Anger is a primitive signal from our subconscious that we should pay attention to. It is a ‘call to action’, though the action that anger prompts can sometimes make situations worse, for us, for others, and for our relationships. Anger arises when someone, or something, is interfering with our goals or compromising our values, beliefs, desires, or ambitions. We have a right to be angry, and when we vent anger by shouting, thumping the table, or throwing insults at the person who triggered the anger… it can feel quite good, can’t it?
Imagine you are driving home from a hard day at work. You are hungry and keen to see your family and the traffic is terrible, meaning your journey will be an hour instead of the usual thirty minutes.
The vehicles are nose to tail, and you are going at a snail’s pace along the inside lane of a motorway (highway) that is exiting into a single lane turn-off in half a mile. You have now reached the exit after 15 minutes of queuing, moving at around 20mph, leaving a respectable, safe gap in front of you. All of a sudden a young driver, who has bypassed the long queue, brakes hard in the second lane next to you and swerves his car into the space in front of you. He then brakes hard to adjust to your slower lane.
Your eyes grow wide, brows raised and squeezed towards each other, your mouth stretches back horizontally towards your ears, your muscles are tense as you straighten your arms and grip your steering wheel, your legs are charged with blood as they prepare the muscles in preparation for running away from the threat. You breathe in… and hold it… while your heartbeat doubles in rate. Your skin cools (maybe pales) across your body as the blood circulation is directed away from the skin to minimise bleeding in case it is torn in a possible fight or accident. Your digestion system stops working instantaneously, and your mouth dries as the digestion supporting saliva production stops too. Your body is channelling all your resources to the organs that need them most to handle the threat of harm. This orchestrated physiological IMPULSE happens to you within 400 milliseconds of the trigger – that is the offending car braking hard in front of you. It’s an evolved impulse. The same impulse that would have affected the bodies of your ancestral neanderthal primates… and the apes before them.
The REACTION that sometimes follows, benefits from the prepared body to take flight and escape the threat.
You have evolved to automatically deal with a large object braking hard from the front – without thinking you may swerve away from him so there is no collision or harm done. The same evasive reaction your ancestors may have taken when a huge sabre-tooth tiger came running towards them from the side.
Once you realise you are safe, your fear may blend into anger at the rudeness of the driver who must think that his time was more important than yours as he bypasses the 15-minute queue and steals a place ahead of you in the, now, stationary traffic.
“A#&@ole” you yell through the windscreen with a hand gesture to reinforce your displeasure. “What right have you got, you selfish ba&$ard, to think this behaviour is ok?”, you yell, as you fly out of your car, run over to his, and demand he winds down his window before you rip his door off. This action releases the tension that built up inside you making you feel like a hot pressure cooker with the lid on.
You see a pale face of a young man who is crying – he is trapped in a single file, stationary queue – screaming to you that he must get through this traffic to get his child to the hospital as he has suffered a fit and is struggling to breathe on the rear seat. Your shock and your guilt, turn your anger quickly back to fear, in empathy with the father’s predicament – with you now diverting your energy into a RESPONSE by running forward to ask the drivers of the cars in front to move aside and let this father and his child through.
You forgot ‘story 2’. There is always a good story 2 – an alternative positive explanation for someone else’s behaviour. Instead, you reacted with ’story 1’ – this guy is an A#&@ole.
Angry reactions such as yelling at, insulting, or even striking others might feel like an immediate release to our own stress… but it has a cost. Such behaviour can be useful to protect us and those we care about from a threat of harm from others, though it can also be a selfish transference of our stress onto others when we decide it’s all about ourselves with no consideration of the other person and what’s going on for them. It can be very selfish.
So the next time you feel the temperature of your cheeks warming, your fists clenching, and the margins of your lips tightening and rolling inwards…STOP… PAUSE for a second… and if your angry reaction will counter the threat of harm towards you or your loved ones…let it rip! That’s what anger is designed for. However, if there is no immediate threat of harm then acknowledge the anger, work out what ‘story 1’ has triggered it, and see if there is a ‘story 2’ that will allow your emotion to come under your control while your pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain) starts to work out what is really going on so you can CHOOSE a RESPONSE that is appropriate for the situation.