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African ceremonial dress looks like a scary and angry lion

Why Anger Makes us Crazy . . .

Did you know that how you handle yourself when you are angry is the time people will be most likely to judge your character?

Passing that test is not easy!

While anger is one of the hardest emotions to regulate, it is also one of the most important to manage if you want to be successful in life.

Our amygdala (emotional brain) is as fast as a rabbit off the mark – and so anger flares up in us before our upper cortex (logical, thinking brain), which is slow as a tortoise, can even think about what has happened.

And because our upper cortex (tortoise) is much better at problem solving, this can leave us at a real disadvantage in defending ourselves.

And anger is all about defense: because anger is the natural response our amygdala has to situations where we feel threatened, disrespected or put down.

Different cultures and religions say different things about how to handle ourselves best when we are angry – but in that flash when our amygdala sounds its lightening fast alarm, its voice will probably be the loudest and once it has been triggered it may suggest some very irrational ideas about how we need to ‘get even’ or put that disrespectful person in their place.

Because our amygdala’s primary concern may be for our status to be restored – it may simply grasp for power, forgetting rather than vengance, that most of us really want love and respect.

“You can’t let him get away with that”, our amygdala screams, or “You need to show her who’s boss!”.

And worse, if our anger does not succeed in helping us regain our standing (which it rarely does), our feelings of helplessness may escalate and our anger descend into more intensely irrational behavior and even violence.

I have dubbed this irrational element of our amygdala’s behavior ‘The Voodoo Lion’.

First, we need to consider that while anger is usually illogical, and a poor tool for problem solving, it is not an unhealthy signal or alarm.

For thousands of years most spiritual disciplines have taught that anger is bad and if we were good people we would never feel angry at all . . . but this is a mistake I would like you to reconsider.

I first learned this from a prison chaplain who would test the emotional health of his new clients by giving away their appointment time at the very last minute (while putting them off and keeping them waiting), just to see how they would respond. If they were not offended or angry in the slightest, and simply resigned to having their appointment time pushed aside (by someone whose needs where obviously not urgent), he could make an educated guess that they had experienced serious and long standing abuse in their lives and would probably need help in rebuilding their self image and their self worth.

But if the clients over-reacted and became loud, abusive or threatening, they likewise demonstrated a serious problem that needed work.

This balancing act of how we respond when we are insulted is where the knack of getting our amygdala and upper cortex working together is so important . . .

While our anger response (amygdala) will always be faster, our upper cortex (99% of the time) should fire to shut down that response, while also taking note of what triggered our amygdala to sound its alarm in the first place.

Do you feel disrespected when your partner won’t consider your point of view? Or upset when your mother-in-law ignores you?

If so, this is an important signal that you need to work on restoring your status with this individual. But your amygdala (that sounded the alarm) is the very worst part of your brain to advise on how to best handle this!

Instead, your upper cortex (which is slow as a tortoise by comparison) is a much better choice and needs you to give it  time if you are to have any hope of winning this race.

Because of this when you first feel yourself getting angry, it is vital you remember that you are in control and that it’s up to you to decide ‘which brain’ you are going to choose to handle the threat.

If the situation is not a physical attack by someone bigger and stronger than you — and you are not dealing with a lion or a tiger — it is probably best that you choose your upper cortex to deal with the threat.

This will require you giving your amygdala time to cool off — and your upper cortex time to think the problem through — until you can decide what will be the best course of action. The cool off time alone may take a couple of days, and in important matters it may take weeks or even months for you to come up with the best solution to the threat.

Because if you want great relationships, full of appreciation and respect, you will need to learn to heed your amygdala’s warnings while also learning how to quickly (and firmly) shut it down and not let it advise you on what to do or say in the heat of the moment.

This process of shutting down your anger is called a ‘Vagus nerve response’ and begins in your left frontal upper cortex. For this reason, touching yourself on the left side of your forehead when you first feel yourself becoming angry can be a great reminder that it’s probably time to send your own internal ‘security guard’ in to deal with your anger and get yourself under control.

Your vagus nerve response is indeed your own internal security guard in more ways that one . . . because research shows unequivocally that hot heads don’t do well in life and that people will not respect you if you easily lose your cool.

Just like your own security guard would, it is important to make an official note of what it was that triggered the disturbance!

This is important because another problem our amygdala has is that, once triggered, it will start seeing disrespect and betrayal all around us and even start throwing open issues we had with this same person in the past.

There is a logical explanation for this — and I will get to that in a moment — but in most situations our amygdala’s love of bringing up past grievances could be likened to Pandora’s box (which once opened could never be closed again).  However, dwelling on these stories is just about always going to escalate and expand the problem at hand while also (sometimes irreparably) damaging our relationships.

Our amygdala, once in full swing, is an amazing thing but it is really much better suited to its role in helping us fight lions and tigers than it is in helping us to restore status and respect.

