*This is an article from the Spring 2022 issue of Contentment Magazine.
By Jeff Jernigan, PhD, BCPPC, FAIS
They were asking for volunteers to take a later flight for a second time. The waiting area was full and noisy. Children wondering when they were going to get on the airplane, babies crying from little appetites put off in hopes of boarding, parents squabbling in whispers with angry faces. The flight had been delayed twice already due to the weather somewhere, and the weather in the waiting area was getting heated. At last! With a collective sigh of relief, the passengers lined up in anticipation as the doors to the ramp were opened wide and locked in place. But that was just the beginning and not the end of everyone’s frustration.
I boarded, found my aisle seat, and sat down. Then, coming down the aisle toward me was a man followed closely by someone who turned out to be his son. The older of the two caught my attention at the entrance to the airplane complaining loudly to the Flight Attendant about not being able to hang his overcoat in the crew closet on the right just as you step into the aircraft from the boarding ramp. The conversation had been moved aside and became especially loud and nasty. We could all hear the altercation 13 rows away. Dad and son lost the argument and huffed and puffed loudly all the way down the aisle and, yes, to my chagrin they sat down in the two seats in front of me. Son took the middle seat, and before taking the aisle seat the dad opened the overhead compartment to put his briefcase and coat in the bin. There was a briefcase already there.
Dad exploded, grabbed the briefcase, and drawing his arms over his head, threw the offending luggage to the floor hitting the passenger’s arm on the aisle seat opposite with enough force to break bones. Screaming, Dad shouted, “This is MY SPACE! I paid for this seat, and this is MY SPACE!” Before the passenger could get out of his seat I slipped out of my seat and filled the aisle as the irate dad sat in his seat. Picking up the briefcase, I handed it to the passenger who apologized for putting it in the bin (thank goodness) because his overhead space was full. No bones were broken. Meanwhile, the son was calming the dad and apologizing to the passenger. A few more minutes of de-escalation and everyone sat down. Then the Flight Attendant showed up, held up by everyone stopped in the aisle behind our little circus.
When the Flight Attendant asked the passenger if he wanted to press charges and asked the dad if he wanted to be thrown off the airplane, a picture came immediately to mind of someone standing in front of a fire about to throw gasoline on it. But then, he looked at me and said to everyone if they didn’t settle down, he would get the Air Marshal involved. Instead of gas on a fire, it had the effect of oil on water. Everyone went dead silent. The Flight Attendant said to me, “Thank you, Sir” and returned to the front of the aircraft. I have always wondered if he thought I was an Air Marshal. I have been many things in my career, but that doesn’t even come close. However, at the end of the flight Dad apologized to me as we were standing in the aisle ready to walk off the plane. With a suspected Air Marshal sitting directly behind him for the entire flight he was as good as good can be.
We all have our experiences with out-of-control anger and rage on airplanes, on the road driving, in the grocery store, or in the streets fighting. Tempers flare at work, couples and children trapped at home by virtual work and community lockdowns, and the stress and uncertainty of it all finds ways to leak out and explode. My mental health colleagues working with the court systems tell me they are overwhelmed with court-mandated anger management training requests. But this conversation right now isn’t about anger management. Let’s talk about what is good about anger and how anger can be healthy.
What is Anger?
Anger is both a decision and an emotion. The decision comes quickly, almost unnoticed because it is due to other issues below the surface. What we end up experiencing, though, when anger is let loose is all the feelings of annoyance, irritation, vexation, temper, and even rage. This is why anger is often described as a secondary emotion.1
Like an Iceberg, the disappointed expectations, frustrated desires, and blocked goals of life pile up until they overflow in anger and a choice to act out. To step out of this reaction to life, even when you cannot change your life, is to find mental well-being. Mental well-being is characterized by thinking, feeling, and acting in ways that create healthy physical and social well-being.2 Your mind is in order and functioning in your best interest. This place is the result of a number of key factors in balance with one another.
These factors come in and out of focus for all of us. The secret to resilience in life is to be attentive to where balance may need to be restored. Resilience and balance in life will help us manage most anger issues that pop up in our experience, no matter if they are our issues or someone else’s. It won’t keep us from being angry but will set us up to experience anger when it does show up as a friend. To do this, we need to understand something about anger and the brain.
