb here is: the more the person’s PFC is functioning at a normal–i.e., non-stressed/agitated–level, the more controlled and better managed will that person’s anger be in general.

Now let’s tie these two structures of the brain together as it relates to anger management problems. In a nutshell, when some stressful/agitating situation triggers significant hyperactivity in the amygdala, the process known as “high-jacking” occurs. Specifically, the amygdala essentially overtakes–i.e., high-jacks–the PFC, resulting in significant impairment in the person’s ability to think clearly, concentrate adequately, and control their self-defeating impulses. In anger management terms, this means that when the amygdala is triggered to become very hyperactive, and the PFC’s functioning is therefore limited, anger takes control of the person. Which in the extreme–such as in a state of pure rage–creates the proverbial “zero to 60” effect. The overall moral of the story here being: this high-jacking process in the brain does not excuse a person with an anger management problem, but it most certainly helps EXPLAIN the problem.

Strategies For Anger Management

Given all that’s spelled out above on the psychology and brain-based physiology of anger management, I hope you are clear–maybe clearer than you’ve ever been–just how much easier said than done it is to achieve. And yet: whether you’ve ever really looked at it this way or not, in the end there are two extremely important reasons to work on anger management. The first reason is an individual one: self-respect. Simply stated–and feelings of empowerment and masked vulnerability notwithstanding– if you let intense anger take control of you, you cannot possibly respect yourself for your pattern of “flipping out” and “flying off the handle.” But just like with addiction, and to put it bluntly, who the heck ever thinks about self-respect when you’re in the middle of being very angry or indulging in an addictive substance! Yet the psychological fact of life is: a pattern of a significant loss of self-control guarantees an accompanying loss of self-respect. And that’s, let me reiterate, whether you ever consciously think about that or not.

The second reason to work on anger management has to do with being challenged or confronted by significant others about their feeling that your problem controlling anger is in there eyes sabotaging your relationship with them. If that is their experience and perception, and your relationship with them truly matters to you, then I’d say it’s advisable you get to work on your problem for this reason too!

On that note, presented below is a “menu” of strategies I recommend for working on anger management. Like a real menu, you can choose the same item each time, or change around if you feel trying a different item would be better for you. Let me preface this menu though by saying that no matter which items on the menu you choose to try to help yourself manage your anger better, it is absolutely essential that you practice them as often as possible. Otherwise, you must face the music as they say: if you don’t practice them, there is virtually no chance that you will make any progress on this troubling–and trouble-MAKING–front.

The menu I recommend for anger management includes the following:

–mindful meditation (especially focusing on breathing, tension in the body, and visual imagery; more spiritual pursuit of some type can also be a meditative option )

–“get physical” (e.g., walking or more strenuous exercise, gardening, or something cathartic like pillow-pounding)

–“get vocal” (e.g., call a friend, or: go in the car, don’t drive anywhere, and yell your heart out)

–“get your journal” (emotional venting in written form)

–“get musical” (listen to whatever type of music you believe can help you reduce your agitation)

–“get perspective” (basically, force yourself to remember that you are allowing your anger to control you in a way that can be sabotaging to your self-respect and also potentially to the relationship with someone important to you; that perspective can leave you still feeling angry yes, but able to express it in a more reasonable and controlled manner)

–“get de-stressed” (do the best you can to cut down on the overall stress in your life)

Last but not least, given the complexity of the problem of agitation management and the big challenge it therefore presents, I highly encourage you to give yourself a big pat on the back each and every time you do something to keep your anger to a manageable and controlled level!

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