Why does my anger surprise me?
Have you ever experienced a situation where your anger hits so fast and so hard that you do not even see it coming. You might end up doing something you regret. Only afterwards when things are calm that you wonder how you became so angry in the first place.
One reason is that some parts of our brains are a lot faster than other parts. One part of our brain is the threat detector. We share this with other animals and even reptiles. It is not sophisticated, but it is fast. We need it in dangerous situations. If you are at a hockey game and you see a puck flying towards you, you want to duck or block or something, and you do not have three seconds to consider it. This part of our brain is geared well for this. To be able to do this though our brain reroutes power from the higher functions to respond to the threat. Which is why it is so much harder to think and much easier just to react when we are scared. Which is why so many parents have learned that it is nearly pointless to reason with our children until they have calmed down.
When we are injured we often become hyper-aware of anything that set off the pain of that injury. If we had a broken arm in a sling we become very aware of anything or anyone that might bump it. If we had a sunburn we might make an extra effort to stop a loved one from hugging us. If people get too close to fast we might get angry to protect our tender wound.
Emotional danger is just as threatening as physical danger to our brain. One down side to emotional wounds is that we do not always understand them. The emotional wounds and trauma of the past are often buried away from our conscious awareness. For some they can still feel them but they can be more defused like a dull ache you cannot pinpoint. For others, living with that ache became too much and the brain compensates by numbing it out.
Our conscious mind may not be present to these things, but our threat detectors usually are. So, when something happens that threatens to poke one of our emotional wounds, it lights up and the system prepares for danger. People react differently. Some will freeze and shutdown. Others will try what they can to avoid or escape the potential threat. Some get defensive and angry. Power gets rerouted, our higher thinking functions are turned down, and we react.
Trauma puts those threat detectors on higher alert like a big emotional radar system. Unfortunately when you turn up the sensitivity, sometimes you get false positives. Things that would not normally be threatening become very threatening and we react accordingly.
Many anger management techniques focus on how to identify these reactions and use special techniques, like breathing exercises, to reduce the alarm and keep the higher functioning parts of the brain working. These are worthwhile and helpful for things like anxiety as well.
Ultimately healing comes when the emotional wounds and trauma are healed. Just like a person whose sunburn has healed no longer needs to be wary of hugs, people healed of their emotional wounds naturally are less reactive to potential emotional damage.
I use the Internal Family Systems approach to help find and heal the parts of us that hold shame, pain and trauma. When these things are in a good place, the over reactive parts of us settle down and become much more calm. It is more than anger management, it is a deeper form of healing.