Anger. We all experience it, most of us fear it in others – and also in ourselves because the process of being angry is uncomfortable and exhausting.
But why do we get angry and how can psychotherapy help us deal with it more effectively?
Sam Jahara has covered anger management in in other BHP blogs. This article looks in more depth at why anger can become out of control and a source of mental distress and outlines key areas of understanding why anger is triggered.
Anger originates in the limbic system. This is the most primitive part of the brain which evolved to keep us safe. It does so by the flight/flight/freeze response to danger. When a threat is detected, powerful hormones such as adrenalin are manufactured in milliseconds by key organs in the body and these enable us to react swiftly and powerfully to counter the threat.
Our self-protective reactions are triggered through our primary emotions- fear to anticipate threat; anger to react to a perceived danger, and disgust if our brains detect there is something ‘off’ or ‘bad’ in food or in the atmosphere, or in how we are being treated.
Our limbic system can react awesomely fast and astonishingly powerfully. It can do so because, as well as having access to hormone production, it has its own memory system which from the moment we are born (and even in the womb) keeps a discrete and unconscious record of every danger we have ever faced. That memory system is different from our procedural memories (rooted in other parts of the brain) and is accessible only by our limbic system.
But there is a downside to this. On the one hand, we have very powerful and rapid protective systems which, as described, operate in the blink of an eye almost automatically. The problem is that, because the response to danger is so fat and almost automatic, the limbic circuits can overreact.
In practical terms in the anger domain, this means we get disproportionately irritated and angry if the slightest flicker of a threat is detected – and often, because we are reacting to past problems rather than what is happening in the present.
Therapy can help with this in the following ways:
Identifying anger-related patterns of behaviour (schemas): As we grow up, we develop patterns of behaviour which we think will keep us safe, but which can be maladaptive. There are 18 core patterns, an example of which are abandonment and mistrust/abuse. If someone leaves us or we badly treated (either physically or mentally) we can become ultra-vigilant about detecting signs of someone leaving or harming us, triggering powerful anger. Further details about our schemas are available here.
Early life-experiences: During sessions, the therapist explores the client’s early life experiences to understand how key patterns of behaviour such as failure, abandonment, emotional deprivation or defectiveness and shame evolved. This often involves going back to past traumas through practical exercises which enable us to reduce the level of perceived threat.
Changing coping strategies: Anger is a way of keeping us safe because it deters would-be aggressors. It is triggered within us because we feel vulnerable – but it can also be a learned behaviour that is rooted in past problems rather than the present, and against people who were problems long ago rather than now. The therapist works with the client to uncover the maladaptive reactions and replace them with healthier alternatives.
Learning to regulate core emotions: Anger, fear and disgust are essential protective responses to danger and perceived threat. But our limbic system can become over-vigilant and over-sensitive. A main goal of therapy is to show how clients can work to control emotions more effectively – though this is never completely possible, because the survival mechanism is so powerful Techniques include mindfulness and relaxation exercises.
Meeting emotional needs: As I have outlined in other blogs, we all need a secure base and the feeling that our core needs as a human being are met. Therapy aims to show the importance of this, thereby also illustrating that anger is not needed as a coping mechanism.
Comforting our vulnerable child: When a child feels threatened, its anger is not regulated by having a fully-functioning pre-frontal cortex, it is out of control – what is termed a tantrum. Adult anger as a response to danger, by contrast, is short, sharp and quickly over. The therapist works on providing ways of reassuring the vulnerable child in the client that such over-reaction is not needed and can be regulated.
Taken together, these different strands of treatment and exploration gradually strengthen the healthy adult in all of us the realise that coping with danger does not require anger. We can instead negotiate in much gentler ways to have our needs met and to feel safe. The benefits can be a greater sense of peace and calm and the ability to enjoy life without constant tension and feelings of exhaustion.
For more information about Anger Management see the following links:
David Keighley is a BACP Accredited counsellor/psychotherapist offering short and long term therapy to individuals and couples using a variety of techniques such as EMDR, CBT and Schema Therapy. He is also a trained clinical supervisor. He is available at our Brighton & Hove Practice.
Further reading by David Keighley –