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January 17, 2014

Periodically I get calls from prospective clients who are inquiring about anger management therapy, and some of them would actually tell me that they have no idea why they are angry. One guy told me about how he had threatened the life of a fellow motorist, and how appalled he was with himself after the incident. Yet he couldn’t understand why he was so angry for this was one of a series of incidents that he had been involved in during the past month.

For those who do book an appointment with me,  the reasons for their anger becomes painfully obvious, but the question remains why couldn’t they understand the triggers for their anger in  the first place? The answer is quite straight forward- distraction.

Beer, food, video games, sex, sports, parties,  etc..  These are all types of activities that  if done in excess lead to a distraction of the mind. These are also activities that reduce the experience of negative feelings and increase the production of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter the brain produces when we feel joy. Another neurotransmitter the brain produces in response to pleasurable feelings is serotonin.

The problem with entertaining activities which we use to distract ourselves is that they are short lived. This means after a period of time, we find ourselves consuming more entertainment in order to produce the feel good neurotransmitters. This then leads to the point of diminishing return, where regardless of the amount of entertainment we consume, we find our difficult feelings inescapable.

The answer to understanding why we get angry lies in our ability to recognize our difficult feelings without overreacting. The thing with anger is that  it is an emotion of illusion. When we get angry, it is simply because our expectations have not been met. No matter how you slice it,  at the end of the day the best attitude to adopt for better health is an attitude of humility, regardless of how much wrong you have experienced due to someone else’s actions.

When people who have been experiencing episodes of anger share with me that they do not understand why they are angry, the truth is quickly revealed once I get them to exercise calm and I begin to ask them some personal questions. What is often revealed is a deep sense of disappointment with some facets, if not all facets of their lives. They have usually spent so many years distracting themselves that even when their methods of distraction have stopped working, they still are unable to recognize their difficult feelings.

The most effective method for understanding the source of your anger is to stop distracting yourself. Entertainment is not a bad thing but if done in excess it becomes mind numbing. Practice going one week without any source of entertainment, this includes, video games, movies, alcohol and and any pleasurable non productive activity you frequently engage in.

The second step is to familiarize yourself with a list of feelings like this one, as you go through the week without your typical distractions. Your difficult feelings are going to be quite intense that your knee jerk reaction is to mistake these feelings for anger. Once you have familiarized yourself, with a list of feeling words, get into the habit of documenting your daily experiences with difficult feelings which will crop up in your daily interactions with others.

The third step is to commit to not react to your difficult feelings, regardless of how badly you feel. If you find yourself unable to honor this third step, it is strongly advised you see a therapist who can guide you through the process of understanding why you are angry.
Often you will find that your skill in being able to distract from your difficult feelings was honed during your childhood years.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.

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