Listening to the conversation between the dad and his son during the flight was very helpful to understanding what was below the waterline in his life. Recently widowed, and even more recently diagnosed with cancer, he was clearly struggling with the loss of all his dreams regarding a future full of shared experiences with his family. Waiting anxiously for a flight that seemed like it would be canceled created anticipation of just one more disappointment. Frustrated he could not get the cooperation he wanted from the Flight Attendant to hang up his coat, feeling judged and rejected by this individual as a sort of metaphor for his life experience in the moment, and nearly overwhelmed by the idea that the good life was over…he flew into a rage at the provocation found in the symbolic loss of his overhead space in the bin.
Disappointment, frustration, judgment, rejection, and fear registered in his Prefrontal Cortex, activating his Amygdala which signaled the Hypothalamus and Pituitary Gland. In turn, this charges up the Adrenal glands which secret stress hormones into the body producing a fight or flight response. In this case it was a verbal war that escalated. This is our body at work. All of the chemistry involved is created in our body by the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the exercise and sleep we get. Healthy body, healthy brain; healthy brain, healthy mind. Our biology affects our psychology. Dad evidently had not eaten anything or had anything to drink since the day before, got up at the crack of dawn to rush off to the airport without much sleep, and looked to be in his eighties when I saw him walking down the aisle toward my seat. He was fifty-two years old.
Anger causes elevated levels of cortisol in our blood which erodes our immune system.3 It also attacks neurons in the Prefrontal Cortex preventing us from using our best judgment, making good decisions, or being concerned about the future.4 It gets worse: elevated levels of cortisol attack neurons in the Hippocampus, affecting short term memory and interrupting the production of Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel happy. If someone is angry all the time in an unhealthy manner: the heart, digestive system, and kidneys pay the price.5 However, healthy anger has none of these negative effects.
The Benefits of Anger
Health experts have increasingly recognized that when anger is constructively managed it is a beneficial emotion to well-being.6 Yes, anger can be destructive, but also can motivate us to action, help improve communications, and promote optimism. Anger is an emotion that can also be misused to intimidate and dominate others. If not managed, anger can turn into violence and aggression or internalized as depression and health problems. People and circumstances are not always things we can control. But we can control our perceptions of those things in ways that allow us to see what is really going on and put our Prefrontal Cortex and Working Memory (where we think) to good use without triggering the Amygdala. Now we are changing the chemistry of our brain, in effect using our thinking to influence our biology. Here are some easy ways to help that process over time.
Sometimes anger is like a warning light on the dashboard of your car. For example, your radiator is in danger of overheating and the red light comes on and stays on, telling you something under the hood needs attention now! When we feel anger coming on in the form of irritation or frustration, consider that to be your warning light and take a look under your hood. Where is the frustration coming from? Naming the source takes the steam out of the frustration and can lead to a solution.
Anger also is a natural response when we sense risk or danger that threatens our safety. This kind of anger is a warning to avoid or move away from the potential threat, physical or emotional. For example, it may be a warning to avoid that person or walk away from a conversation headed in the wrong direction. Be grateful for the warning, and the anger will leave quickly. This pull to move away from something or toward something is called approach-related motivation.7 It involves our emotions, thoughts, and actions reflecting our desired outcomes even if we are not aware of them. When you feel drawn to risky situations, or want to move away from some unpleasantness, ask yourself why? Anger can promote greater self-awareness without overtaking your good judgment or provoking an alarmed response.
Constructive anger can propel us to use our skills, gifts, and power to accomplish things that produce a sense of control and optimism. This happens when we catch ourselves early before anger takes us down the road of unhelpful retorts and conduct that wounds others by the words we use or the things we do. My parents used the refrain, “Think before you act.” Little did they know that this neurologically is an exciting option instead of losing your temper. It is another brain-changing reaction we can control!
Those who constructively control their anger are more apt to experience their needs being fulfilled than those who suppress their anger. They also will focus with greater clarity, reduce their fear, and more easily remain calm. The heightened alert, elevated heartbeat and breathing that occur before flight or flight kicks in due to the Amygdala sounding the alarm actually makes for better decision making. As a combat veteran, I know this training saves lives simply because we remain calm and let our biology help us without losing self-control. Rarely are we in a life-and-death situation. But our Amygdala doesn’t recognize that reality and without good self-management our body and our mind will react as if we were in danger.
