By Bernard Golden / 10.21.2016
Understanding the Anatomy of Anger
American Warriors basketball player Draymond Green has a reputation for being a “hothead.” Suspended after a championship series game, he made headlines after being arrested for slapping a fan at a bar, an infraction that could incur fines or jail time.
It’s impossible to know what prompted Green to lash out in these situations without getting inside his head. But, if he’s like the many hundreds of people I’ve worked with over my 40 years as an anger management specialist, it’s likely he feels out of control around his anger, and may not even understand its root causes.
Why do we Get Angry?
Like all emotions, anger serves a purpose, typically alerting us that we are suffering from some form of distress. This is important, because although anger can be uncomfortable mentally and physically, it can also motivate us to address our underlying needs, desires, or perceived threats. It’s unprocessed anger that can lead to conflict, social isolation, problems at work, substance abuse, depression, shame, and even incarceration.
In my new book, Overcoming Destructive Anger: Strategies That Work, I outline what I’ve learned about the nature of anger—what triggers it, how it affects our bodies and our minds, and what we can do to manage it effectively. Luckily, there are ways to maintain a healthy dose of anger without letting it rule you—whether you’re an average person trying to manage the stresses of everyday life or a star basketball player.
The Anatomy of Anger
Not everyone processes anger by punching someone or being aggressive. Some people express anger passive-aggressively or direct their anger toward themselves; others deny their anger, or become silent and withdrawn. None of these are healthy reactions. But because many of us are predisposed toward anger—either because of our biology, how we were treated by others in the past, or what we observed from family members, partners, friends, or even the media—we may not have learned other ways to cope.
Anger usually begins with a triggering event that challenges your internal harmony and well-being. It may or may not be related to another person’s behavior—it could also be due to circumstances, such as a sudden illness. A trigger may involve a single negative event or a series of events that combine to affect your mood. Or a trigger can even be imaginary, based on something you anticipate happening in the future.
Whatever the trigger, how you respond to it is the result of a series of expectations you have about how people should behave or about how life should play out, some of which may be quite unrealistic. For example, you may feel that your friends should always be available to help when you need them, or that you should never have to feel the effects of aging. If you have these expectations, then experiencing the unavailability of a friend or arthritic pain in your joints may trigger you to respond in anger.
Being Aware of your Thought Process
Anger can also result from how you choose to appraise a triggering event. You may think the event has a deeper, more general meaning, such as when your spouse comes home late from work because of a traffic jam and you interpret it as uncaring or disrespectful. Being more aware of your thought processes here can help you avoid getting lost in stories of what your spouse’s behavior might mean.
Usually, anger is a reaction to other uncomfortable feelings below the surface, such as hurt, disappointment, sadness, anxiety, embarrassment, or shame. Even if these uncomfortable emotions are not acknowledged in the moment, they may still be there.
Sadly, too many people tend to want to flee these feelings before they fully understand them—and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
Three Skills for Managing Anger
To manage anger in a healthier way—and to prevent it from turning destructive—involves self-reflection, using skills from three broad areas of understanding and practice: mindfulness and mindfulness meditation, self-compassion, and self-awareness.
How can these help? Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation help you examine your own experiences without reacting to them or becoming overwhelmed. Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help teach you that your thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions are only temporary rather than a fixed part of who you are. This gives you increased freedom to choose how to react to them.
Understanding your Emotions
For example, through mindfulness—acceptance of your moment-to-moment experience—you may be able to say to yourself in a moment of anger, “This is a feeling I’m experiencing right now,” creating the sense that you are the observer and in control. This awareness allows you to ponder the choices available to you in responding to anger. It can also help you to be more accepting of your thoughts and feelings, so that you don’t have to push them away.
Support for this comes from studies showing an association between mindfulness and the ability to differentiate between different emotions—an ability that, in turn, helps you better regulate negative emotions. In a 2011 review of mindfulness research, authors Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes of Pennsylvania State University found that mindfulness “predicts relationship satisfaction, ability to respond constructively to relationship stress, skill in identifying and communicating emotions to one’s partner, amount of relationship conflict, negativity, and empathy.” In addition, “people with higher trait mindfulness reported less emotional stress in response to relationship conflict and entered conflict discussion with less anger and anxiety.”
The Power of Self-Compassion
Once you are mindfully aware of your experiences, self-compassion involves being sensitive to your own suffering and accepting yourself without judgment, as well as seeing yourself as deserving of nurturing and care. It embodies neither self-pity nor self-indulgence, but rather a healthy affirmation of oneself. Practicing self-compassion allows you to recognize anger as a signal of underlying pain that must be addressed. Furthermore, it can help you to judge your emotions less harshly, another way to mitigate anger.
Research by self-compassion scholars, such as Kristen Neff, has shown that self-compassion increases emotional resilience and stability, and decreases negative self-evaluations, defensiveness, and the need to see oneself as better than others. In a series of studies on self-compassion, researchers found that “people high in self-compassion appear to cognize about negative events in ways that reduce their impact” and that “self-compassionate participants had more self-relevant thoughts that reflected self-kindness, common humanity, and mindful acceptance” than those who were low in self-compassion. All of this bodes well for decreasing anger.
When practiced together, mindfulness and self-compassion skills “reduce reactivity, strengthen autonomy, promote emotional sensitivity, enhance understanding of historical sources of our hurts, and provide guidelines for safe, effective communication,” says Harvey Aronson, author of Buddhist Practice on Western Ground.
There are other self-awareness skills that can help us look deeply into each experience and further our capacity for healthy anger. For example, I often ask my clients to fill out an anger log (after they’ve calmed down) to get them in touch with the types of situations that trigger anger for them and the feelings and thoughts that precede and follow a triggering event. The anger log can make you more skillful at altering the course of anger progression by giving you information about where you get stuck.
By reviewing your thoughts and being open to new ways of thinking, as well as understanding your personal histories and emotions, you can learn how to be more compassionate for yourself and others.
A Healthier Kind of Anger
Of course, one of the challenges to reducing unhealthy anger is that sometimes anger feels positive in the moment you experience it. Anger can give you a cortisol rush that makes you feel alive and energized. It can also help you avoid taking responsibility for your own decisions, since anger is a way of blaming others for your suffering. Plus, anger can temporarily give you what you want: It can distract you from pain and threatening feelings, while making others feel anxious or threatened, thus allowing you to gain the upper hand. No doubt Green is privy to these positive impacts.
But regularly directing anger at someone is likely to make him or her less supportive of you in the long run and possibly withdraw, leaving you more isolated and vulnerable. Feeling and expressing anger frequently is a drain on your body and health—not to mention your work life and relationships.
If we make a commitment to ourselves to aim for healthier expressions of anger, we do a great service to ourselves and to others. Mindfulness, self-compassion, and self-awareness can lead us toward greater compassion for those around us, and to more authentic, happy relationships. It may take some discipline to look at anger this deeply, and there may be setbacks along the way. But, in the end, understanding and managing anger will lead to a more fulfilling and authentic life.
It may even save your basketball career.