When I was a young adult in the 70’s, everyone thought it was important for you to let your anger out and not keep it bottled up inside. Therapists recommended primal screaming and pillow pounding to dissipate anger and prevent patients from turning it inward into depression or outward into violent behavior.
Since then, though, science has shown that these therapies are not helpful, and, in fact, often encourage more anger.
Ronald Potter-Efron, an anger-management expert and author of the new book, Healing the Angry Brain, shows us the reasons why that might be the case, and why people prone to anger should try to manage it rather than letting it all out.
Potter-Efron describes what happens neurologically when we get angry—how the limbic system gets activated, and our body gears up for fight or flight by increasing our heart rate, respiration, and blood flow to muscles, often without our conscious awareness.
However, other centers in the brain—for example, the frontal cortex and hippocampus—are responsible for shutting down the fight or flight response when it is clear that there is no real danger. Their activation can help stop aggression before it gets going and prevent one from saying or doing things one will later regret.
If your fight or flight response is easily activated, though, it’s harder to override. Potter-Efron suggests that we learn to interrupt the anger response before it gets out of hand and find more healthy ways to express anger. Many of his suggestions—e.g. time-outs, deep breathing, and self-talk—can calm down anger in the moment and also allow us to think better before we act. Others, such as general stress reduction and building empathy skills, work better in the long run.
Some people are more prone to anger because of biology or past experience, including early childhood trauma. Yet Potter-Efron insists that anyone can learn to handle anger more effectively with some conscious effort.
So, if you’ve got friends, coworkers, or family members who sometimes fly off the handle at the least provocation, don’t hand them a pillow; instead, hand them this book. Then, perhaps, it would be wise to duck…just in case.
Thanks for sharing your story, Lillian. It’s surprising to
me how many people still think that letting out anger
is the best remedy for it, not realizing the harm it does
their bodies and their loved ones. I’m glad you were
able to ignore the source of your gifted journal, and
decided to begin a life of writing…a good therapy for
whatever ails you!
Jill Suttie | 4:26 pm, May 8, 2012 | Link
Thank you for your thoughts. I am also been a vicitm of this reaction through out my life I have lived so far .. reaction of anger still explodes unconsciously on and offf in me countlessly leaving a guilt on memory.. no matter the infusion lead to positive or neagtive results.Most of the time negative
since we know it is never beneficial to be in a state of anger..I decided to teach my self the UNDO CONCEPT the quickest reaction when i relaize i am getting out of my way..JUST UNDO..whatever you are supposed to act on OR about to DO . The principle of UNDO worked.
any conversation / negotiation..it iw working i dont know for whatever reason.
kiran | 7:43 am, May 14, 2012 | Link
I’m curious about the “undo concept.” Is it a message
you give yourself in the moment to stop yourself from
acting out of anger? If so, your method may be
supported by research that shows when you take time
between feeling an emotion and acting on it, that
space allows you to employ your frontal cortex’s
executive functioning to choose a different behavior.
When we don’t take that space, we are more likely to
act out without consideration of the costs. That’s why
“time outs” and “taking a breath” also help with anger
management. They create the necessary space.
Sounds like you came up with your own useful method.
Jill Suttie | 9:57 am, May 16, 2012 | Link
As a clinical psychologist AND a therapy client of over 35 years, I have been around and around this debate. While I do agree that the uncontained expression of anger is often destructive or best not helpful, I would caution against “black-or-white” thinking here, e.g. that anger must always be “managed, and that pillow-punching is nver a good idea. In a therapetic setting, I believe that the EMBODIED and CONTAINED physical expression of anger/aggression can be very , very healing. It is not right for all clients and not right for every occasion, but being able to feel anger in the body and not disassociate from it is very important, and is a skill well worth learning.
Louise Gordon | 4:20 pm, May 29, 2012 | Link
It sounds like you are referring to patients who have
trouble accessing their anger, rather than someone
with anger management issues. If so, I would agree
that embodiment of the emotion could help someone
get in touch with buried anger, which then might be
useful in the way you describe. But, for those with
problem anger, the research seems pretty clear:
letting it out does not help and can actually
exacerbate angry outbursts. I think we are in
agreement here. Thanks for pointing out the nuances
of the argument.
Jill Suttie | 10:34 pm, May 29, 2012 | Link