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.