I just wanted to pop in and recommend reading Emotional Intelligence
by Daniel Goleman.
In this book, there's an excellent description of what neuroscience has learned about anger and rage, how it works in the brain. Not only do I think this is fascinating, but it's helpful for me to understand why learning to manage anger is hard.
He says, summing up the studies, that a universal trigger for anger is the sense of endangerment. This is not a sense we feel only in response to physical threats, endangerment can be signaled by symbolic threats: threats to dignity or self-esteem, being treated rudely or unjustly, being insulted, being frustrated in pursuing an important goal, etc.
|These perceptions act as the instigating trigger for a limbic surge that has a dual effect on the brain. One part of that surge is a release of catecholamines, which generate a quick, episodic rush of energy, enough for one course of vigorous action...This energy surge lasts for minutes, druing which it readies the body for a good fight or a quick flight, depending on how the emotional brain sizes up the opposition.
Meanwhile, another amygdala-driven ripple [the amygdala consists of two almond-shaped structures within the brain] through the adrenocortical branch of the nervous system creates a general tonic background of action readiness, which lasts much longer than the catecholamine energy surge. This generalized adrenal and cortical excitation can last for hours and even days, keeping the emotional brain in special readiness for arousal, and becoming a foundation on which subsequent reactions can build with particular quickness. In general, the hair-trigger condition created by adrenocortical arousal explains why people are so much more prone to anger if they have already been provoked or slightly irritated by something else.
One recommendation for defusing anger, in this book, is to "seize on and challenge the thoughts that trigger the surges of anger, since it is the original appraisal of an interaction that confirms and encourages the first burst of anger, and the subsequent reappraisals that fan the flames. Timing matters; the earlier in the anger cycle the more effective. Indeed, anger can be completely short-circuited before the anger is acted on." If one becomes to angry, however, reappraisal makes no difference because of "cognitive incapacitation"-the loss of ability to think straight. The thing to do at this stage is to find strategies for cooling off. However, cooling-off periods do not work if we use the time in anger-inducing thought--doing or thinking about something completely different is more effective. Also, studies have shown that venting is ineffective-lashing out in anger at someone pumps up the emotional brain's arousal, resulting in people feeling more angry rather than less.
An interesting part of the book was the discussion of how neuroimaging studies show that when we take in sensory input, our amygdala processess the information and starts an emotional reaction before
that same sensory input reaches our "thinking" brain. So our emotional reactions begin before we're even aware of them or even consciously aware of the significance of the sensory input.
Also, he says that "the design of the brain means that we very often have little or no control over when
we are swept by emotion, nor over what
emotion it will be. But we can have some say in how long an emotion will last."
It's really impossible to sum up the whole book here (and a lot of it is stuff that's been talked about here already, though in a different way), but the bottom line is that managing anger is very, very hard work. We don't need to beat ourselves up over the fact that it's hard for us, and that sometimes we're not successful in managing our anger well. Because it's very hard work, and sometimes we are successful. And the brain is an elastic thing, so every time we are successful in managing our anger well we add a little to the work of rewiring, which means we'll be more likely to be successful again.
Anyway, the book has great information and some good tips for learning to manage emotions. Worth a read, if you have the time.