In The Know Zone

unlearning anger

Unlearning Anger

The anger management community has taken something of a beating in the popular and scientific press over its inability to show a high degree of success—or even to come up with a universal standard for success.

The long-term effectiveness of anger management programs among spouse abusers, juvenile offenders, prison inmates and others whose antisocial actions have brought them into the criminal justice system is spotty at best. There are no reliable national statistics on the success of anger management training in other environments.

That disappointment may stem from the misperception that anger that has reached the antisocial level can be “cured”—that simply by providing the angry person with tools to combat anger, he should be able to overcome it the way someone in physical therapy overcomes the deficits imposed by an injury.

A much more appropriate analogy would be to consider anger an addiction—a destructive behavior indulged in because it fills some inner need.

Addictions are notoriously difficult to treat, and treatment is often punctuated by relapses. Mark Twain’s quip that “quitting smoking is easy, I've done it hundreds of times,” has been repeated with varying degree of bitterness by generations of relapsed smokers.

And the less social stigma that attaches to an addiction, the harder it can be to stop. The percentage of the U.S. adult population that smoked remained unchanged for decades, until law and public attitude turned against the practice.

For someone trying to throw off the burden of chronic anger, viewing a relapse as a failure would be fatal to the effort.

If your anger problems are so serious that you have hurt someone or fear you might do so, you would be best served by seeking professional help.

If your problem is less severe, and you wish to address it on your own, you must start by recognizing that there is probably nothing unique about your angry stance toward the world. Just as alcoholics tend to behave in very similar and predictable ways, so do anger junkies. An aspect of your life can be creative only when you rule it—not when it rules you.

If you don’t use your thoughts to control anger, it will use them to control you. And if you find yourself falling into the following thought patterns when something makes you angry, that’s exactly what’s happening:

  1. Labeling: “He’s a jerk!” “She’s an idiot!”
  2. Mind reading: “He did that on purpose!” “He knew better!”
  3. Fortune telling: “She’ll never change!”
  4. Awfulizing: “They’re driving me crazy!” “I can’t stand it!”
  5. Moralizing: “He shouldn’t act like that!”
  6. Vengeance: “I’ll show him!” “I’ll wring his neck!” [14]

These reactions are counterproductive for three reasons:

  • They over-personify the situation. The responses listed above are entirely subjective—they are about you and your reaction to events. Viewed objectively, the events that anger you often have very little or no direct relationship to your needs or goals. A traffic jam does not form deliberately to thwart your progress, nor will any emotional response on your part affect the course of it. If the situation does constitute a deliberate attack, the injury is more likely to be to your ego than your body, and may be intended to elicit an angry response from you to further the attacker’s ends.
  • They block more productive responses. Trying to think of a way to escape the traffic jam and an alternate route to your destination is far more likely to serve your purposes than pounding your steering wheel and raging against the equally trapped drivers in front of you. If the attack is deliberate, taking time to weigh the most effective response is probably better than lashing out reflexively. To quote the well-worn Sicilian proverb, “revenge is a dish best served cold.”
  • They telegraph a weak point. Anyone who wants to undermine you, professionally, socially or personally, can readily see from such responses that you can’t control your anger. Your predictability makes it easy for them to put you at a disadvantage, because anger blinds you to subtle realities and inclines people to dislike and mistrust you.

You think you are using anger as a weapon, or at least as a shield. But since it’s not controlled, it’s simply a vulnerability.

The only way you can turn your anger to your own advantage is to STOP, DISENGAGE and THINK!

If you find yourself flashing into a rage and engaging in the rationalizations above, then anger is robbing you of the ability to understand the true nature and significance of what’s happening. You’ve started misrepresenting reality.

Of course you probably haven’t lost the ability to discern reality. Try this scenario: you’re raging at the driver in front of you over some infraction of the rules of courtesy he’s committed. Then, magically, instead of being separated from him by the insulation of two car bodies, you are face to face and he’s either:

a) The size and ferocity of an NFL lineman,

b) An elderly man in a wheelchair,

c) A very apologetic clergyman.

In all three cases you immediately stop your rant because, in case a), you have no desire to be turned into garden mulch, in situation b) if you continue, everyone will think you are the jerk and, in c) your moral position in the situation has been validated.

In other words, the anonymity of the original situation, not the reality, allowed you to indulge the original flash of anger spawned by the moment of fear or outrage the other driver caused you. You chose to become enraged not because it was appropriate, but because it was safe. As a practical matter, your anger accomplished nothing, except to put your body under stress and destroy your mood.

It was once believed that venting your anger was cathartic and reduced stress. More recent research found that it does just the opposite. Summing up a series of anger experiments involving 600 male and female college students, one researcher concluded that:

The results from the present research show that venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it only feeds the flames. By fueling aggressive thoughts and feelings, venting also increases aggressive responding [15]

Swallowing your anger is equally ineffective—and potentially lethal. Anger turned inward leads to depression, anxiety and a host of physical symptoms, including:

· Headache

· Digestion problems, such as abdominal pain

· Insomnia

· High blood pressure

· Skin problems, such as eczema

· Heart attack

· Stroke [16]

Anger is a last-ditch survival response, good for the duration of a life-or-death struggle, which was likely to be very brief indeed. No animal is intended to operate at maximum output for any length of time. The body has a complex system of automatic checks and balances designed to keep it operating, as much as possible, at a comfortable state of equilibrium, the way a thermostat maintains a pre-set temperature.. (Homeostasis is the technical term for this process.)

Hence the recommendation to STOP, DISENGAGE and THINK! If you stop the anger spiral by becoming aware of its onset, disengage, physically or emotionally, from the situation, and think seriously about the reality of the threat, it’s likely the anger will quickly dissipate, just from the distraction, as the body strives to restore equilibrium.

In short, you don’t have to suppress your anger, or give vent to it. As soon as you stop seeing a threat, anger will start to subside.

If that approach doesn’t work, then there is probably some psychological block preventing you from correctly perceiving the situation. It may be from your experience of anger in your home as you were growing up, or you may be suffering from clinical depression, which invokes anger as a means of staving off despair. Identifying and addressing such underlying goads to anger will probably require professional assistance.

It is worth noting that this approach to anger does not address whether it is a justifiable, given the situation, but whether it will be effective. It is asserted with some regularity by writers on the subject that anger can serve as a source of energy and commitment to a battle against injustice. However, the primal and reflexive character of anger renders this interpretation questionable. It would probably be more accurate to say that the energy and focus that would have been wasted in anger were redirected into morally sound and socially productive channels.

Fear is hard-wired into the ancient recesses of our brains. It will, in all likelihood, be a part of our species’ survival system forever. However, as we noted earlier, anger is spawned higher in the structures of the brain—in a part in which at least a primitive judgment occurs.

The cold reality of our present situation is that we have become too socially complex, too legally constrained and too lethal to allow anger much scope. We will succeed or fail, as individuals and societies, on the strength of our ability to apply an even more sophisticated level of control over it—to move its management into the highest levels of our rational thought processes.

[14] Paquette, M, Managing Anger Effectively, available at, accessed 11/10/2004

[15] Bushman, B., Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger and Aggressive Responding, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 28, No. 6, June 2002, 724-731 available at, accessed 11/24/2004

[16] The Better Health Channel, Anger—How It Affects People, 2001, (Reviewed May, 2004) available at, accessed 11/24/2004

In The Know: At Risk Pamphlet/ DVD Package
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In The Know: At Risk DVD Package