by Nigel Turner HSC, AMFC, OSP
Anger per se is a good thing. It keeps us alive. It is a survival tool ‒ but used inappropriately it leads to destruction of the self and others.
The basic causes of aggressive anger and addiction are similar. It all starts in the brain with the interaction between the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, and the rational part, the prefrontal cortex. With both anger and addiction, the brain is unable to cope with information (generally related to safety and survival). When the brain gets overwhelmed, it goes into either rigidity or chaos as a way of handling the flow of information. So, getting drunk or high or getting angry are automatic options as a way of coping. Neither case thinks through alternatives or consequences, but both give immediate relief to emotional overwhelming.
Unfortunately, the limbic system is much more powerful than the rational brain. It remembers everything about safety and survival. If we had (in our perception) an unsafe beginning in our life, we are programmed to see everything years later through the same lens. Hence we over-react to small things, because we are interpreting events through the eyes of a child. It is in our subconscious. We have learned ‒ through no fault of our own ‒ to be wary about whether others might harm us, wilfully or otherwise. As a result, we are constantly worried about getting hurt and feeling that there is something wrong with us.
So it stands to reason that we interpret everything from this negative standpoint. This leads us to being edgy, nervous, fearful of others, with little impulse control, etc. People with this disposition are seen to have “insecure attachments”: they do not see the world as safe and friendly; they constantly expect negative outcomes.
A healthy person is free to develop basic survival skills about how to look after themselves and interact with others because they expect good things to result. The unhealthy person misses out on learning these skills, so everything is a crisis. Their brain is in permanent overwhelm. Healthy people can process their emotions and come up with effective coping strategies; unhealthy people can’t.
When sobriety comes, the thinking that has been behind that type of decision-making has to change. The recovered person has no experience about how to be in touch with themselves or with other people. Emotionally they are cut off.
Anger management is learning how to protect yourself. We say that “anger is the flipside of helplessness” and “he/she who angers you, controls you.” Therefore the person has to learn how to deal with difficult information. When the anger trigger occurs, the limbic system recognizes the threat but the information does not get processed in the frontal cortex; the person has no option but to lash out. Anger management is learning how to develop options, which means getting the two parts of your brain to interact productively so you can see what’s going on inside of you and between you and others.
With the advent of brain imaging in the 1990s, scientists could see what parts of the brain got activated when triggered by anger. They observed an over-activation in the limbic system and little activation in the frontal cortex, a process they described as “emotional hijacking.” Angry people believe that they rely on thought and not on emotions, yet the actual stimulus is from the emotions. And if a person doesn’t know what is going on inside themselves emotionally, they have no idea why they get angry.
Anger is a reaction to fear. So an incident in the kitchen between husband and wife gets blown out of all proportion because they are talking to each other emotionally as children, reliving old fears of when they were powerless kids and subject to the power and authority of adults. So why are they so desperate to get in the last word? Why do they have to “win?”
Going back in memory, the kids didn’t know how to negotiate, they felt powerless, they felt that issues never got resolved or clarified. They went to bed with them unresolved and woke up with a memory of not being able to resolve things. Twenty or thirty years later they unconsciously expect the same result. This is why each incident is played out like it is a life-or-death situation.
The emotional intelligence teaching model is a systematic way to work on connecting the emotional part of the brain to decision-making. It is separated into five main sections, dealing with both what is going on internally within the person and what is going on externally between the person and someone or something else.
1. Self perception: How do you see yourself? Do you have much self-awareness?
2. Self expression: How do you express yourself? Are you assertive and have boundaries? Or are you passive-aggressive? Or full of rage?
3. Interpersonal skills: Do you have empathy for others? Do you see how you come across to others?
4. Decision making: Can you problem solve? Are you able to test reality?
5. Managing stress: Are you flexible or rigid? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Can you tolerate stress? Or are you too impulsive?
While the model looks simple, the brain is well wired to “old ways.” As with the 12 steps, there is a lot of re-learning to do.
Nigel Turner is Program Director for Anger Management and Domestic Abuse at Just 4 Today and has his own private practice in the east end of Toronto where he specializes in addictions, anger and relationships, working with both individuals and couples. He and his partner also do workshops on anger for professionals and business. He is a clinical member of the Ontario Society of Psychotherapists, is court-approved and can offer services covered for EAP. You can find his website at turnercatherineassociates.com and his blog at whysoangry.ca. Read his article “The Paradox of Power and Control” for an overview of anger management treatment.