I was on the subway today and I witnessed a needless escalation of anger that ended with somebody being punched in the face. I was shaken and scared. And I ran.
That’s how quickly anger escalates if we’re not aware of this extremely powerful core emotion and the powerful aggressive impulses it exerts upon us.
Let’s understand in slow-motion what happened to the men on the subway that led to this needless and sad violence – anger works the same way for all of us:
People were pushing and shoving to get onto the subway. A man, let’s call him Joe, bumped into another man, let’s call him Fred, entirely by accident!
The physical experience of being shoved by Joe, even if by accident, triggered the “anger program” in Fred’s brain. Anger is triggered in the limbic system, which is located in the middle of the brain. The triggering of anger is NOT under conscious control. It happens reflexively in response to perceived threat unless we are self-aware.
Once the brain is triggered to anger, impulses are sent from the brain’s anger “command center” to all the organs of the body. The evolutionary purpose of anger is to get the body ready to fight for survival. In order to fight, numerous physiological changes occur throughout the body. These physical changes happen almost instantaneously. They include the release of adrenaline, the pumping of blood to the heart, and a change from deep breathing to shallow and rapid breathing.
Changes also occur in the muscles of the face to display anger. The brows furrow, the jaw tightens, muscles in the arms and core tighten. And there are many other physical changes. Most notably, however, is that anger creates huge amounts of biological energy that pulls for physical release. Think about when you are angry and how it feels in your body if you don’t push it down.
Fred, upon being bumped by Joe, shouted angrily, Don’t f*cking touch me!
Joe’s nervous system now reacts. The yelling is perceived as aggression in Joe’s limbic system. It triggered his anger program. Joe’s body, just like Fred’s, in a millisecond transformed into a fighting mode.
Now Joe’s facial expressions also showed anger further triggering Fred’s anger. Energy erupted throughout both their bodies pushing for an attack. Joe’s body posture went into a position ready to punch. With NO conscious awareness of anything, being totally gripped and overwhelmed by his anger, Joe released this pent up energy with a fist thrusted into Fred’s face.
Blinded by rage, with their anger completely unchecked, both men “lost their minds” to become totally out of control. As a result of this failure of self-awareness committed by both of these men, a potential lethal assault happened to one human and a potentially life-ruining prison sentence happened to the other.
This all happened in less than 2 seconds. FAST!
It does NOT have to be this way.
We may not be able to stop anger from triggering in the brain, but we do have control over how we respond to our angry impulses. There is much we can learn and practice to get a grip on our anger even in the midst of experiencing it in the moment.
Is it hard to learn to slow down anger’s impulses? YES, it is HARD! YES, it takes work. And, as you can see from the example of Joe and Fred where potentially two lives have been ruined for no reason, it is worth it to gain control over our angry impulses. The first step is first learning about emotions. This education empowers us with the path to self-control.
The Change Triangle is a tool everyone can use to learn about anger and bring awareness to the way it changes our bodies. We can learn to name and recognize emotions as they are occurring. We can learn ways to channel angry energy without doing damage to other people. After all, is not the basics of humanity, religion, and philosophy that we don’t hurt each other? If we could master our anger, we could eradicate war.
Basic Steps to Get a Grip On Angry Impulses
First, we need to acknowledge that we will get angry at some point and commit to an on-going practice to prepare for those moments. It helps to keep in mind the goal of not allowing anger to destroy our lives and interfere with our long-term goals of having good relationships at best, and staying out of jail or unharmed, at least.
Second, we need to become more and more familiar with how anger, once triggered, feels in the body. To do that we have to breath and ground during anger, to slow the momentum of anger down, so we can name and notice the sensations anger brings forth. For example after years of practice, when I am triggered to anger, I can now notice and say to myself:
I am angry! I feel energy in my core, tightness in my muscles, my heart is racing, and I feel the impulse to verbally attack you for being such a horrible person. But I stop myself from doing or saying anything because I know I am not thinking clearly and this feeling will pass.
The goal is to build communication between our noticing brain and our anger, thinking of them as two different people. We need to have an intimate relationship with our anger so we recognize it when it arrives ready to fight to protect us. Using tools and techniques that slow down our nervous system, like grounding and breathing, and using awareness to notice how our rational thinking brain has been hijacked by our emotional brain, we can slow down these powerful impulses enough to use techniques that help us NOT ACT OUT. Ultimately, we need to calm down enough so we can think clearly again. How do we get through the worst moments without resorting to violence?
Here are some things to think about before getting physical with a punch or “acting out” in other ways:
Did this person intend to hurt me or was it an accident?
If there was intent to hurt, do I need to defend myself, or can I run away and/or call the police?
If I choose to defend myself with violence, why would I do that? My honor, my ego, or to literally survive? If it is about ego or “protecting my honor,” think through the costs to indulging in that way of thinking.
Here are 3 ways to release angry energy to prevent violence:
Once we educate ourselves fully about what anger is and how to work with it, we must make a commitment to never being violent and to practicing self-awareness.
When we feel anger, instead of taking action, we dive immediately into our body and validate it by literally saying to ourself, I am so angry. Then notice if there is any relief in validating the anger, which there often is. People report feeling a little less activated.
Second, walk away as you allow yourself to imagine what the anger wanted to do in a fantasy. I have many real-life examples of this process in my easy to understand book on emotions, It’s Not Always Depression.
Lastly, if we are brimming with angry energy and we need a physical release, try these various ways that activate different muscular impulses:
Try ripping ten pages of computer paper.
Try pushing your hands against a wall.
Try punching a pillow on your bed.
Try writing out an un-edited script of what your aggressive anger wants to say to the person who hurt you or tried to hurt you.
There are the many opportunities to prevent what happened if Joe and Fred had they had emotions education and practiced emotional self-control. Here are a few:
When Joe bumped into Fred he could have apologized profusely and explained it was an accident and he meant no harm.
If that didn’t happen, then Fred could have noticed his anger, calmed himself down, assessed that the “bump” was an accident due to people pushing onto the subway car. And then let it go.
If that didn’t happen, Joe had a second chance to calm down and explain he has no bad intent, and apologize for bumping into Fred.
Either of them could have disengaged and walked away explaining their goal that it was no worth getting hurt or in trouble.
If we are to move forth living in peace and harmony, we must understand our emotions and how emotions affect the mind and most especially the body . We must learn tools and techniques to calm ourselves and have the mental strength to resist our angry impulses, whether they tip towards violence or just saying mean things. We must learn to respond thoughtfully even in the midst of our emotions. This is absolutely possible!
A+ for trying. When we succeed, we create a better world for our children and generation to come.