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Dr. Lynne Namka
Licensed Psychologist


The One Thritieth Of A Second
Reaction Of Anger

Lynne Namka, Ed. D. © 1997

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Anger is a chain of simultaneous body and mind reactions. It happens quickly as one of the responses to threat or perceived threat. It takes one thirtieth of a second from threat to reaction for the chain of mind and body reactions to take place!

The response of anger can serve many different functions. Some people with low self esteem automatically substitute anger during threatening experiences due to their fears of being seen as vulnerable. They have learned that acting tough and macho makes them feel important. Often negative emotions serve to manipulate, control or intimidate others. Sometimes you even substitute an inappropriate emotion for another response out of fear. Getting angry when frightened or crying when frustrated are examples of misguided emotion.

Threatening Event----> How The Event Is Interpreted

Humans differ greatly in what makes them angry. Perceptions of whether an event is threatening is based on the your personal history and prior negative emotional associations built around the event or one with a similar meaning. How the event is interpreted depends on old triggers, buttons being pushed, and red flag words that have been associated with being hurt or rejected in the past.

People who flare up at the slightest incidents have been hurt deeply and hold on to beliefs of injustice. They make rigid judgments around situations of how things should be which contribute to their angry thoughts. They hold rigid patterns of thinking with "shoulds," "ought tos" and "musts" for others. If things don't go their way, they justify getting angry.

Threat and the resulting anger can happen to the individual in one or more of five areas:

  • Threat to the body
  • Threat to personal property
  • Threat to the self esteem such as name calling or being criticized.
  • Threat to the values and beliefs (where the sense of what is fair and right has been violated).
  • Threat to not getting what you wanted.

Threatening Event---> How the Event Is Interpreted ---> Body Reaction

When the meaning of the event is interpreted to be negative, your body can go into an instantaneous hormonal and neuromuscular reaction. This primitive caveman response of expecting a fight or flight prepares the body to move fast.

Typical body responses to threat include:

  • Adrenalin release
  • Shortness of breath (Often the first reaction to threat is to hold the breath.)
  • Pulse rate drops
  • Flushing of skin and changes of temperature
  • Tightening and anxiety in the hands, shoulders, stomach
  • Rigidity of the muscles

Threatening Event---> How the Event Is Interpreted --> Body Reaction---> Negative Self Talk

Angry people have automatic thoughts of a negative nature that increase the perception of harm. Self talk statements are made which heat up the situation. The way that the stressful situation is interpreted comes from past with being hurt. You may dwell on the concept of fairness and exaggerate the injustice of the current situation. You can self anger yourself by holding self-righteous beliefs and a desire for vengeance. Angry people often see threat in situations that are ambiguous.

The most common kind of self-angering thoughts that increase conflict are:

  • Name calling which is giving the person a negative label. "You dummy." "You are stupid."
  • Making judgments and "should" statements that lead to a sense of injustice. "You should not act that way."
  • Making revenge and getting even statements. "I'd like to wring his neck. I want to kill him."
  • Assuming that the other person deliberately wanted to harm you. "She did it on purpose."
  • Making mountains out of mole hills--catastrophizing and exaggerating the importance of small events.
  • Making rigid judgments that wimps and weaklings need to be punished.
  • Beliefs of "I have the right to hurt others because I am better than them."

Angry people hold similar negative thoughts based on their beliefs about unfairness:

  • It's not fair. He's mean.
  • How dare he do that to me?
  • He did that on purpose to hurt me.
  • She doesn't care about me.
  • He can't get away with that.
  • I'll get him back. He deserves to be punished.

Threatening Event---> Perceived Meaning---> Body Reaction---> Self Talk---> Feeling

The type of emotional response that comes forth depends upon your beliefs, past history with aggression, and the demands of the social situation. If you comes from a violent home, you may have to suppress your own anger in order to be safe around an explosive parent. When negative emotions are suppressed over a period of time and built up, they can manifest as depression, illness or in an explosion of rage at someone who is safe. Or you may have learned to identify with the aggressor in your childhood home making your anger pattern an explosive one.

Threatening Event---> Perceived Meaning---> Body Reaction---> Self Talk---> Feeling-->Anger Reaction

Remember, one thirtieth of a second for all of this to happen! After years of this pattern being repeated again and again, the person develops a locked-in automatic response to threat. The antidote to break out of this instantaneous reaction is to slow down the reaction time by breathing and substituting another more healthy response. By watching and changing the self-angering thoughts, the person can break into the automatic self-angering thoughts and decrease anger and violent behavior. We are what we think. We treat people the way that we have been treated in the past. Getting a handle on thoughts such as "It's not fair" and "I am entitled to blow up at others because I am special and they are stupid, weak or of a different race or belief system" is part of the breaking out of the self-angering thoughts which contribute to unnecessary anger.

Threatening Event---> Perceived Meaning---> Body Reaction---> Self Talk---> Feeling--> Anger Reaction-> Evaluation

The final step in this chain is evaluation of one's actions Later the individual rationalizes or justifies his behavior or feel shame about his anger. Or in a more healthy light, he can make decisions as to how he could handle the event differently next time.

You can learn to break into this chain of behavior at any point. It is easier, however, to break into the first stages.

Deep breathing and breaking into the meaning given to the event will help you learn to master your anger. You can learn to raise your consciousness and use more constructive anger responses.

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Lynne Namka