The Biology Behind Anger Management Techniques

Find out what happens inside the brain when you blow your lid, and learn about these anger management techniques.

Angry Caveman

Anger, often called “the fire inside,” is one of our most powerful and primal human emotions, as much a part of us as fear and love. It has traveled with us for millennia, sometimes as a weapon and sometimes as a tool.

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When it comes to anger, there’s something you may not know. It’s not always your anger that gets in the way of your success; very often, it is the anger of others. In Outsmarting Anger (Jossey-Bass, 2013), Dr. Joseph Shrand reveals the inner-workings of the brain when “the fire inside” erupts. He outlines seven innovative yet simple stratgies to help turn powerful anger impulses into positive, success-oriented actions. This guide helps you manage and decrease not only your own anger, but the anger of people around you so everyone can be more successful. Find out what happens in the brain when you become angry and learn a brief overview of the seven anger management techniques you can use to defuse anger in this excerpt from the introduction. 

“Put down the chair!” the nurse shrieked, as Dan, a very large psychotic patient, raised the piece of furniture in the air, intent on smashing it over her head. Staff members were already running toward them, ready to put him in restraints. Dan’s face was red with the flow of adrenaline, and he was breathing fast and heavy with rage. Just then, a doctor walked calmly into the hallway. “Hey Dan,” he said, “Want a cup of coffee?” They all stared for a moment. The doctor said, “Decaf OK?” Dan smiled, lowered the chair, and asked, “With cream?” They both went down to the kitchen for a cup of Joe.

This is a true story, and Dan was my patient. People wondered how I was able to calm Dan’s anger within seconds. I, too, have given a lot of thought to this situation and thousands of others that might have turned explosive and even catastrophic but for a calm and respectful intervention. In this short exchange with Dan, I reminded him of his value by approaching him calmly, trustingly, and with empathy for his very visible discomfort. I didn’t treat him like a patient. I didn’t treat him like someone who had lost control. I treated him with respect. Although it seems remarkably simple, respect extinguished Dan’s anger.

We all have the ability to outsmart anger, in others and in ourselves.

An adolescent patient had been in my program for ten days, recovering from a serious heroin addiction. Over that time, she had learned a lot about the impact of drugs on her brain, and the impact of her drugs on other people’s brains, such as her parents’. Heroin had a significant hold on her, but she was desperate to be sober. She knew in her heart that she needed longer-term care, but I had told her that addiction doesn’t happen in the heart; it happens in the brain.

When her parents told her she could not go home but had to go to further treatment for three months, she lost it and became enraged. Her parents quickly activated their anger response in return, flaring at her that she needed help and would do as she was told. The girl became even more furious and told them she hated them. She resented their power over her, suspected they just wanted to get rid of her, and began screaming and threatening to run away.

She ran out of my office and through the common room, overturning chairs as she went. Her destination, however, was not the door but the relaxation room where kids can go to do just that. Even as staff responded, she found her way to the beanbag chair and threw herself onto it. Still fuming, she began to redirect herself. As she told me later, she had thought her over-the-top anger was in response to her parents’ refusal to take her home. But as she became more honest with herself, she began to recognize that what she was really angry about was not being able to get the stash of dope she had hidden in her room under her bed. She was angry about the power they had to send her away, but realized that all they wanted was to try to take away the power that heroin had over her. She had been suspicious that they didn’t love her and were abandoning her, and thought that if she didn’t mean anything to them, they might as well just let her use dope.

But as she sat in the beanbag chair, flailing her legs and punching the bag, she remembered their faces as they told her she had to go for more care: they were not angry, but sad, somewhat peaceful, and hopeful that she could get better. They had been interested in what she was going through; they cared for her, loved her, valued her. They didn’t get angry until she had become angry. And she began to recognize what she had put them through with her addiction.

When she next spoke with her parents, it was with love and the determination to reconnect. She wanted to go home, but wanted to stay home sober. Echoing what she had heard me tell her about an event with my own child years before, she told her parents that she had stopped being mad at them but had never stopped loving them. Together they cried and hugged one another as she thanked them for having the trust in her to get clean. She had outsmarted her anger, and went for further care.

