Imagine a pill you take much like an aspirin that works instantly to calm your temper when it’s about to burst into a Herculean mess. That’s what researchers might be on the brink of formulating after experiments on mice helped them identify the brain’s anger centre. The scientists at New York University found that chemical changes in the brain’s lateral septum (LS) made the mice attack other animals, a discovery they said could lead to the eventual creation of drugs that could help control anger.
On social media, it takes far less than a Katie Hopkins soundbyte to enrage the digital British public into attack mode.
Meanwhile, we remain a nation of quiet seethers. Research by PruHealth found nearly half of us admit to snapping at colleagues, 28 per cent to shouting at people at work and a staggering one in four admit to slamming down phones, banging fists on desks and even throwing things across the office floor. On social media, it takes far less than a Katie Hopkins soundbyte to enrage the digital British public into attack mode. But at least until the anger pill is a reality, the less medical are our only options.
One such approach is based in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and helps people identify their anger issues, spot the triggers and learn the techniques to manage the problem. It’s been practiced by Dr Isabel Clarke, a consultant clinical psychologist, for ten years in an NHS anger management program in London’s inner city. Here, Dr Clarke explains why we all feel so furious, so often and what can help.
Why are we all so angry?
The more ongoing stress someone is under the more likely they are to have an anger problem. Because we’re working harder then ever, we’re seeing an increase in chronically stressed people presenting to their GPs and mental health clinics with anger issues.
Our increasing anger problem is also related to what I call the rise of disinhibition. There is a greater level of acceptance of anger, swearing and even violent behaviour than there was say, 50 years ago, so a kind of group permission is given by society to react in more angry ways than we might have in the past.
There is a greater level of acceptance of anger, swearing and even violent behaviour than there was say, 50 years ago
Social media and email have played a role too because they speed up our reactions. 20 years ago, someone might have written an angry letter but they would have had to find paper, buy a stamp and wait a day for it to arrive – all points at which they could reconsider whether their reaction is a helpful one or not. Indeed, our inhibition is at its highest when we’re faced with the person making it far less likely we’ll go into a full frontal attack on them. Today, someone can fire off an angry tweet or email at midnight and bitterly regret it the next day.
The anger trap
Anger manifests in different ways. One person might turn their anger against themselves which can manifest as depression, addiction or self-harm. Another might explode often. But anger has a necessary function: to protect us by alerting us to a threat. That ‘threat system’ is part is part of our evolution – it’s primal – and changes your body from a calm state into one that is ready to take action; to attack. A shot of the stress hormone adrenalin is released which leads to tense muscles, increased blood circulation, short breathing and increased alertness. Most people when faced with a threat say, at work, will process such feelings by thinking, ‘Well, punching my boss right now won’t be helpful so I better hold that in,’ whereas an angry person might flick into fight mode. Moreover, that buzz from the adrenaline that rushes around the body when the threat system is activated can be addictive. Likewise, when anger results in the person getting what they want they can get caught in an anger trap where temper outbursts seem like the only way they can express their needs.
The stress connection
People that are under chronic stress exist in a state that is almost always in threat mode, alert for threat. As a result, they exist day to-day in a state that’s closer to boiling point than the rest of us. It’s a bit like running your car on second gear on the motorway, you’re using the car’s resources to tackle a problem that isn’t there making your car more likely to be damaged, burn out or even explode. So it is with humans, the more we exist in highly stressed out threat mode, the more likely we are to react with anger.
Here are five simple ways to stop being angry:
1. Calm your short fuse
Pay attention to when your body is moving into threat mode – for example, during a conversation or while you’re driving or commuting – and you will discover your own early warning signs of anger (everyone’s will be different). These might be feeling stressed across the shoulders, an uncomfortable feeling in the stomach, foot- or chair-tapping. Ask yourself: What is the matter Then do something about it then and there. This might be having a constructive conversation (see below) or doing a simple mindfulness technique such as taking long, slow out breaths. Making your out breath slightly longer than your in breath can be instantly relaxing and works to switch off the body’s action response. Or try grounded mindfulness by stopping and noticing your body, your surroundings and everything that is not in your head. By paying attention to the physical reality around you and taking in the bigger picture, you instantly distance yourself from your own threat system, getting the mental space to ask yourself whether you might need to take some time out (see below).
2. Escape wind up thinking
The language we use in our thoughts – and with others – can alert the body to a threat situation, priming it to react with anger. Characteristic wind up thoughts (or spoken words) include ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ or ‘oughts’ as well as phrases beginning with ‘You never,’ ‘You always’ or – a common one – ‘It’s not fair’. These are definite, accusatory and inflexible and can keep you fixed in threat mode where you’re more likely to blow up. It can be hard to change your thought patterns. Instead, recognise wind up thinking and acknowledge that it’s not in your best interest to continue it, simply observe the thoughts and then let them go.
3. Object without losing it
Angry people often try to project an attitude of ‘I’m cool, nothing gets to me’ and as a result, may not respond to things that are not quite right at the time, letting resentments build up until they eventually explode. Learning to communicate assertively is essential to combat this. The key is to state what you want firmly and calmly with words such as ‘Excuse me, I can’t let this go, ‘ but also to communicate that you understand the interests of the other person and demonstrate that you have thought about that. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – this is something people with anger issues often have a hard time with as they tend to be wound up in their own position.
It can be hard to have a constructive conversation if one or both parties have already switched into attack mode. Take a couple having an argument. If one of them notices their own or the other person’s anger building up with physical signs such increased breathing and raised voice, they might say they need to go out for a walk to clear their head. Often, this is the point where the other partner won’t let them, desperate to get one last point across. But it’s also the point where arguments can escalate to emotional or physical violence. I have worked with couples to help them understand that when one of them says: ‘Look I need to take some space now,’ the other respects. Having an agreement that that is okay is essential for dealing with anger anywhere, but especially at home. Don’t carry on the discussion if you observe in someone’s behaviour or speech – or your own – that their body has gone into action mode. Take time out with a walk outside, some time alone perhaps journaling or calling a friend.
5…or let go
When your body is in threat mode anything – from being told you might lose your job to being jumped in the bank queue – can feel equally outrageous and worthy of an outburst. By taking a step back with the breathing practices explained above, you can see the bigger picture and work out whether it really is outrageous and worth fighting for – some things are – or not. Ask yourself if it will matter in five minutes. If the answer is no, let it go.