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Welcome to the Carer’s Hearts blog. This week is the last in the four-part series, exploring four of the most prominent emotions experienced by carers; guilt, resentment, grief and anger and today we are discussing anger.
When I think about the emotion of ‘anger’ I strongly associated it with physical acts, such as violence. So, it wasn’t until I did my dissertation research for my Master in 2019, that I made the connection between lower, ever present feelings of anger, the caring role and my own emotional wellbeing.
While I was doing my Masters, I was fortunate enough to study with an inspiring fellow student, Tanya Heasley, who is an expert in anger management and was very pleased when she kindly agreed to have a chat to me about her ground-breaking work with positive anger.
Firstly, Tanya shared that anger is a cumulative emotion, it tells us that something isn’t quite right, and that we need to act. What that essentially means is that anger is designed to get us out of dangerous situations, triggers our survival instinct, which then triggers the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response in our body. These responses are so internal and deep within us, that our bodies know that we are in danger before our head does. It is likely that you will know you are angry in your body, before you become aware of it emotionally or psychologically.
So, in terms of anger as an emotion, it can be described as a response to a perceived threat. Tanya shared that there are three parts of our brains that are mainly involved in an anger response to a situation or event. The first she refers to as the crocodile, which represents the reptilian brain, which is part of the medulla in the brain and is essentially where our instincts function. This area of the brain controls functions such as our breathing, swallowing, heartbeat and startle response. So, it is the part of our brain that we are not consciously aware of. The second part of the brain, Tanya refers to as the rhinoceros, which represents the mammalian brain, or the limbic system in the brain. This area of the brain controls functions such as our emotions and feelings, how we react in relationships and how we interpret images and dreams. The crocodile, and the rhinoceros, areas of our brain are called old brain activity.
The third part of the brain is the neocortex, which is the conscious part of us, essentially, who we are as individuals. This part of the brain controls functions such as our thoughts, our ability to plan, how we put things into logic, our will, awareness and is often referred to as new brain activity. So, on the most basic level, when anger has been triggered, if we are not in ‘thinking’ mode, and our ‘old brain’ instincts are activated, the rhinoceros or the crocodile are at play, which function to get us out of danger, because we know something isn’t right, even though we might not recognise what it is yet.
Historically, when we lived in a hostile environment where we would have to leave our tribes to try and gather food, there would be lots of dangers such as bears, wolves or rival tribes, therefore, we were always hyper-aware of danger and our old brain activities were always being stimulated. However, today, most of us are not in the same kind of high-risk environments, so, that is why the third part of our brain, the thinking part of us, has becomes more dominant.
So, anger management is about ‘thinking’. We need to think more, be more aware and be more conscious of what is going on around us and how we are responding to it. For instance, if you saw a child that was being picked on by another child, it might trigger your anger because you feel that this isn’t fair, that the child is being horrible to the other child, and you are aware in your mind, in your new brain, that you don’t like what you are seeing, but you don’t react. However, if your old brain activity is functioning more than your new brain, you are more likely to respond in a stronger way and shout at the bullying child.
Tanya went onto the outline that in the ‘fight or flight or freeze response’, if anger triggers the freeze mode, some people will find themselves in a position where they can’t function at all and don’t know what to do. This can happen more frequently when people have suppressed their anger for too long. If you are in freeze mode, then it is because you have suppressed your anger for so long, that your normal emotional responses can’t function and sometimes, if you suppress your anger for too long, it can ultimately alter the neurons in the brain. This means that some of the messages that go around the brain start to get distorted, which can then develop into mental illness such as depression. So, because the anger gives us loads of energy to react, if a bear was chasing you, the anger will make your body respond, so that you can run away. However, if you are not running away from a situation, or you are not fighting something, you will just keep all that energy in your body, which starts to affect the brain and the neurons and transmitters, increasing the chances of becoming depressed.
This was insightful for me, as I know that I tend to keep emotions inside of me and over the years, have developed the ability to dial them back so much, that often I don’t have an external emotional response, such as anger, at all, but I had not thought about the psychological effects of that! This is definitely an area I will explore with you all in the future and discuss different ways to safely, let strong emotions such as anger, enter our lives again, for our own mental wellbeing.
The next area I discussed with Tanya was if there was a way to identify if there were particular types of behaviour that we can be aware that might trigger anger in us.
Tanya shared that there was research that suggests that some people have trait anger, and some people have state anger. Trait anger essentially means you are more likely to react more negatively to a situation or event, because ‘being angry’ is part of you, who you are as a person. Whereas state anger is when you react to the circumstances or an event in the environment and it is not the ‘normal’ response to any situation.
How and when anger is triggered will be different for everybody. You may be a laid, back chilled out person, functioning absolutely fine in your life. However, when someone says something that is horrible to you, perhaps about you and you react in an angry way, it might be as a result of something that happened 20 years ago, rather than a response to what has just happened. It could be that you weren’t even consciously aware of the event that trigger the anger and that is because it is stored as an unconscious memory in the old brain. In that example, that might mean that particular person has trait anger, that they are more likely to be naturally angry anyway, as opposed to someone who has state anger, who will just respond to the situation in front of them at the time, not reacting to something triggered in their subconscious.
