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Taming the irrational beast called anger

When strong negative emotions kidnap the thinking brain, we become scarcely more coherent than a wild animal

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You may have seen a video recently of a man punching a fellow pedestrian who he felt took his photo without authorization. Once the video was released, the man came forward and apologized for what he called his uncharacteristic behaviour.

Whether it’s a result of stress, the state of the economy or a variety of other complex factors, we are often too ready to explode and assign blame to others when we feel emotional upheaval.

From the workplace to the home, anger warrants some wonderful discussion – let’s just not get too triggered by anything I say about this caustic form of emotion.

What is anger?

Anger is a natural emotion that can help protect us from attacks against our physical or emotional well-being. When used appropriately, anger can motivate us to achieve goals we would otherwise be too afraid or lazy to pursue. In this way, anger may not be a big problem.

However, if you find yourself fuming when someone cuts you off in traffic or your blood pressure spikes when your child refuses to co-operate, anger might be a challenge for you.

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How anger affects our brain

When anger flares, the left hemisphere of your brain is strongly activated. A kind of simplistic logic is used while the context-processing right hemisphere is all but ignored. So it seems logical to lash out (if any thought is involved at all).

Some people get a buzz from the excitement that anger provides in an otherwise dull day. Testosterone increases, as does energizing adrenaline.

Some people get hooked on the intensity even though for many it’s deeply unpleasant – even scary – to feel so angry.

In chronic anger, we may find a fast-track to receiving attention – a kind of status elevation as people constantly monitor us to see how we’ll take things. “Is he/she going to be okay with this?” When used in this manner, anger takes on a bully persona.

Extreme anger causes us to act in ways we may come to bitterly regret. What seems like a good idea when we’re angry can feel really shameful once we calm down.

When strong negative emotions kidnap the thinking brain, our IQ drops like a stone. Even the brightest minds among us appear scarcely more coherent than a wild animal.

We only see simplistic, good-or-bad, all-or-nothing perspectives. Other people come to be seen as inferior should they dare to have differing opinions.

Anger is a conditioned response. If you’ve been angry with an individual a few times, you can become conditioned to feel anger automatically whenever they show up. Soon, just hearing their name produces a shot of irritation. In this way, anger can work like an hypnotic trigger, kicking in automatically before our logical mind even recognizes it’s happening.

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The first strategy in taming the beast is to spend some time developing awareness of the triggers so you can practise switching them off when they pop up.

  • Explore when anger becomes a problem for you. Are you overtired, feel under time pressure or feel disrespected? Do you become most angry when you’ve been consuming alcohol? Or when someone appears to fail to be accountable in their role and responsibilities?
  • Count, breathe and shift your posture. Before reacting, breathe deeply and count to five. Look toward the ceiling to help bypass the amygdala part of your the brain. By lifting your eyes, toes, nose and thumbs, your brain can activate the hippocampus and bring some much-needed endorphins and context to the party.
  • Lean on the emotion of curiosity. When you feel anger, see if you can interrupt it with a few critical questions: What’s another way of looking at this? Is it possible I missed something?

Anger happens fast (and that speed can cause us to forget all these tips). So it’s a good idea to rehearse so the response to future triggers is no longer disruptive anger. And you won’t punch someone who takes your photo.

Troy Media Columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

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