Anger, often called “the fire inside,” is one of our most powerful and primal human emotions, as much a part of us as fear and love. It has traveled with us for millennia, sometimes as a weapon and sometimes as a tool. Anger has been used destructively to annihilate neighbors, and productively to protest social injustice. Anger has helped us survive by warding off threats and aggression from others. It is a fire inside designed to have an impact on the outside.

But in the modern world, anger—in all its subtle forms, from frustration to fury—often gets in the way of our success in business, relationships, and everyday social discourse. Because anger, with roots deep in the brain’s limbic system, can be so insidious and so intense, people often feel as though they can’t control it.

But advances in MRI brain research increasingly suggest the exact opposite. In fact, studies are showing that the brain itself is equipped to buffer and temper the anger response. Recently, University of Wyoming scientists showed that subjects who had first been primed to feel hostility were better able to control anger reactions when armed with “forgiveness” techniques. Their 2010 study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that even as the human body gets ready to spring into action, the human mind can also be trained to temper or defuse those actions. Our anger can be transformed into a much more productive power. Just as the relatively recent explosion of civilization was profoundly influenced by the taming of fire, the last few million years have resulted in the evolution of a relatively new part of our brain with the potential to tame the fire of anger inside us all.

In Outsmarting Anger, we will look at the powerful and primitive origins of anger. You will learn what happens inside the brain when anger begins to bubble and boil, and read about all of the built-in mechanisms you have to counteract its dark forces. Next, I offer seven innovative yet remarkably uncomplicated strategies that anyone can master to help defuse this most dangerous emotion and transform our powerful anger impulses into positive, success-oriented actions. These brain-based anger management techniques will show you how to recognize the many forms of anger you generate, and how to tap in to your brain’s very own anger management zone—the prefrontal cortex, or PFC. Although you may not be dealing with addiction, you can learn, as my adolescent female patient did, how to identify why you are angry and then do something about it.

But this is not just another anger management book.

Instead, I will also show you how to use these techniques to transform the anger of others, just as I did with Dan, and just as the young girl did with her parents. When you think about it, it is not always your anger that gets in the way of your success, but very often the anger of others that gets in the way of your success. When we learn to recognize and defuse the anger response of any individual, we improve our chances for success in every aspect of life, ultimately enabling all of us to be more successful. I see this happen every day.

The first strategy discussed in the book, Recognize Rage, shows how to challenge anger by first identifying it. Anger is a powerful feeling, often very uncomfortable both for the person experiencing it and for the person subjected to it. Like pain, it is telling us something useful—but only if we are listening to it. I will show you how and why it is important to “ascertain” your anger, and offer exercises and tips to help you master this technique.

The following strategies, Envision Envy and Sense Suspicion, help you identify two basic triggers that in our modern world commonly breed low levels of anger, such as annoyance or irritation. Envy stems from the idea that you don’t have enough and that someone else has more, placing you at a potential survival disadvantage. Sounds simple, right? But at its root, envy stems from one’s own self-image—the lower the self-esteem, the more envy.

The flip side of envy is suspicion, and it is every bit as primal. Suspicion originates with the fear that someone will take what’s yours—or what should be yours—and leave you out in the cold. If you have ever felt your anxiety rising when standing in a disorganized line to buy a sandwich, you are sensing suspicion. This is because our brains are not designed to trust strangers instantly.

These three strategies exercise your ability to recognize and identify basic feeling states, which, as I explain, are “limbic” functions and part of our ancient primal heritage. Because these are indeed part of our heritage, it means that if your brain is doing this, everyone’s brain is doing this. Armed with this understanding, you are now in a position to begin outsmarting anger and shifting your brain out of these potentially dangerous, instinctive survival responses. The next four strategies begin to shift the locus of brain control—both in your brain and the brains of angry people whom you may encounter—to the more evolutionarily modern part of our brains, the PFC.

The fourth strategy, Promote Peace,begins to calm the angry brains of the people with whom you are interacting—family, friends, associates, strangers. This strategy sends a message to other people that you are not angry yourself and therefore neither a threat nor someone of whom to be envious or suspicious. By promoting peace, you begin to calm the limbic response of another’s brain, creating a foundation for the three remaining strategies.

