I recently read an excellent book by Dr. Ronald Potter-Efron entitled, “Healing the Angry Brain.” In his book he addresses people who have difficulty with clear thinking during anger episodes, those who act before thinking, and for those who feel out of control when angry. He talks extensively about the brain and how understanding the way your brain works can actually help you to more effectively control anger and aggression. As a part of Potter-Efron’s book he talks about the 6 stages of an emotional or anger event which is what I want to talk about in this blog entry. In order from 1 to 6 they are: activation, modulation, preparation, action, feedback and deactivation. I will talk about each stage in detail below.
Activation is the first stage and it is the event or trigger. It can be anything from someone cutting you off in traffic to your spouse or significant other giving you a look. The way you perceive events has a direct impact on how you will respond. So if you are in a constant frame of mind that everyone and everything is out to get you then you will most likely perceive events as being negative and react with defensiveness, anger, or aggression. On the other hand, if you have trained yourself to test and examine your perceptions before reacting you’re more likely to react with an appropriate response.
I think of modulation, the 2nd stage, as how you perceive and rate the activating event. For instance, your friend shows up late to dinner (activation), you believe it is because they do not respect you or your time, you allow yourself to stew in your thoughts and negative feelings, all resulting in the intensity (modulation) level of your anger increasing. Using a scale of 0-10 with 0 being no emotion and 10 being a full on loss of self-control you find yourself moving up towards a 10. The problem is that many people who struggle with anger management and aggression is that they respond to events with an intensity level that is disproportionate.
Activation leads to modulation (how you perceive and rate the event) which, in turn, leads to the 3rd stage, preparation. This is where you are now primed and ready to react. Your child ignored you when you asked them to pick up their shoes, this is the 3rd time it has happened and you are getting more angry, and now your mind and body are preparing to react. For those who struggle with anger management and aggression the first and only that they see is to get ready to jump into fight/attack mode. As Dr. Ronald Potter-Efron so brilliantly summarizes, “…you can say good-bye to objective reasoning, keeping things in perspective, and impulse control and hello to outrage!”
The event has happened, the mind has made its assessment, the body is primed to react, what happens next is actual movement or the action stage. Keep in mind that all of these steps occur within nanoseconds. The reason is that all of us need to be able to read and respond to stimuli in our environment for survival. The problem is that for those who poorly manage anger and aggression each stage prior to action is mishandled resulting in lashing out with anger and/or aggression towards others. This could be verbally of physically. Both are hurtful and dangerous to all parties involved.
The first three stages are building up to the climax which is the action stage of anger. The final two stages are moving downwards, so to speak, into what is known in storytelling as the falling action and resolution. Feedback, the 5th stage of anger, involves processing everything that has happened up to this stage and it is both internal and external. It is where you process through what happened with someone else or in your mind. You think about the event, how much it angered you, and how you responded. You might feel justified or perhaps even regret. Regardless, the feedback stage is both you and others sending messages, positive or negative, about what just happened. People with poor feedback skills do not accept help from others and do not listen to the positive internal messages keeping them stuck.
The final stage of the anger management stages of anger is deescalation. This is where you ideally come back down into a calm, cool, and collected state. The problem is that those with poor anger management skills is that they do not deescalate well. They may focus on the event for days which only keeps them stuck. They may replay the situation over and over which makes them perpetually angry. Poor deescalation means staying in a constant state of anger and being on guard for “those who are out to me.”
If you are someone in need of anger management I hope learning about the stages of anger helps you to understand how it all works. It is important to have an understanding of your brain and how it is hard wired. The good news is that our brains can change. This is what neuropsychologists refer to as neuroplasticity. It means that you can literally change your brain to respond differently. Successful anger management requires knowledge but also takes practice. If you commit and practice certain behavioral and emotional changes you can and you will have success.
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