When anger is justified and expressed constructively, it can led to greater cooperation, better relationships, resolve misunderstandings and conflicts. Anger, expressed with appropriate transparency and vulnerability, can bring empathy and understanding into our longterm relationships in life and work. Failing to express anger at all or inappropriately expressing anger can also end a relationship.
Allowing ourselves to feel anger, both our anger toward others as well as their anger toward us, creates better self-awareness and can lead to greater personal growth. It also teaches us how to embrace difficult emotions in addition to anger. This practice improves our emotional intelligence, empathy, and resilience. Those who avoid uncomfortable emotions and prefer only happy feelings tend not to have the same level of emotional intelligence or resilience.
Icebergs to Guard Against
Sometimes the anger in the room that needs to be dealt with is ours, not someone else’s. This is the challenge of the iceberg. We can be the ones blindsided by underlying frustrations that seem to overflow into our relationships in surprising ways. It may even seem to others that we are being passive-aggressive. This is another way of describing how internal struggles can cause us to be perceived as two-faced by others. On the outside we seem to be happy, agreeable, cooperative, and engaged. Actually, on the inside we are angry, resentful, disagreeable, and uncooperative.
People who are passive-aggressive don’t express their anger, disagreement, or negative emotions directly.8 Instead, they respond through hostile or mean-spirited acts including bad attitudes, talking negatively behind your back, starting rumors, refusing to follow-through on something they agreed to do willingly (it seemed), and making excuses for themselves but no one else. If you are ghosting people, giving them the silent treatment, procrastinating, or making excuses the anger you sense directed toward you may be a response to your passive-aggressive behavior.
Our emotional responses to people can unconsciously bias our interactions with those same people. Our interactions with someone else always contain emotional content communicated in our tone of voice, the words we use, body language, attitude, gestures, and eye contact. These cues are a reflection of unconscious stereotypes and are influenced by the other person’s stereotypes as well. This is a form of countertransference: a reaction to the other person’s emotional contribution to the conversation.9 Another way of saying this is that you are reacting negatively to how the other person is reacting to you.
If you find yourself developing a dislike for someone in the middle of a conversation, or preoccupied with how the conversation went after walking away, or are impatient to offer uninvited advice, or simply recognize a diffuse anger: you may be on the verge of countertransference. The problem with this is one of escalation. If you are frustrated, the other person probably is as well, and you will continue to ramp one another up. Good boundaries protect relationships. Poor boundaries can lead to passive-aggressive behavior if this cycle of mutual annoyance continues.
Developing good boundaries in relationships is easier when you can name the anger you may be feeling. Anger shows up in a spectrum ranging from very visible outward conduct to very invisible inward thoughts.10
If you can recognize any of these habitual symptoms of anger toward other people, it is time to name what it is and consider what boundaries in that relationship may be necessary to create or enforce. Our emotions and perceptions color our responses to anger in others, especially when it may be directed toward us. If we can reasonably identify what it is about us that is triggering their anger, we can bring the temperature down in the room by changing our response and using healthy boundaries. This will interrupt the back-and-forth triggering of negative responses even if the other person continues to act out of sorts.
Healthy anger can be our friend: warning and protecting us, creating readiness learning moments, moving relationships to greater trust and intimacy, and ourselves to greater accomplishment. When we find ourselves in early stages of anger focus on these outcomes and watch the anger resolve itself in something heathy and constructive. Healthy anger is a part of mental wellness and a normal part of our daily lives. Irritation and frustration as well as disappointment and disillusionment are early signs of anger, we all experience in small ways every day. These are clues and cues to opportunities to focus on shifting this emotional energy to something healthy and friendlier.
- Gottman Institute, 2021
- Jernigan, J., Jernigan, N., Thin Spaces: Recognizing When God Breaks Through: MSS Hidden Value Group, 2022
- Jernigan, J., The Physical Ramifications of Stress: Contentment Magazine, American Institute of Stress 2020
- National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, How Anger Affects Your Brain and Body; NICABM 2017
- Amen, D., 6 Surprising Benefit of Anger: www.amenclinics.com/blog, Nov 2021
- Amen, D., 10 Red Flags of Passive-Regressive Behavior: www.amenclinics.com/blog, Dec 2021
- Barzilay, S., et al, Association between clinicians’ emotion regulation, treatment, recommendations, and patient suicidal ideation: Journal of the American Association of Suicidology, apps://doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12824, Dec 2021.
- Jernigan, J., Celebrate Life: A Guide to Mental Health: HVG Publishing, Sept 2017