This is a detailed explanation of the Anger Mastery Cycle. If you just want a quick overview, click here for the “Cliff Notes” version.
In my Amazon bestselling book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool, I published a chart titled The Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC) which visually lays out the process by which anger is initially experienced and adaptively mastered.
You can download a PDF of the Anger Mastery Cycle by going to the “Pages” section on the right hand side of this page and clicking on The Anger Mastery Cycle PDF.
The Anger Mastery Cycle (AMC).
The AMC can be broken down into three parts:
I: Subconscious Reaction.
II: Conscious Assessment.
III: Choosing a Response
I: Subconscious Reaction.
The first part of the AMC involves the “built-in” process of scanning your surroundings and reacting to what you perceive. This process happens automatically and continuously without you having to initiate or think about it.
Because this initial reaction happens both quickly and “subconsciously” as we would want it to if we were facing an actual life-endangering threat, it is experienced as beyond our control. Problems arise when people overgeneralize the experience and incorrectly assume that anger controls them.
Yes, the initial emotional reaction is beyond our control.
And, no, anger does not control us as the most important aspects of the AMC are definitely within our control. Indeed, the ability to strategically deploy our anger to improve our lives and our relationships is the essence of the AMC.
All humans are hardwired to continuously scan their surroundings for any perceived threat. This unconscious process helped Mr. and Mrs. Caveman survive in a world which was populated by “threats” including animals and other humans that would kill them. Most primitive emotions were, and are, primitive threat detectors the purpose of which was to both alert us to and prepare us to deal with a threat before it could kill us.
Early humans evolved 6 primary emotions which we experience today just as our cave dwelling ancestors did. In other words, while humans have continued to evolve, as reflected in parts 2 and 3 of the AMC, the primary emotions, per se, have not.
These emotions are mad, sad, fear, disgust, surprise and glad. The function of all of these emotions is to facilitate our engagement with our surroundings. Each primary emotion, working through the Amygdala in the brain, reacts to a different environmental stimulus and elicits an physical correlate in our bodies. This is the initial emotional reaction which, if you are to become effective in mastering your emotions, you will need to learn to recognize.
It is also the “message” of the emotion.
I have discussed the message of all of the primary emotions in other posts.
The message of anger is that your initial perception of the threat is that you are more powerful than it is and that you can eliminate it if you throw enough force at it. This is your initial thought about the threat.
Anger physically prepares you for war.
Your muscles tighten and your vision narrows and focuses on the threat. This is the fight part of the fight, flight, or freeze reaction you have probably heard about.
As soon as you become aware of your physical reactions to the perceived threat, you are ready to enter the second part of the AMC.
II: Conscious Assessment.
Now that you’ve become aware of the threat that you have subconsciously perceived and you are “prepared” to engage with the threat, emotional mastery calls for you to consciously assess the threat to determine whether or not a threat actually exists.
As an example of how this process works, think about your smoke detector.
You are sitting at your kitchen table and the smoke detector blares. It constantly scans your house and is alerting you to a possible threat.
Do you jump up and call the fire department? Of course not. No, you assess the situation and notice that the toast is burning and you pop it out of the toaster.
The blaring of the smoke detector is equivalent to the unconscious reaction of your anger and your conscious decision about the nature of the threat is what the second part of the AMC is all about.
Following your awareness of a physical emotional reaction, you begin to clarify the emotion you are experiencing by giving it a label. If you are tuned into your body, you know what the initial reaction indicative of anger feels like and you can now apply the label of anger as in “I’m angry.”
Once you have labelled, or acknowledged, your emotion as anger, the next step is Anger Management.
The term “anger management” is generically used to describe any treatment for issues involving anger.
The concern I have with the term “anger management” is that it perpetuates the misconception that all that is needed to effectively deal with anger, as an emotion, is to control, or manage, it.
Two points are important here…
The first is that one of the biggest myths about anger is that it is a dangerous emotion that causes people to do inappropriate things and must be tightly controlled or it will take over. This widely believed conceptualization of anger is not correct, misrepresents anger, and misleads people whose involvement with anger is problematic.
Anger is just a tool.
Which is the second point I want to make.
You don’t control your cell phone, the tv remote, or a sewing machine. You learn to master these tools in order to get the most out of them. It is the same with anger, as a tool.
You need to learn to master it in order to get it to work for you.
That being said, anger mastery does begin with anger management (or control).
As I noted above, the function of anger, as a tool, is to both alert you and prepare you to deal with a perceived threat.
When we lived in caves, this unconscious process worked flawlessly, reliably and consistently because all threats were survival based and would kill us if not eliminated. War was what was needed to insure our survival. The only assessments that were required were how many of us were needed and what weapons would we use.
While the emotion of anger has not changed, the environment in which you live, and get angry, has changed significantly!
Indeed, most of the threats you face are psychological and do not require you to go to war.
So, in order for you to get the most out of your anger as a threat detector and engage the thinking part of your brain, you need to lower the initial arousal of your primitive anger cycle. If your involvement/arousal level is too high, it will be difficult to think clearly and objectively.
Managing your anger by lowering your arousal level is what you need to do.
In the AMC, the process represented by S.T.O.P. enables you to do this.
S stands for stopping the unconscious anger process by creating both a physical and a psychological safe place.
T involves taking a step back physically and taking a deep breath.
The step back is physical.
The deep breath both relaxes you a bit and shifts your focus. This is the psychological space. Your goal is to associate a deep breath with the initial experience of anger. You are still angry but less aroused.
This shift in focus gives you the space to both O observe what is actually going on and P practice emotional intelligence which involves engaging the thinking part of your brain.
The process of anger mastery involves assessing the nature of the threat so you can decide what actions are needed to effectively deal with the threat.
In the world you live in, your anger, as a tool, alerts you to the possibility of a threat and gives you the energy to deal with a threat, if it exists.
But, for you, it is necessary to determine whether there is a genuine threat or something else (other in the AMC) is going on.
As you can see in the AMC, there are three possibilities that could explain one’s anger when no real threat exists.
- There is no actual threat and you have misunderstood or misinterpreted the situation you are facing.
- You are using your anger as a secondary emotion to cover over other feelings such as shame, hurt or anxiety. Anger is a powerful energizing emotion while these other feelings may sap your energy or leave you feeling somewhat helpless.
- You are using your anger as an instrumental emotion to manipulate others into doing what you want because they are intimidated by your anger.
Once you have assessed the nature of the threat, you enter the third part of the AMC which involves choosing a response.
III: Choose a Response
There are two basic possibilities here.
The threat is genuine or it isn’t.
If the threat is genuine, you stay with your original thoughts about the threat, you remain angry and you use the energy of your anger to execute whatever is needed to eliminate the threat.
If there is no threat, you need to change your thoughts about the situation you are facing and how you are responding to it. You have many options here but it boils down to doing nothing or choosing a more effective method of resolving whatever is going on.
To summarize, the AMC begins with anger functioning as it has always done as a primitive threat detector and motivator. The emotion alerts you to a possible threat by eliciting an unconscious physical response.
The AMC then progresses through anger management, or S.T.O.P., which lowers the initial unconscious reaction just enough to allow you to engage in anger mastery which involves assessing the nature of the threat and choosing an effective response which either matches and dispatches a genuine threat or moves beyond the emotion of anger which isn’t really appropriate.