More About Anger

My post on anger left some questions. One reader, Bryan, asks on my blog if I am advocating a kind of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” position. It is a wonderful question and deserves a response.
Bryan points out how small, practically automatic choices lead to depression and anxiety, and postulates that similar choices lead to chronic anger. Let’s go further with that idea.
Think about our species history. We spent nearly all our history living in huts, trees and caves, in tribes of less than 300 people, usually around 150. This is called “Dunbar’s number,” from British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who reported on a correlation between brain size and number of individuals in a tribe, pack, or herd. The bigger the brain, the more individuals in a herd. He postulated that the size of the human brain seemed designed to keep close track of around 150 people.


Interestingly, most military companies are around 150 people. Fits with Dunbar’s number. If we are to fight together, we need to know each other very well.
That suggests our brain is designed to flourish in fairly primitive environments. Apply that to anger. Think of the brain’s reaction to threat. We generally think of the stress response as eliciting one of three reactions: fight, flight, and freeze. That is, if a group of warriors is headed toward our tribe, the fight-oriented members of our tribe are gold. They oppose the enemy and drive them back, hopefully teaching them a lesson about attacking our tribe. The fight-focused members survive and liked are better liked as marriage partners, and pass on that fight gene.
Some flee. They survive by running away and pass on the “scared” genes.
Some don’t fight and cannot flee. They survive by playing dead. Dr. David Livingston (of the famous quote, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”) was once seized by a wounded lion. He felt himself go completely limp, and reported there was a very peaceful feeling associated with the “freeze” state. Playing dead often entices predators to drop the prey for the time being, at which time the erstwhile prey miraculously recovers and scampers away. Rape victims sometimes condemn themselves because they didn’t fight back. They are upset that they played dead. But it is a hard-wired response to keep them alive. They are alive, so it did work very well.
All three, flight, fight, and freeze, are helpful when responding to existential threats. They are what psychologists call “state” emotions. They exist now, and they go away. But what if such feelings are habitual? Those are called “trait” emotions, describing someone who is habitually angry, fearful, or passive.
Chronic “flee, flee, run away” feelings are called anxiety disorders, and we have some good treatments for those.
Chronic “freeze” feelings describe the depressive disorders. Again, we have good options for people who are depressed.
Chronic “fight” feelings make people very certain of the righteousness of their emotions. Unlike anxiety or despair, people who are high on trait anger think they have the whole world under their thumb. Anger has to fool us into disregarding the risks, so self-doubt cannot be a part of that. Very helpful if you are opposing a wolf determined to carry away your child!
But angry people don’t tend to get diagnoses according to the witch-doctor manual, er, sorry, I mean the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM. They don’t come in to see us counselors. They are sure that they are totally on the right track, and admit no questions. “Wouldn’t you be angry at such-and-such?” they ask.
Therapists can do a good deal for chronically angry people. I find, though, that I have to treat them as people who are in therapy more or less against their will. They are often coerced into treatment as a consequence of getting into trouble. Psychologist Bill Miller pioneered the concept of motivational interviewing as a strategy for dealing with alcoholics and drug addicts who are also often forced into treatment.
While motivational interviewing isn’t as powerful as Miller and Stephen Rollnick originally thought, I find that it does work with anger. That means we likely should think of anger as a kind of addiction, something giving a temporary boost or reward, and a long-term cost.
That is precisely why I wrote my book, Get on the Peace Train. In it, I assume the person reading the book is quite irritated about it and I approach anger management in a motivational interviewing style. I am modeling for therapists who read the book an approach I find productive.
Chronic anger is seldom treated as a focus in psychotherapy. I take that as a mistake. It can and should be a therapy focus. Living in the most anger free manner possible is both possible and desirable.
That’s how it looks to me. I’m interested in how it looks to you. Leave a comment.
By |2015-10-19T11:46:42+00:00October 19th, 2015|Books, Peace Train|7 Comments

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  1. Zak Zaklad October 19, 2015 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Lynn, as you know, I’ve found Peace Train to be a powerful, transformational tool in my practice with angry people. many people i’ve offered it to find ways not to read it; they are the ones who are convinced of the “correctness” of their positions. one reason the particularly useful is that makes a strong argument that chronic anger is damaging to the angry person. i’ve bought maybe 30-40 copies.

    • Dr.J October 19, 2015 at 12:42 pm - Reply

      I appreciate Zak’s endorsement of the book. No money changed hands! Looking broadly, we do need tools to help people embrace a more equitable lifestyle. My book is one, and takes a pretty self-interest approach. As Zak mentions, anger does age us. It also makes us pretty unloveable and eventually lonely. Angry people tend to drive other people away, self-evident comment.

  2. Rob McNeilly October 19, 2015 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your thoughtful blog, Lynn.
    In my work as a therapist and in my teaching, I have found it useful to distinguish different kinds of anger – resentment, frustration and rage.
    We can think of resentment as a response to past damage and a silent promise for revenge. What is missing here to resolve it is acceptance or forgiveness.
    Frustration can be a thwarted expression so what’s missing is expression.
    When frustration and resentment come together, rage results where there is a predisposition to cause damage without any concern for consequences. Containment is the only option then, and prevention is obviously preferable.
    I have written about this in my book “Doing Change”, but wanted to add what I have learnt in case it is useful for your readers.
    Thanks again for your recurrent thoughtfulness.

  3. Dario Silva October 19, 2015 at 3:40 pm - Reply

    Lynn, I wonder if you have ever worked anger from the perspective of anger being the energy one exerts in order to impose one’s world view or want or desire. For example, a child throws a tantrum in a grocery store because the child is not being given the candy it wants. It tries to impose its will on the parent by using anger. Or, a young lady is angry at her boyfriend because he is not doing what she wants him to, giving her the attention in the way she wants it. I’m not too sure about a fight gene but more so lean towards learned behavior that does become habitual. What I often find underneath anger is hurt, helplessness and many times fear. These are affect that are not easy to process and leave one somewhat vulnerable. Anger creates the distance one needs in order to not be squashed while one is experiencing the more vulnerable affect.

    • Dr.J October 19, 2015 at 10:00 pm - Reply

      In my book, Get on the Peace Train I discuss how anger is a way to get our way but one with unpleasant and unpredictable consequences. On the other hand, I do point out how fear or sadness or helplessness often is “behind” anger, although it is somewhat tricky to say one emotion is another one because it reifies the emotion. Yet isn’t that how it feels? So a part of me says no, and another part of me says that claiming I have parts is another reification! Boy, it is tricky to be me!

  4. Kevin October 20, 2015 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Brilliant stuff Lynn.

    • Dr.J October 20, 2015 at 11:26 am - Reply

      Too kind, Kevin! (grin)

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