And this is why I have nicknamed our amygdala (in full swing) ‘The Voodoo Lion’ …

You see, back when we had little protection from big cats and members of our tribe got picked off nightly as a lion or tigers dinner – being rational and level headed was not the best way to deal with the situation.

If something is bigger and faster than you with better camoflage, a better sense of smell, larger teeth and sharper claws has your family on their nightly menu, there isn’t much point thinking things through in a calm and logical fashion.

This can help us better understand our amygdala.

Religion has traditionally branded voodoo and tribal ritual such as, dancing in a trance state and what might appear from the outside as collective mania, as demonic devil worship, but this behaviour would in fact have been a perfectly logical response to the unassailable threat these tribespeople once faced nightly from big cats. Even sacrificing a few chickens in a bluff show of blood and violence, so the big cats could at least have something to take home and feed their family, seems logical to me when considered from this perspective.

Because when logic fails, bluff, ordered chaos and hitting your opponent with sheer sensory overload, all become viable strategies for survival and may still be a sensible reaction in some situations. For instance, if our kids get grabbed in the street and someone tries to force them into a car, we should teach them that this is the perfect time to allow their ‘Voodoo Lion’ full swing . . . kick, scream, urinate, defecate and roll your eyes back in your head and perhaps even pretend that you have epilepsy. Anything is valid to keep yourself out of that car . . . and the louder, more chaotic and less predictable you can be – the better.

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But is this reaction really the best response to most everyday situations in which our anger has been triggered?

Being attacked by someone bigger and stronger than ourselves may be a great time to let our amygdala take over — but I wonder how many times in our life this will actually be the best course of action? And if instead someone has simply offended us – over reacting like this certainly won’t win back our status or earn us respect.

So stop now and think about yourself when you are angry . . .

How do you respond when you feel insulted or put down?

  • Does it upset you — but later you feel guilty about that reaction?
  • Do you stuff it down inside you and stew on it while listening to your amygdala’s stories about how this same person has victimized you in the past?
  • Do you let your own ‘Voodoo Lion’ out of its cage and start acting loud, unpredictable and crazy?
  • Or do you shut down your initial angry reaction but remember that it was an important signal that deserves a well thought out and measured response later on?

If you decide that your current response might need some improvement, you may want to consider the approach we recommend:

1. Start noting the times when you begin to feel angry by noticing internal signals such as your throat tightening, your voice getting louder and blood starting to flow into your arms and legs.

2. Touch your forehead to remind yourself that — even if a little rusty — your upper cortex is there and perfectly capable of shutting this anger response down.

3. Write down (or make a mental note of) what triggered this reaction, before your amygdala starts telling you that it’s a conspiracy and justifying and rationalizing why you feel this way. A good way to check is to see just how long this note is. Ideally it should say, “I got angry when . . . “, and not be longer than a sentence or two.

4. Calm down by forgetting about what upset you and choosing to do something that makes you feel happy instead.

5. Get back to the note you made a few days later and figure out (getting professional advice if you need to) what needs to be done or how you might respond to this same situation better in the future, instead of how you have in the past.

‘The Voodoo Lion’ (that is our amygdala’s reaction to threat) served us well for thousands of years when big cats were our worst enemies (and long time neighbors) who gave us little respect.

But what causes a lion or tiger to respect us is not the same as what will command respect from a human who, even if they sometimes make us angry, we probably really do want to keep as a friend.

Your own ‘Voodoo Lion’ is your friend and it does have your best interests at heart, but rather than disown it or give it free reign, consider learning to heed its (lightening fast) warnings by making a note of what triggered that response then teaching it to take a back seat and keep it’s angry mouth shut!

To finish up, I want to share with you why I think our amygdala is so intent on dragging things up from the past  . . .

My guess is this is because lions and tigers do look kind of harmless and cute sometimes and it was in our best interest (in the heat of the moment) to be vividly reminded of all of the nasty things they had done to us in the past.

Here is a short video which shows the brilliance in how humans once learned how to deal with this threat . . .

Link to a version of this page you can share with a friend:

While it makes sense to use an explosion of music, color, rhythmic dancing, trance, organized bluff and mayhem to deal with an apex predator (intent on having you for dinner), when the insult came from your partner (and may not have even been intentional), is letting loose your Voodoo Lion really your best choice to deal with disrespect?

Kim Cooper

Do you understand what emotions like love, anger and jealousy are telling you? To learn more about your emotions and how to best manage them please visit our tour of the emotions here

Kim is the author of seven books on the topic of relationships and emotional intelligence.

A prolific multi-media content innovator, Kim has created and shared a library of articles and multi-media educational tools including radio shows,
movies and poetry on 'The NC Marriage', and 'The Love Safety Net'.

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