Anger is an important emotion. It has had critically important functions throughout human evolution. Its main purpose is to infuse us with energy so that we can fight for our survival. But the evolutionary development of anger was not without a few flaws. One of them is that the part of the brain that is engaged when we become angry works more rapidly compared to the part of our brain that considers all aspects of the situation: our prefrontal cortex.

Have you ever done something in anger you that you have deeply regretted later? An action that leads to regret is one that is done when you were in the middle of an amygdala hijack. The regret comes after the prefrontal lobe has considered other options and realized that you had misinterpreted the situation and over-reacted.

Although anger is an important survival emotion, it’s also a secondary emotion. It is always a cover for one or more of other emotions: fear, hurt, sadness, loss. Feeling those emotions exposes the deepest core of our being, leaving us feeling vulnerable, so to avoid those uncomfortable feelings, we allow ourselves to become angry instead. Anger is a blanket that hides our fear or hurt or sadness.

No one can make you feel angry. You alone have access to the switch in your brain that triggers the cascade of chemicals that result in the experience of anger.

So, no, that student or colleague did not make you angry when they did what they did. When you saw what they did, you interpreted their behaviour to mean something. That interpretation of their behaviour then led to the pulling of the anger trigger and when you yelled, you were in full amygdala hijack.

But there are ways to circumvent another hijack.

When you know what kinds of things trigger you, when you know how your body signals that you’re about to be hijacked, you can take a deep breath or four.

Having a regular meditation and exercise routine means that you’re less likely to respond in regretful ways.

Regularly releasing the energy that fuels your anger in ways that don’t involve damage or hurt is important too. An exercise called a Vesuvius, which involves punching or kicking a mattress flat out, without stopping, for a full 3 minutes, is quite cathartic.

When you learn about anger and its origins, you will also understand that when a student is being aggressive or angry it has nothing at all to do with you. They may have had a really bad evening at home and the very last thing they can handle is to produce an error-free paragraph or listen to you explain a poem. For a TED talk version of the main concepts covered above, see Rethinking Thinking.

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