The first in a series of columns about anger and how it impacts professional and personal life for lawyers.
Can we get rid of anger?
Many lawyers grapple with how to work with people who are angry: clients who are volatile, co-workers who are frequently upset, opposing counsel who bully or demean, or partners who quickly fly off the handle over what seems like the smallest issue. Additionally, some lawyers may reluctantly acknowledge that they, too, struggle with controlling their anger at times, which leaves them feeling embarrassed, out of control, and at risk of doing damage to their careers.
In truth, we all have anger inside of us. In fact, we are neurologically wired to respond to “perceived threat to oneself or to another” with what researcher R.J.R. Blair defines as “reactive aggression.” Examples of reactive aggression include yelling, fighting or undermining (passive-aggression) someone who is a perceived threat.
Researchers have found three structures in the brain that mediate the threat response. The amygdala, hypothalamus and periaqueductal gray are structures deep within the brain in the limbic system and midbrain, which sits above the brainstem.
The amygdala is known as the “threat detector,” made up of two almond-shaped clusters of nerves inside the temporal lobe of the brain. It is responsible for the “flight/fight/freeze” response in our nervous system and can get over-activated with repeated stress.
The hypothalamus is located below the amygdala and plays an important role in the secretion of hormones through the pituitary gland, including cortisol, which is a “stress hormone” that impacts multiple organ systems in the body.
Finally, the periadqueductal gray sits above the brainstem and is known as the primary pain center or pain control in the brain and secretes hormones to suppress pain.
If this threat detection system gets activated over and over again, people actually begin to “practice anger” and establish patterns in the brain that get more and more fixed. This occurs due to a phenomenon that neuropsychologist Donald Hebb described in 1949 as “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
For example, say that each time I feel angry, I yell to get rid of my distress and I feel better. With repetition pairing anger and yelling together, yelling becomes an automatic response when I am upset. People who develop anger management problems can no longer easily control their behaviors because these anger patterns are so entrenched due to this repeated practice and patterning.
When clients come to see me who have anger management problems, they are almost always in significant distress. They don’t want to act out with anger or suffer the consequences of this type of behavior, but they don’t know how to get “rid of it.” They have likely experienced workplace discipline or even termination, marital discord, and loss of friends and family.
So, this begs the question, can we really get rid of anger if we are wired to respond to threats?
Researchers say that while we cannot eliminate the feeling of anger, there are specific strategies that we can employ to control anger. The more we employ these techniques, we begin to “practice calmness” and our brains begin to establish new patterns that are more adaptive and allow for a full range of responses rather than to simply react with anger.
Further, even if we are on the receiving end of anger (e.g., an angry client in a meeting), these same strategies can be effective in potentially defusing the other person through our more mindful responding and modeling how to manage difficult emotions.
1. Calming the upset body. Anger management strategies start with some form of relaxation to reduce physiological arousal (fight/flight/freeze) and give you time to find emotional balance. I like the acronym: S.T.O.P. to remind us of the steps to help find immediate relief from the flood of anger that may be coursing through the body.
First, it is really important to sit down and “stop” what you are doing. Going from standing to sitting actually begins to settle the body.
After sitting comfortably, feeling your feet on the floor, “take” a breath using slow and easy inhalations/exhalations. This can begin to produce a relaxation response in the body and essentially convince the brain that there is no need to mobilize and react to a threat.
Then, it is important to “observe” what is happening right now. This might include what thoughts, feelings and physical sensations are occurring in the body. It is important not to judge them, but instead note what is occurring (e.g., feeling hurt, heart slowing down, anxious thoughts).
From here, when you are ready to “proceed,” you consider an appropriate action to respond to the situation.
2. Re-appraisal. Once your body is calm, you have many more resources to draw upon, including the capacity to look at a situation from different angles and perspectives. The threat detection network in the brain is no longer running the show, and you are able to use the frontal lobes that help with critical thinking, problem-solving and reasoning skills.
This allows us to consider what alternatives are possible to the once very negative appraisal of what happened. You can ask yourself questions with a tone of curiosity and even kindness. For example: “Is there any other explanation for what happened?” “Is there more information I can find out before I respond that might change my mind?” “Am I taking this personally for some reason that I am not aware of?” “How would someone I respect and admire handle this situation?”
Studies have shown that individuals who use reappraisal are more likely to report having closer relationships with others and share their emotions more easily.
3. Forgiveness. Researchers have looked at the benefit of the capacity to forgive others and have discovered that not only does it decrease anger, it is associated with better health outcomes, decreased substance abuse, and better overall coping skills.
As a result, many psychologists remind us that forgiveness is actually more healing for the person who was harmed and forgives than the recipient of forgiveness.
“If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.” — Chinese proverb
(Part 2 will look at meeting anger with compassion and how anger can lead to transformation.)
Dr. Tracey Meyers joined Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers in August 2020. As a clinical psychologist and mindfulness instructor, she meets with clients regularly, leads groups, writes articles, and makes presentations to the legal community. More information can be obtained at lclma.org.