Engage Empathyis the fifth strategy to outsmart anger. Empathy helps you learn to respect the emotional experience of other people, whatever that may be. By zeroing in on where their anger is, you can influence and even take control of various situations. Because we have evolved the same basic brain, we can influence another person’s behavior by being able to assess his or her brain activity. A meta-analysis of studies has shown that empathy has a primary home in the brain (within the medial PFC) and is among a family of other cognitive functions that include our ability to infer other people’s emotional judgments and their perceptions of their own bodily state, and valuation of other people’s behavior. Empathy continues to place our PFC in the driver’s seat in terms of our behavior and interactions. We send a clear message to the other person that we are interested in what she thinks and feels, in her experience, and want to know more. When a person feels that you are interested in her, she begins to feel valued by you. The next strategy begins the process of exploring the other person’s experience and sharing your own.

The sixth strategy to outsmart anger is Communicate Clearly. Language distinguishes us as humans and has evolved globally over tens of thousands of years. When you learn to communicate clearly, you help the person you’re speaking with express his thoughts and feelings and become receptive to yours. You have defused his anger, envy, and suspicion, replacing those negative attributes and the threat of combat with the positive ones of empathy, trust, and the potential for cooperation. In short, you have shown the other person respect. These simple actions bring both individuals into what I call “primary PFC mode,” a state in which human beings function at their best—whether they’re performing on stage or sending spacecraft into orbit.

The final strategy, Trade Thanks, completes the seven strategies to outsmarting anger, firmly establishing our PFC as the influence on our limbic system, rather than the reverse. Trading thanks uses your PFC to stimulate a limbic response in another person. But this limbic response feels great—and why would anyone want to change that? Anger is designed to change the behavior of someone else, but we don’t get angry when being thanked because it feels too good. It is when we are not thanked and recognized for our ability that we can get angry. If you’ve ever noticed a clerk who doesn’t say thank you after you’ve purchased an item, or if you’ve ever sent a gift to someone and not had it acknowledged, then you have noticed how easy it is to break the deeply rooted human bond of gratitude.

When we trade thanks with someone, we communicate our belief in her value, her altruism, and the importance of her place in our group. Thanking someone acknowledges her strength and power as a benefactor and that she need not be angry, envious, or suspicious that we see her as anything else. On a fundamental level, each of us wants and needs to be valued by someone else. In fact, our brains have evolved in response to this fundamental survival strategy of being part of a group: being successful at home, work, and play is about being involved with other people in mutually productive relationships. On the neurobiological level, this positive social interaction triggers the release of neuropeptides such as oxytocin, inspiring a mutually positive feeling between the participants of the exchange. We have evolved a brain that desires to be seen as valuable.

As a psychiatrist who works with both adults and adolescents disadvantaged by addiction and mental illness, I have seen every form of anger a human being can manifest, from seething envy to desperate, impotent rage. I have seen the damage and pain that can result when anger goes unmitigated. Anger, long hardwired in our brain for survival, is not going away anytime soon. But what you do with this powerful emotion is completely up to you. You actually have more control over how your anger plays out than you think you do, especially once you learn to recognize, listen to, and then think about your anger. You do have a choice of the path you take in response to your angry feelings. It is in this shift from feeling to thinking where you will find the tools to transform your anger and, as important, the anger of others.

The anger management techniques I’m sharing have emerged after years of observation, coupled with the translation and application of my colleagues’ research. I have brought the lab bench to the bedside to create emotion-regulating tools for my patients, tools that have enabled them to recognize and understand their feelings, measure their responses, and help them create positive results. These seven strategies, grounded in the latest neuroscience and psychological data, have the capacity to influence every aspect of a person’s life.

Within each of us is the power to transform anger into something quite positive. Outsmarting Anger is an emotional survival kit everyone ought to have.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Outsmarting Anger: 7 Strategies for Defusing Our Most Dangerous Emotion by Joseph Shrand, MD, with Leigh Devine, MS, and published by Jossey-Bass, an imprint of Wiley, 2013.