Turning Anger Management on Its Head: An Experiment That Supports a Theory


The term  “anger management” usually refers to ways one can reduce the subjective feeling of anger and/or reduce the overt expression of it. Perhaps we can learn more about ways to accomplish these reductions by examining their opposite: augmentation.

 

About a year ago I had an opportunity to experiment with augmentation. I was driving to my doctor’s office for my annual physical. As I approached am intersection I noticed a man sitting on a bicycle, apparently waiting for the green light so that he could cross the road on which I was traveling. As I got quite close to the intersection and still had the green light this man suddenly climbed on his bicycle and rode directly out in front of me. This was startling to me since I was quite sure that he had seen me approaching. I slowed down and gave a very quick tap on my horn to make sure he knew I was there. His response was to give me the finger quite energetically and to continue riding across the street in front of me.

 

Although I am not generally given to road rage, this situation gave me an opportunity to experience it fully. I immediately found myself having fantasies of screaming obscenities and threatening this man in a variety of ways. Observing this reaction in myself stimulated curiosity in my inner scientist. I quickly decided to turn off the radio and focus my attention on my rage, replaying in my mind the insults and my reactions to it. I continued doing this for the few minutes that it took for me to reach my doctor’s office.  As soon as I arrived there I asked the nurse to take my blood pressure. As I suspected, it was the highest reading I had ever produced. At that point I stopped focusing on my anger and chatted with the nurse for a few minutes before my appointment with my doctor.  As soon as my appointment began my blood pressure was taken again and I was pleased and a bit surprised to see that it had completely returned to normal. I came away from this experience thinking that I had learned something valuable about how one can sustain anger through focusing attention on it, and imagined the damage I could do to my body if I did something like this on a regular basis.

 

It was several months later before I began to get curious about my decision to conduct this experiment on the augmentation of anger. At the time I simply thought it was my curiosity (which is what drives my inner scientist) about such things. However, as I have reflected on the circumstances I realized that there was probably another factor at work. By focusing on my anger I gave myself an opportunity to avoid feeling my fear. There were several frightening things about the circumstances at hand that I was ignoring. The first and most generic is the fact that I was on my way to see my doctor, something that always raises the possibility that I will hear some frightening news about my medical condition. However there were other sources of fear in the immediate situation. I might have struck the bicyclist with my car had I not been paying attention. I might have escalated a confrontation with him that could have led to either one of us being injured or killed. I might have simply embarrassed myself in public by making a scene. None of these fears was in my conscious awareness as I conducted my experiment on the augmentation of anger. Although I have long believed that anger serves primarily as a mask for feelings that create a sense of vulnerability—e.g. pain, fear, and sadness—this experiment and its aftermath seem to provide data to support this belief.

 

John Rhead

8-19-12

rev 10-22-13