Managing Anger: Why Letting Off Steam Doesn’t Help
The hydraulic model of anger. Almost everyone I meet who has problems with anger has a basic misunderstanding about how to heal it. Most grew up around an angry person who was their model for handling anger by releasing it. This is like letting steam out of a pressure cooker. This is the hydraulic model of anger. It seems to make sense, because when we’re angry, our hearts beat faster, our blood pressure increases, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly. So we feel internal pressure. When you express anger to ease the pressure, you feel immediate relief by releasing this tension. But when you do this, you’re actually making your anger worse. How does that happen?
Imagine that someone’s just cut you off in traffic. You lean on your horn, and maybe you scream something at them – even though you’re inside your car and they won’t hear you. Your adrenalin hits, your heartbeat speeds up, and it takes awhile to calm down. Meanwhile another person signals to merge ahead of you. You cut them off because now you’re primed for anger. By acting this way, you get used to being angry. This is a conditioned response.
The conditioning model of anger. Conditioning was discovered many years ago by Ivan Pavlov, who trained dogs to salivate to the ringing of a bell. As he fed them he rang a bell. Soon, he could ring the bell and they’d salivate, even if he didn’t feed them. People with a hair trigger get angry at the slightest stimulus because they’ve conditioned themselves to be angry. Knowing this is the key to healing yourself from anger.