Why it feels like someone else makes you angry. (Note: They don’t.) And, what you can do.

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.

Catastrophising: How you make a mountain out of a molehill!

The emotional mastery process involves scanning your surroundings, perceiving an event, experiencing an emotional reaction elicited by your perception, validating the emotion, “S.T.O.P.”ing the reaction, assessing the emotion and your perception, and choosing a response.

When you master your emotions, you are in touch with your feelings and you are using them as tools to improve your life and your relationships.

This is the way you want your life to go.

But, sometimes, it all goes south!

Catastrophising: you have either done it yourself or witnessed it taking place in others.

  • Something “bad” happens to you.  I put the word “bad” in quotes because it is a relative term which hinges on how you see and define the situation in which you find yourself.
  • This bad thing happens and you go into a downward spiral and act “as-if” your very life is ending.  Your friends look at you and say: “Whoa, it wasn’t that  bad!”

What might be going on that could explain this process?

Two examples…

Example #1: A “D” in organic chemistry.

When I was in college, a guy went to the top of the chemistry building and jumped off.

He survived the fall.

When asked why he did it, he noted that he got a “D” in organic chemistry and his life was over.

Huh? You say. How could a bad grade lead to attempted suicide? What is the connection?

Well, here was his (very egocentric) line of reasoning…

  • To him, the D meant he would not get into medical school.
  • If he couldn’t get into med school, he would never be a doctor.
  • If he could not be a doctor, he would not be able to support a family.
  • If he could not support a family, he would be a complete failure.
  • If he was going to end up a complete failure, he might as well kill himself as life would not be worth living.
  • If he might as well kill himself, why wait?

Is this logical?


Is it true?


Is it plausible?

Not necessarily.

While it is one way to look at his situation, this line of reasoning is both exclusionary and maladaptive.

This individual was catastrophising.

Example #2: A teenage girl is harassed on social media (cyberbullying) and tries to take her own life.

Again, at first glance, this behavior seems both extreme and illogical.

It is extreme.  It is not illogical.

Her reasoning goes something like this.

  • All the negative comments on Facebook (and other social media sites) are ruing my reputation.
  • With my reputation ruined, I won’t be able to make any friends.
  • If I can’t make any friends, my life will be ruined.
  • If my life is ruined, suicide makes sense.

While this is a general statement of the flow of thought and probably would not be exactly what a teenage girl would say, you get the idea.

There is a logical flow to her reasoning in that each statement follows from, and is based on, the previous thought.

She, however, is catastrophising in that her reasoning is exclusionary in that it rules out other, less extreme, ways of viewing her situation and it is maladaptive in that it only looks at the most extreme and negative outcomes possible.

There are many ways to view an event in which you find yourself.

Catastrophising involves focusing on the worst possible outcome, taking it as the only possible outcome, and repeating this process over and over.

The issue with castastrophising is that it eliminates all other possible outcomes.

While each of the above reasoning steps has some truth to it, and, if each point was absolutely true in that other alternatives did not exist, then suicide would make more sense.

This is not the case in the above two examples.

Let me give you a counter example which will provide some contrast.

Assisted Suicide..

While you may not agree with the idea of assisted suicide, it is legal in several states.

The assisted suicide laws allow an individual with a terminal illness to request that a medical doctor make available a lethal medication that the person can take and peacefully end their lives.there are alternatives.

The reasoning goes like this…

  • I have a terminal illness so my death is “imminent”.
  • If I live until I die naturally, I will suffer considerably.
  • I do not want to suffer.
  • I have considered all the alternatives, reasoned this process through, and have decided on the best course of action for me to take.
  • I am of sound mind and have been assessed as capable of making this decision on my own without any coercion.
  • I prefer to get my affairs in order, have my family with me, take control of my life and choose when my life will end.

While “suicide” is the end result, the reasoning here is very different from the two examples of catastrophising above.

Example #1:

Let’s assume that the D grade eliminates med school admission (It may not!) and that this person would not become an MD.

Not becoming an MD may be unfortunate but it is only one career possibility.

I should point out that while this story is true, it is NOT autobiographical.

In my own case, I originally intended to become an MD, got a D in biochemistry, was very disappointed, did not get into med school, did not attempt suicide, and, by accident, discovered psychology and went on to get a Ph.D..

That D in chemistry was the best thing that could have happened to me.

So, while the process of catastrophising is logical in that it involves reasoning and arrives at a logical conclusion, it is problematic because it involves a highly restricted tunnel vision which only “sees” the worst possible outcome eliminates any other possibilities, takes that outcome as “fact”, and arrives at the worst possible conclusion without questioning the validity of that conclusion.

The antidote to catastrophising is to get input from other people.  If you find yourself spiraling down a psychological rabbit hole, reach out to another person who can give you an objective opinion about your situation.

That may be all you need.

If you are seriously considering suicide, then you need professional help immediately.

The number for the toll free 24-hour suicide crisis line is 1-800-273-8255.  If  you need to, make the call!