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.