What Are Your Triggers? Part 2: Anger
As much as we try to keep anger at bay, the truth is, it’s hard to keep them out forever from our life. Anger is one of the basic human emotions and we all experience it from time to time. In fact, depending on the situation, anger can be an appropriate, valid, and healthy emotional reaction to things we perceive as being unfair or painful to us. If someone hit us physically, for no apparent reason, anger would be a very normal response.
However, there is also the type of anger that is over-the-top, uncontrollable, and irrational. The type of anger–wrath, fury or rage–that can be problematic for your physical/emotional well-being and personal relationships. Research shows that anger can increase people’s chances of developing coronary heart disease and worsen pre-existing heart conditions. Anger can also lead to stress-related problems including insomnia, digestive problems, and headaches.
Uncontrolled anger can do much damage to our relationships as well. As anger hijacks the amygdala–the part of the brain that processes fear or threat–it alerts us to danger and activates the body to immediately and automatically react by fighting, running away or freezing.
The fight-flight-freeze response was appropriate for our human predecessors because it allowed them to react quickly to surrounding physical threats. Today, while there are far fewer environmental threats, we also have highly developed frontal lobes, the two large areas at the front of the brain, which is part of a more advanced brain system that does the thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and planning. When the amygdala is activated due to anger, it wants to automatically activate the fight-flight-freeze response, but simultaneously, the frontal lobes are processing the information to assess the danger and come up with the most rational response to it.
When the threat is mild or moderate, the frontal lobes take over the amygdala, and you respond in a rational, calm way. We say that one is within their window of tolerance when this happens. But, when the threat is strong, the amygdala kicks in overpowering the frontal lobes, immediately triggering the fight-flight-freeze response. This is when the person is pushed out of their optimal zone or their window of tolerance. Below is a simplified way of looking at this:
When the fight response is activated, it often results in a sudden, illogical, and irrational reaction to the situation as we try to attack the thing or person we perceive as a threat. The flight response, on the other hand, makes us withdraw and run away. Freeze is when we go numb and feel paralyzed. The type of response that’s triggered is highly personal and varies from person to person.
So far, I’ve discussed the theoretical/scientific explanation of anger. Now let’s turn to Liz, our friend, and see what the fight-flight-freeze response looks like in day-to-day reality. Liz just found out a beautiful necklace in her partner’s pocket. Her partner, Peter, is a practical man and has never bought her jewelry, except for the wedding band they exchanged five years ago.
Let’s imagine that Liz has a fight response to the trigger. Upon discovery, Liz starts to feel a rush of anger. Her hands clench and shoulders tense up. She immediately goes to Peter and starts swearing at him. She accuses him of having an affair and tells him to leave the home. Peter, caught off-guard, is dumbfounded and hurt by the attack.
Now, let’s imagine that Liz reacts with a flight response. Upon finding the necklace, she locks herself in the bedroom. It’s now past dinner time, Peter is wondering what’s happening and comes to check on Liz. He knocks on the door, but hears no response except her sobbing. He tries for two hours to no avail. He eventually gives up and sleeps in the couch.
Freeze response may look something like this: Liz goes numb the moment she finds the necklace. Her legs weaken and she collapses on the floor. She sits on the floor feeling paralyzed for an hour. Peter comes to check on her and finds her giving him a blank look, holding the necklace in her hand. He asks what’s happened, but she is unable to give him a coherent answer.
Let’s take a step back and consider the following: Is there enough reason to believe that the necklace was for someone else other than Liz? How effective were the above responses in expressing Liz’s feelings to Peter?
The truth of the matter is that even if Liz’s intuitions were right (i.e., Peter bought the necklace for someone other than Liz), fight-flight-freeze responses impede Liz’s ability to act in a rational, calm, and controlled way. She is more likely to act impulsively that she might regret later or do not reflect her values. By taking a step back, Liz is able to prevent the amygdala from being hijacked so that her frontal lobes may work out a more considered response to the situation.
Liz can increase her window of tolerance with regular practice of paying attention to her emotions and learning what her anger triggers are. For example, as part of her exercise, she can consider the following sentence: Whenever ___________ (situation or event) happens, I feel ___________ (emotion), which can then lead to ____________ (a negative behaviour).
Another alternative is for Liz to preemptively think of ways to deal with the emotions before the situation results in a negative behaviour: Whenever ___________ (situation or event) happens, I feel ___________ (emotion). When I feel ___________ (emotion), I plan to ____________ (coping behaviour) to help me with my emotion.
In addition, she can also consider ways she can deal with the negative behaviour by thinking of alternative, positive behaviour she can use when she is triggered: Whenever ___________ (situation or event) happens, I feel ___________ (emotion), which can then lead to ____________ (a negative behaviour). I plan to stop this negative behaviour by replacing it with ___________ (a positive behaviour).
Replacing the negative behaviour with a preferred, alternative behaviour does not happen overnight. But, it can happen. Just like going to the gym, working with a trainer, and joining workout classes can help someone wanting to develop their muscles, it is possible to work with emotions. The more you understand your emotions, the more likely you are to expand the window of tolerance and cope with anger more effectively and constructively.