This information is really interesting and useful from a carer’s perspective. Caring relationships are very similar to ‘normal’ personal relationships, they have their ups and downs, like marriages or being a parent, however, it is the potential length of the caring relationship that can contribute to the build-up of anger, both for the caregiver, but also for the cared-for-person. So, being aware of an attribute like trait anger is something that you may notice in yourself and start to address to reduce any negative impact on your life and emotional wellbeing.
In terms of how to be aware of this emotion rising in yourself, Tanya shared that when anger has been triggered, usually you will feel it in your body first. It might be that you get hot or you might have a strange feeling running down your arms. You might clench your fingers, or physically start moving your body. This is because the old brain is getting you ready to react. So, in starting to address it in yourself, it is becoming more aware of how anger is communicating with your body and noticing, ‘I feel like something isn’t quite right here’, even if you are not aware of what it is in your mind yet.
Quite often people will tell you to count to 10 or take a few breaths, if you are feeling angry and that does for a lot of people. However, in the caring context, when perhaps you are constantly being either attacked or shouted at, this might be as a result of the psychical condition or mental health of your loved one. They might not really understand what is going on in their own world and their instincts are telling them something isn’t quite right, so they lash out at you. However, for you, the carer, you are getting the brunt of the loved one’s instincts, which might well be increasing your own levels of stress and anger. In those instances, then it is best to be completely present in the situation and to react in a rational, non-aggressive way and know that it isn’t personal.
Like learning any skill, understanding anger management is a process and take times. To begin the process, you may need to understand and address years’ worth of conditioning as instinct will most likely be playing a large part in your responses. As a carer, when your loved one appears to be angry, try to remember that it might not be anything you have done, they might not even be angry at you, but you are just there! It might be their instinct trying to protect them from something that they perceive to be dangerous or a threat. So, to understand these types of reactions and respond appropriately, requires you to use your thinking brain, take time to think and remind yourself that this is not personal!
In terms of the physical side of how anger affects our body, Tanya shared that there is a breathing technique called ‘7-4-8’, where you breathe in for seven seconds, hold for four seconds and breathe out for eight seconds and that starts to neutralise the carbon dioxide in your body. When you feel angry there are a lot of different chemicals rushing around because suddenly your body is reacting as if you are in danger and you need to protect myself, so you need to act right away or you might have to fight. Using the 7-4-8 breathing technique can actually ground you, so you can slow everything down, recognise that this is not personal and respond in an appropriate way, rather than getting angry yourself.
As with the other things Tanya shared, this was really insightful for me. When I was planning this episode and thinking about anger, I had only considered it the perspective of the carer building up anger and how they may recognise it in themselves and start to manage any negative emotional responses. However, I hadn’t thought about a cared-for-person reacting in an angry way and that this was likely to be an instinctive response as well, which helps to take yourself out of the situation, step back and view what is happening more neutrally. As carers we do feel guilt constantly, and one of the triggers can be feeling that you have caused the person you love and care for to be angry, so, this is really useful to understand.
As part of Tanya’s work with young adult and schools, she teaches them about positive anger, which is still relatively new, although she is working hard trying to get it out there, so I thought this would be useful to explore for carers. One of the first, and probably most important, aspects of Tanya’s anger management work is that she doesn’t help clients ‘get rid of’ their anger. Anger is a primary emotion and we need it to survive. It helps to get us out of danger and recognise when we are in difficult situations, essentially, it helps us to transform things that are wrong. For instance, Martin Luther King, was angry about what was happening in his culture in 1950s and 1960 in America. He used his anger positively, formed the civil rights movement and created an environment for significant change, that continued after his death in 1968. If he hadn’t been angry about what was going on around him, he wouldn’t have taken action and the civil rights movement might not have achieved what it did, as a result of his anger, focus and actions.
Positive anger is transforming something that is adverse or changing something that is adverse. So, if there is something in your life that is not good for you, or is detrimental to your own wellbeing, then positive anger will give you the motivation to take action to transform it. So, that is why we need anger, rather than trying to stifle it, which as we have already discussed, could cause mental health problems, including depression. Using positive anger or anger positively, to change what is going on around us, allows us to be more in control of our lives.
Next we discussed strategies to help carers manage situations, if a loved one is reacting to something you have done or an external trigger. As with most things involving emotions, it is very much an individual thing and will depend on how the person would normally respond in stressful situations. For example, some autistic children do not like touch, however, others love to be touched and held. So, if an autistic child perceives danger or they think there is a threat to them, they might react by screaming and shouting. If that child likes to be touched or held, then a positive way forward to help them to neutralise those emotions of fear and anger, is to hold them. This is because, in the womb, we were confined in a very tight space in the foetal position and we instinctively knew that we were safe. So, some children will really respond well to being just held tightly. Again, this is deeply engrained in their memory, on such a subconscious level, they may feel like they are in the womb again and that they are now being protected.
