We’ve all experienced it or read about it.
- We are trying to put together a shelf, a bicycle or a complex something or other and the instructions for taking the next step are mysteriously absent or lacking the information we need. We are ready to go to war with the company.
- A celebrity gets angry and beats up his girlfriend or does something equally as dumb and says “I got angry” but implies that his anger made him become aggressive.
- You fill in your own experience.
it isn’t just that we get angry. Indeed, we experience the anger as instantaneous and interpret what is happening in this way:
A: Something happens.
B: We react with anger.
C: A seems to cause B.
Or, to put it another way, A made us angry.
While it is true that your initial emotional reaction to a perceived threat is quick, automatic and beyond your control, it isn’t true that your emotion chooses your response and coerces you to act out.
Let me explain.
Anger is one of 6 primary emotions for which we are hard-wired.
When we lived in caves, we did not have sharp teeth or claws like the predators who wanted to eat us and we had to be able to react quickly to both animal predators and other human predators who wished us harm.
Our emotions evolved to do this.
Basically, we did, and still do today, constantly scan our surroundings for any threat. When a threat is subconsciously perceived, a fast track message is sent to the Amygdala in the brain which communicates, via the Thalamus, with the body. We automatically go into fight or flight mode.
We are ready for battle or to run.
The threat response didn’t require a lot of thinking and always matched the threat (survival based).
The problem, today, is that our response often does not match the threat because the nature of the threats we face has changed (psychological based).
While this very quick reaction to threat was adaptive and helped us survive when we lived in caves, it hasn’t changed over the millennia and is the reason you perceive your anger to be automatic.
So, yes, your anger may be automatic.
And, if you react without much thinking, that’s your caveman coming out and it feels automatic and beyond your control.
Your behavioral response, however, is neither automatic nor beyond your control. And, here is why.
As our brains evolved, the cerebral cortex, or thinking part of the brain gave us the ability to choose how we wanted to respond to the automatic or, more primitive, parts of our brain.
So, at the same time that the fast track message goes to the Amygdala, a relatively slower message goes to the Cerebral Cortex whose task is to interpret the nature of the threat and the best way to respond to it.
You’ve experienced a similar reaction-response sequence if you’ve ever made a quick assessment of situation, reacted, said or did something, got more information and found out that your initial reaction was incorrect and did not match what was actually taking place.
The emotion you felt could have been anxiety if you were worried about something that was never going to happen in the first place such as when you wanted to ask your boss for a raise but avoided it because you knew he would say “no” and were surprised when you finally got up the courage to ask and he quickly said “yes”. Or, it could have been anger if you went “off” on your kid for being late, saw his/her face, got more information and felt very bad when you found out that your kid drove his inebriated friend home and forgot to grab his cell phone.
The slower track message to your cerebral cortex ALWAYS give you a choice about how you will respond to your anger.
The challenge is that the quick anger reaction is both automatic and more attention grabbing than the slower, we’ll call it thinking, message.
You have to learn how to respond rather than react to perceived threats.
Here is the process..
- Accept that you make you angry.
- Learn to pay attention to the “signals” your body gives you when you are reacting with anger (warmth, tightened muscles, focused attention).
- As soon as you become aware of your anger, remind yourself to take a breath and take a step back from the perceived threat.
- Use this “break” to assess the real nature of the threat.
- Choose an effective response which matches the nature of the threat.
It is not easy to learn this process but it is doable.
I welcome your comments.