Mastering The Flames: Navigating Anger Skillfully | The Psychology Company
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Mastering the Flames: Navigating Anger Skillfully

| Mastering the Flames: Navigating Anger Skillfully | The Psychology Company

Mastering the Flames: Navigating Anger Skillfully

Have you ever said or done something out of anger that you later regretted? Yeah me too! Anger is designed to rev us up and so by design we become hot headed and, driven by our emotional brain, become reactive and at times aggressive. Only last week I asked someone for help whilst shopping at the supermarket and they responded very curtly which made me angry and then I became almost as curt as them!


Anger is a natural response to frustration and to feeling mistreated by others. Anger can signal to us that there is an unmet need like being respected or treated fairly. I felt the woman I asked for help from was reacting in a way that was disrespectful and unkind and this was enough to fire up my anger!  So anger can be a really useful signal to us and this is particularly true if we belong to groups that are marginalised and mistreated. But once you have received the signal (e.g. something is wrong, I am being taken advantage of etc) we then have a choice about how we respond. And I don’t think my response to the woman in the supermarket was the best. So learning how to respond rather than react to anger can be a very helpful life skill.


Although we might want to try and avoid the feeling of anger-very few people wake up hoping that they will feel angry today- when we are in the grip of anger it can be hard to let go of. Anger can have a much more seductive quality than other emotions, it can draw us in and we get carried away with it. We might like to tell people about what made us angry-like I did to my husband when I got back from the supermarket! The buddha described anger as a “honeyed tip and poisoned barb”. The honeyed tip is seductive-we get drawn into anger in a way that we might not with other emotions. Therefore it can be even more important to clarify within ourselves how anger can be a burdon upon us (the poisoned barb). Spending time clarifying the ways in which anger negatively affects you (eg does irritability and resentment wear you down) and your relationships (eg if you burst out with anger does it impact people’s desire to be around you) is particularly important as it can serve as a reminder that holding onto this anger, even when it feels really justified, is not good for you. For some of us, realising that anger hurts us as much as it hurts other people, might really motivate us to find ways of letting it go.


As well as turning our attention to the impact anger has on ourselves it can also be helpful to see how anger affects those around us. Anger is one of the most salient social emotions we have and people will likely become very hypervigilant around us if we have an air of irritability, resentment or frustration around us. I remember one client, who grew up in a very angry household so it had seemed normal to them to move through life in this way, telling me that when they really started to pay attention to the impact their anger had on those around them they were astonished to notice that even their dogs withdrew from them when they were angry, which really awakened them to the negative impact of their anger. Most of us place a high value on connection and recognising how anger, frustration and chronic irritability can chip away at this can be another motivator to really work on managing our anger.


When we speak from a place of rage people can withdraw from us but also at times they can fight back and things can very quickly escalate. As highlighted earlier anger can signal to us that there is an unmet need like being respected or treated fairly but this need can very quickly get lost under the red mist of anger. In order to try and help others respond to our needs we need to interact with other people in a way that is more regulated which also allows them to stay regulated and hear more fully what we have to say.  This doesn’t mean we have to be softly spoken all the time-it can be appropriate to be firm and even a bit fierce at times but it is seldom helpful to cross over into rage.


I am sure most of us can bring to mind a memory of when we overreacted to something and maybe became ragefull.  This happens when our amygdala has hijacked us. So lets say someone cuts you up whilst driving (this certainly triggers me!), that information flows into your brain and within the first half second or so it gets processed in the thalamus and within a second it’s been passed along to the subcortical regions of the brain where the amygdala starts processing that information on the basis of react first and think later. Your sympathetic nervous system gets triggered and floods you with stress hormones leading you to hold your hand on the horn for 10 seconds and give the driver the finger! A much slower pathway trickles up the prefrontal regions for analysis and reflection. So the amygdala gets about a 3 second head start over the calmer more rational part of your brain so if you can give yourself three seconds between a stimulus and response you will have given the calmer part of your brain a chance to catch up. This can be especially helpful if you are interacting with someone who is provocative.


Another tip to managing anger is ‘name it to tame it’. It never fails to amaze me how naming what we are feeling can help create some distance from our emotions. Next, think about a yuck scale! This involves asking how bad the things is that just happened on a scale of 0 to 10 (10 being the end of the world) and then asking where was my anger reaction on a scale of 0-10 (10 being violent rage) and stepping back and considering if your reaction is in proportion to the yuck? Going back to my supermarket example I would say the yuck scale was 2 and my reaction was 6 and just reflecting on this in my mind gave rise to a little softening. So if most of what happens on the yuck scale is 2 or 3 checking in with whether our response is really appropriate can be helpful. If we consistently find ourselves acting disproportionately then we need to consider what is jacking our reaction up? 


Anger can feel like a fire inside of us and fires need kindling to start. So pay attention to little things that build up over the course of your day so you can reduce the build up of frustrations. After each spike of frustration or annoyance take a moment to pause and breathe and reset your nervous system. Also pay attention to your mind-set and see if you can notice how this might flame the fire of anger. For example, fault finding, superiority, righteousness and moral outrage (all of which often come with the strength of discernment) are all a near hop into contempt and anger. Also pay attention to things that build up over the course of a relationship as we can get easily sensitized to things. Although this can feel scary and takes bravery, addressing this in a relationship is key to not let frustration and resentments build.


As well as things building up over the course of our relationship we can also carry things with us over the course of our lives. So things that may have made us angry as a child, if left unprocessed, will stay inside of us and may lead to us moving through the world with irritability, grievance and anger. We can probably all think of someone who is almost perpetually irritable or bothered and it can be helpful to remember that it is relatively easy, if we rest in states like this often enough, to develop irritable, aggrieved or resentful moods. Becoming aware of our mood states and processing things that have happened in the past can be powerful preventative methods to stop states becoming traits. Taking time, maybe with a therapist, to piece together your life narrative including the things (from little to big) that happened to you that left you feeling angry can be an eye opening exercise. It can help you become aware and let go of all the kindling you have been carrying with you.


I want to emphasise again that anger is not a bad emotion.  It helps alert us to threats and injustices and can motivate us to take action. But, like any emotion, we can benefit from developing awareness of our anger, reflecting on how we show up when we are angry and the impact this has on others and ourselves and learning to stay regulated so we can respond skillfully.