However, if an autistic child who does not like to be touched, then you can’t then hold them, as this might make them more distressed and angrier. So, you might consider just smiling, letting them know that it is okay, and with a calm and soothing voice, acknowledge that something is difficult for them at the moment, but that they are safe. Avoid giving instructions to them, even if it meant to be encouraging and helpful, such as “it’ll be okay, be brave”. Phrases like this are often referred to as ‘toxic positivity’, because for that child or indeed anyone, it might not be okay, and you are assuming that they are not brave. So, instead of saying that, you might say, “I can see that you are hurting right now, would you like to talk about it?”
Knowing and, as importantly, understanding the difference between being emotionally supportive and using positivity in a ‘toxic’ way, such as in Tanya’s example, is very useful. I believe sometimes because we don’t want to see our friends and loved ones in distress, we try to be overly positive for them but can in fact, cause further distress and upset. In last week’s blog post, I shared an animated video that explains what I mean. It is called “How to help a grieving friend” but it is relevant in any situation where someone has or is suffering great emotional distress. I have added the link to the video in the reference section at the bottom of this post, so please do watch that.
The last question I asked Tanya was about any exercises and activities to help reduce the negative impact of anger that might suddenly appear during our roles as carers. She shared that 10 jumping jacks, if you are able to do them, are great as you don’t need any equipment and you can literally, do them on the spot! When you are doing the jumping jacks, it is dispersing all that energy, all that anger that has been triggered within you, like the ‘fight or the flight’ response mentioned above. It means you are less likely to hit out at something or someone and take back control of your responses. Plus, by the time you have done about five or six, you already start to feel better, because you are concentrating on doing the jumping jacks, as well as getting rid of the energy.
Tanya shared that, in the actual moment of feeling like you might lose control of your anger or emotions, then in addition to the breathing technique and jumping jacks, one of the best ways to defuse your emotions from the situation is to just walk away; remove yourself from the situation and take some time to either release that energy or reflect on what happened. It is difficult, as a carer, to walk away sometimes, as you feel guilty because you feel like ‘I should be caring for that person, I shouldn’t allow myself to feel angry or upset’. However, having those sorts of thoughts in your head will only perpetuate and possibly intensify your anger. So, it is about ‘giving myself permission to just take myself out of the situation’ until the moment has passed, and you can return with a clearer head.
I must admit when Tanya mentioned jumping jacks, I was thinking, Oh, no exercise! But when you think about it, it makes complete sense. The energy has got to go somewhere and by doing the jumping jacks you are helping to dissipate it and give your brain a chance to start rethinking and rebooting, such a powerful tool to use. As with the breathing technique, Tanya’s advice to remove yourself from the triggering situation if you feel you are not going to be able to control your response, is very useful and well worth trying either or both, when the need arises.
Tanya is dedicated to continuing her research, is currently a PhD candidate and is about to have the first part of her research into positive anger published. She is also spreading the word about how to use anger positively through her coaching social enterprise, Tristone Coaching and her mission to improve the lives of young people affected by adult anger. Research shows that her six-week, evidence-based anger management program called Children’s Healthy Anger Management Programme (C.H.A.M.P), works to alleviates and ameliorates anger, not only student and young adults, but also for the adults around them, such as teachers and their parents, a real whole-school approach for the wellbeing of everyone, brilliant!
In the run up to Christmas, particularly with the emotional effects of COVID and another lockdown, Tanya is running a 31-day mental fitness challenge, throughout December. When you sign up, you get an advent calendar and every day when you open the new door, there will be activities, tasks or challenges, strategies to help you reduce your stress levels and improve your anger. December is actually the most stressful time of the year and is Anger Awareness Month, so a great time to support people with their mental fitness.
I have put links to Tanya’s website and her 31 day mental fitness challenge in the reference section below, so please do have a look as those and why not sign up for the challenge and start 2021, mentally fitter and ready for whatever this new year will have in store for us!
I really enjoyed my chat with Tanya, the time talking to her went by so quickly. I had a couple of real ‘arh huh’ moments as she was talking and I am very grateful to her for sharing the wealth of knowledge and experience with us. I hope she will join us again to delve deeper into how positive anger can make a difference in how, as carers, we can be proactive in managing the tsunami of emotions we experience every day.
So, this is the last in this series of blogs and podcasts about the four most prominent emotions experienced by carers. I hope each one individually has provided useful information and insight into how and why we experience these emotions so intensely sometimes and that together, they helped you to build your emotional resilience.
I will be revisiting each of these emotions in more depth in some forthcoming courses on the new Carers’ Heart website. So, if you would like to receive notification when they are being shared, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
The next episode, “Make mine a large one!” will be published on the 18th November when I will be reflecting on carers using alcohol and other substances, to ‘self-medicate’ due to emotional and psychological pressure and some provide some exercises and activities to help to make positive changes.
Thank you so much for listening to this episode and this series on building emotional resilience for carers. I know these topics are difficult and emotional to talk about, but that is why it is so important to explore them together and I hope you found them useful. I hope you can join me next time and remember, what a special thing it is that you do.
References and Resources
How to help a grieving friend: Animated Video Version