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The Danger of Escalating Anger

I was on the subway 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.

The purpose of anger is to get the body ready to fight for survival. Once the brain is triggered to anger, numerous physiological changes occur to get us ready for action. While these changes happen almost instantaneously and out of our awareness, it is at this point that we can consciously notice what is happening to our body.

Physical changes include the release of adrenaline into the blood system causing an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, and more rapid breathing. Changes also occur in the muscles of the face to display anger to the foe. The brows furrow, the jaw tightens, the muscles in the arms and core tighten. And there are many other physical changes. Most notably, however, is that anger creates huge amounts of internal 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. We feel like we can explode.

Fred, upon being bumped by Joe, shouted angrily, Don't f*cking touch me!

Joe's nervous system now reacted to Fred's verbal outburst. It triggered Joe's anger. Joe's body, just like Fred's, in a millisecond clicked into fighting mode.

Now Joe's facial expressions and body posture showed anger. These non-verbal aggressive communications are unconsciously registered in Fred's brain, further triggering Fred's anger. This is the cycle of escalating anger.

Energy erupted throughout both their bodies pushing for an attack. Joe's body posture reared back into a position ready to punch. With NO conscious awareness of anything else, 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. The failure of self-awareness committed by both of these men led to a potentially lethal assault for one of them and a potentially life-ruining prison sentence for the other.

This all happened in less than 2 seconds. FAST!

Sadly, 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 two lives may been ruined for no good reason, it is worth it to gain control over our angry impulses.

It helps to hold in mind various goals to motivate us: the goal of not doing harm, not destroying our lives, being a good person, having good relationships, staying out of trouble, or simply accepting the challenge to master our anger to build greater self-control and thus greater self-confidence.

Basic Steps to Get a Grip On Angry Impulses

The first step is learning about emotions. This education empowers us with the path to self-control.

The Change Triangle is a tool everyone needs. It prompts us to name and recognize emotions as they are occurring. It prompts us to channel angry energy in healthy and constructive ways like imagining moving it into our backbone and using words to assert ourselves. For example, "Hey! Please be careful not to bump me!"

Second, we need to become more and more familiar with how anger feels in the body. To do that we have to breath and ground to slow down the momentum of anger, so we can name and notice the sensations anger brings forth and work to calm our body down. 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. I give myself compassion as I breathe deeply to calm my anger.

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:

The Change Triangle tool for Emotional Health
  • First and foremost, in the midst of anger, find your Cs which are listed at the bottom of the Change Triangle. Visualize the Change Triangle and memorize the C-words. Then work to find calm. Find your clarity. Find your compassion. Find your curiosity. Just keeping this goal in mind will already stop the escalation of anger.

  • Question intent! 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. Evaluate if the police need to be called.

  • 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," those are not reasons to be violent.

Here are a few ways to release the energy that anger produces in the body to feel better and prevent violence from "acting out":

When we feel anger, instead of taking action, we must train ourselves to dive immediately into our body and validate our emotions by literally saying to ourself, I am so enraged. Then notice if there is any relief in validating the anger, which often is the case.

Walk away from the escalating situation. Allow yourself to imagine what the anger wanted to do in a fantasy. I provide many real-life examples of this process in It's Not Always Depression, an easy-to-understand book on working with our universal human emotions.

Lastly, if we are brimming with angry energy and we need a physical release, try these various therapeutic techniques that satisfy various muscular impulses:

  • Try running or lifting weights or any exercise that feels physically relieving.

  • Try ripping a stack of paper.

  • Try pushing your hands against a wall with force.

  • Try punching a pillow on your bed (not a hard surface or you could damage your hand).

  • 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 were many opportunities for Joe and Fred to de-escalate the situation had they been taught emotions education and practiced emotional self-control. That's why it is a moral outrage that emotions education is absent from formal schooling. If we could master our anger, we could eradicate war.

Here were a few missed opportunities:

  • 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. And then let it go.

  • If that didn't happen, Joe had a second chance to calm down and explain he had no bad intent, and apologize to Fred for bumping into him.

  • Either of them could have disengaged and walked away explaining their goal for peace or that it was not worth them getting hurt or in trouble.

If we are to move forth living together on this earth in 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 less violent world for our children and generations to come.



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