How We Develop Anger Triggers
Anger triggers. We all have them. For each of us there are certain things that just get under our skin and gets our blood boiling. It’s a very personal experience – what angers me may leave you wondering why I am getting all bent out of shape over nothing and vice versa and I may be wondering the same about you. As a marriage counselor I’ve seen many couples struggle with this issue – “How can you do something so terrible to me and not recognize what a big deal it is? What kind of person did I marry?”
The reason each of us have a different set of anger triggers has to do with the way our brain works. The part of your brain that controls emotions is basically a memory processing machine operating in the background telling us how to respond to situations. Since we all had different experiences our emotional brains are going to process situations differently and because of that we each are going to experience different events as triggering anger.
Most of us have a fair idea of what our anger triggers are. Not as many of us know what it is that makes a trigger so powerful for us. The key to understanding and managing your anger triggers more effectively is to understand that its not the anger trigger itself that’s so powerful – it’s the meaning that we associate with the trigger that gives it so much power.
For example, John becomes very upset because Mary is often five or ten minutes late when they have plans. For John this is not some minor irritant. He yells at Mary every time this happens and he has a very difficult time letting go of his anger for several hours and sometimes even several days. He sees her as passive aggressive. Mary, for her part, can see why John gets upset and even goes so far as to agree that it is a fault of hers and, while its not her intent, she can even see where her behavior might be viewed as rude. What she can’t understand is why John gets so bent out of shape over it; to Mary his reactions just seem to be way over the top. She thinks he is a prime candidate for an anger management class.
The reason John gets so bent out of shape is that what he calls Mary’s rudeness is only the tip of the iceberg. Every time John finds himself waiting for Mary he basically has the same conversation with himself about how she does this over and over again and if she really loved him and had any respect for him she would not do this.
Wait a minute — love and respect? All he yells about is how rude she is, but what he is really feeling is unloved and disrespected? Digging a little further, we find out that John’s mother was always the last to pick him up from school and that he never knew when she was going to come. Sometimes she would pick him up at 4 other times it wasn’t until 5:30. There were days when he wondered if she was going to pick him up at all. In the meantime, he watched as all the other kids parents picked them up on time. The take home message for John was that he wasn’t important to his mother and he even wondered if she loved him as much as the moms who picked their kids up on time loved their kids. All of a sudden, John’s trigger doesn’t seem so irrational.
If that is the case, why is it that he isn’t able to calmly explain this to Mary or remind himself that, while Mary may in fact be rude, the real fire for his anger has more to do with a ghost from his past than the present? This has to do with the emotional brain and flooding (see “The Neuroanatomy of Anger” for more detail). The part of your brain that controls emotions releases neurochemicals which in effect cut the thinking part of your brain off from the rest of the brain when you are angry or threatened. That is exactly what happens here – by the time Mary arrives John’s thinking brain has been so cut off that any nuance is gone from his thinking abilities. He has been reduced to saying simple, broad phrases like “rude” and “mean” and maybe unleash a good old fashioned bout of creative cursing.
Effective should help you not only focus in on your anger triggers but, if possible, help you to understand their underlying roots. Once you begin to become conscious of what the real cause of your anger – that, while you may have a legitimate beef the real fury is due more to a ghost of the past than anything to do with the present – it becomes much easier to stay ground and calm.