The biggest challenge in responding to anger— either yours or someone else’s— is that anger is an emotion that puts people in a volatile, unpredictable state.
When we are angry, we are, by definition, in touch with impulses and behaviors that are more primal and energy intensive than our “normal,” everyday behaviors.
It’s helpful to remember why anger exists at all: anger is an evolutionarily-driven response to one’s territory or resources being threatened.
The reason why anger, as an emotional reaction, was selected FOR in our evolutionary history— and thus the reason why it still exists in our emotional and behavioral repertoire— is because anger has survival value (or it did, at one point).
When the primitive humans were hunting and gathering their primitive way through their primitive world, they would sometimes come into conflict.
Primitive humans ran across resources, such as nourishment and mates, that were scarce— and they would fight over them.
The primitive humans who were able to defend their territory— i.e., their resources and their mates— were selected FOR. That is to say, they would win these competitions with the other primitive humans.
What helped those victorious primitive humans win?
Under certain circumstances, anger helped them win.
The primitive humans who responded to threats by getting angry had an edge.
When we look at what actually happens when we get angry, we can sort of begin to understand what’s going on.
Anger has a way of sharpening our focus. It “spikes” our physical reflexes and responses. It provides a temporary rush of adrenaline and energy for the sake of engaging in conflict.
It’s not hard to see why the primitive humans who were able to get angry when threatened may have had a leg up on those primitive humans who were mellow, forgiving, or passive in response to threat.
Is all that to say that anger is a “good” thing?
Eh, not necessarily. We’re talking about the survival of the species here. We’re not talking about what modern humans experience and what modern humans do when they get angry.
What we need to remember about anger is that it is the kind of emotional response that has the tendency to become consuming.
There is a reason why anger is so frequently described as or compared to fire.
Fire is an element that consumes what is burning. Anger is an emotion that threatens to consume whoever is angry— precisely because it is so grounded in our evolutionary history as a species that needed to fight or flee (both of which took tremendous energy) in order to survive.
What does all this imply for us modern humans, who are trying to manage our own anger— even while being hyper-aware of how seemingly dangerous anger an be?
First thing’s first: we need to remember that even though anger is evolutionarily hard-wired into our nervous systems, anger is STILL responsive to the tools and skills that are effective in managing all of our emotional states.
Anger responds to the pace and intensity of our breathing.
Anger response to what we visualize.
Anger responds to what we tell ourselves.
It is true that, because anger is a reaction that had its origin in moments of extreme stress and threat, that managing in the moment FEELS like a much different task than managing, say, anxiety…but substantively, it really isn’t all THAT different.
It is our EXPERIENCE of anger that is different.
When we see the “red” of anger, it is sometimes terrifying to us, because that sensation often feels like the warning siren that control is about to be lost.
It’s also the case that, because anger is so closely associated in our nervous system with existential threats (after all, as cavemen, we most often felt angry right when the options seemed to be “kill or be killed”), seeing the “red” of anger is often linked to literal for one’s life— which, of course, consumes its OWN significant cognitive and energetic resources.
The biggest thing to remember about anger is that, even though it FEELS much different from other emotions, the basics of managing it remain the same.
Anger needs certain thoughts, visualizations, and physiology to feed it.
By interrupting the pattern of those thoughts, visualizations, you can deny anger the “air” it needs to breathe.
By closely observing how we experience anger— what reactions happen in what order, what thoughts trigger anger and what thoughts maintain it— we can learn not only the nuts and bolts of how anger happens “to” us…but we can learn how to derail that train before it gains so much momentum that we really lose control.
It’s not an easy process. No response that has its roots so deep in our evolutionary history is likely to be “easy” to change.
Just like any emotional and behavioral pattern we experience, the fundamentals remain observation, self-experimentation, and responsiveness to the data that we generate from our own lived experience.
Self-programming and self-brainwashing, in other words.
Hmm. Wonder where we’ve heard THAT before?
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