"I'm OK, you're OK." Remember the standard 1970's psychological rhetoric? "Trust your feelings" was the psychological mantra of the time. For some of us it has come as a blessed relief to find out through brain imaging techniques that feelings are located in the emotional center of the brain and are actually a rather primitive system. The emotional limbic system is a networking apparatus located primarily in the midbrain area. Feelings evolved as a signal survival system: fear to flee, anger to fight, and pleasure for food and sex. Of course it is far more complex, but the truth is that feeling sensations are powerful but not necessarily smart. When we are upset the blood perfusion to our cortex, the thought center, is remarkably reduced as our blood rushes to our extremities for flight or fight. The emotional system was in place some 400 million years before we had a cortical thought center. We are wise to guide our emotional inclinations with thoughtful direction. However, as anyone who has been angry or anxious or highly sexually aroused knows, this is often no small feat. One has to literally go against the powerful inclinations of the body ready to snarl or act. The bared teeth and facial contortions of couples arguing are remarkably similar to the primate aggressive visages more often associated with angry animals. Sometimes it is a good thing to act on our feelings and sometimes decidedly not. It is the logic of our more evolved cerebral systems that should guide our emotions, particularly anger.
Frequent forays into anger are not usually helpful. The emotional state of anger evolved originally to drive off intruders. In today's world it clearly must be used thoughtfully and constructively, rather like atomic energy. Hurtful anger can kill love. Remember that we most readily conjure up that which upsets us. So hurtful angry words once spoken take on a life in the recipient's memory to be easily triggered and coded to come back with all the upset of the moment of verbal assault. If a relationship is a composite of memories, bad memories tend to have more salience that good ones. It is easy to see how hurtful words or acts can poison love. Business managers have been told for years that it takes four or five "attaboys" to make up for one criticism. Perhaps the most important part of intimacy is just to make happy memories.
Feelings, it turns out, can go awry. For example, recent research indicates that an animal that is repetitively exposed to aggression during periods of critical brain development, childhood for example, has alterations in certain gene expression that result in permanent changes in neurotransmitters that control reactivity patterns. These animals are forever quicker to express rage and anger. As a psychologist, I see this kind of predisposition to anger quite frequently. Some people respond to stress or frustration with irritability and anger almost automatically. Others seem to rarely "go there". Most angry people have had some precedent in childhood for their own angry reactivity. Usually one parent or another is described as rageful, negative, critical, etc. Children almost always absorb the emotional reactivity patterns of their parents. Others may have experienced some critical incident of trauma which can leave the emotional system hyperactive, i.e. easily triggered, with intensified emotional states. Some say that anger is the most accessible emotion in males. I am not sure this is true, but it can be a biologically ready response for males who have experienced repetitive rage during critical childhood brain development. Of course there may also be genetic predispositions in temperament. Finally, for many of us the stress of crowding and competition in our contemporary culture may elicit anger.
Every time we behave in a certain way, we strengthen the neural connections so that we are more likely to respond in that manner again. So, every time you rage, you become more likely to rage again. And every time you avoid such an outburst you are more able to accomplish this feat again the next time anger gets triggered.
Many people go to therapy to learn how to override maladaptive patterns that were absorbed in childhood or that have been acquired as a result of some traumatic experience or neurobiological proclivity. We want to take the good legacies from our genes and life experiences forward but leave behind the bad ones. If one becomes consciously aware of predisposed emotional states or intensified feelings, then one can intentionally monitor for these reactions on a cognitive level, catching them before expressed to the detriment of all. Usually by separating, people can learn to hold their tongues (and hands so to speak) until they have calmed down. Then, when homeostasis is reestablished blood flow can return from a fight or flight state to profuse the thought center once again. It is time to constructively and kindly proffer ones point of view with an ear to the other side of the mountain. Should anger re-erupt, a quick separation is always in order.
Plan for your next anger attack. Figure out what triggers you, i.e. what kinds of circumstances, people, stress, etc. Plan to close your mouth and take a time out, leave. Calm down alone so that blood returns from your extremities back to the cortex so you can think. Learn to stop blaming and taking things to heart that don't have to do with you. Don't assign malicious intention where there may have been none. Return when you are calm. Plan to posit conflict in constructive, careful language. It makes a difference how you speak. I can call you a jerk or say that I am hurt and angry. Set up new ways to express upset so that you plan for successful , thoughtful negotiation of differences. Speak only about your own feelings, your point of view, sensitivities, etc. Be open to communication and feedback that may correct your own interpretation of events. Break any old habits of saying and doing what you feel in anger. Don't forget to be respectful of differences. Many men for example, block emotional states much more readily than women. There are neurological, genetic and cultural reasons for this. Some women, on the other hand, may be more articulate than their male counterparts about emotions. However, we may also want to keep talking about an issue when a man may feel that it is quite finished. It helps to understand our differences so that we use them to compliment one another rather than demand a clone of ourselves.
As we think so we feel. Thoughts count. Who doubts that the Unabomber was sitting up in isolated Montana consumed with angry rumination. Scott Peck says to pray God you have someone in your life who loves you enough to kindly tell you when you are off the mark. Emotional thinking is almost always associated with extremes, "you never do this or you always do that, etc." We do not have the right to act or speak in hurtful anger. We are always responsible for our own behavior. This doesn't mean you have to become a doormat. You can be quite assertive and remove yourself from the offender until a time when thoughtful resolution of conflict can occur. If your partner won't or can't stop raging, suggest therapy. If there is a refusal, separation may be in order.
- Dr. Linda Klaitz, Medical Psychologist