Anger is a two-step process. It usually starts with stress and the subjective experience of arousal that stress of any kind generates. Stress motivates you to begin coping. You want to lower or block these uncomfortable feelings. The first step in anger production concludes when your awareness of stress leads to a coping decision. While coping could include tears, relaxation, exercise, music, verbalizing, or problem solving, too frequently you may find yourself choosing to block and discharge pain through anger.
As you’ve seen, stress is not a sufficient cause for anger. You need the psychological flint of anger-triggering thoughts to convert stress into hostile affect. Step two in anger production is the process by which you focus on either blamers or shoulds.
Blamers. Here the generic thought is “you deliberately did _______ to me.” The key idea is that you have been intentionally harmed by the wrong behavior of another.
Shoulds. The generic thought here is “you should not have ______ but instead you should have _______.“ The implication is that the person knows or should know how to act correctly and has, out of stupidity or selfishness, broken the rules of reasonable conduct.
Both kinds of trigger thoughts have, as a core belief, a perception of the other person as bad, wrong, and deserving of punishment. When Leonard says to himself, “They deny me the chance to relax,” the implication is that Sarah and James are deliberately harming him. They are bad and should be punished. When Sarah says to herself, “Everyone must do his job,” she sees James as breaking a basic rule of life. He is doing wrong and should be punished. When James blames his mother for trying to control him, he sees her as the “field marshal” deliberately inflicting harm. His response is to want to hurt her back.
Stress (painful arousal) plus trigger thoughts equal anger. You cannot have anger without both components being present. Trigger thoughts without arousal produce a judgment without emotion. Arousal without trigger thoughts leaves you in a chronic state of pain until you choose an alternative stress reduction strategy.
The Anger Cycles
The anger cycle can start in two ways.
1. Arousal/stress --------------------> Trigger Thoughts
This is the conventional cycle described throughout this chapter. Notice that stress begets trigger thoughts, which beget anger, more trigger thoughts, more anger, and so on. Your thoughts and angry feelings become a feedback loop which can be self-perpetuating. The feedback loop is what keeps your anger simmering for hours or even days without letup.
In cycle two, the trigger thoughts create a stress reaction (however brief), which then fuels anger. Some trigger thoughts are sufficiently provocative to create arousal where none previously existed. Arthur wonders if his wife will work long hours at her law office again tonight. The image of himself sitting through news shows and sitcoms waiting for her key in the door triggers a deep sense of abandonment. But he thinks that the pain is her fault. Almost instantly he converts the stressful feeling into anger. Now the anger stirs more trigger thoughts:
“She doesn’t care really about our marriage—there’s that weekend where she decided to go away by herself, and the habit of reading in bed, and the fights about who was supposed to shop.” Arthur is now caught in the feedback loop. Trigger thoughts breed more anger, which sets off more trigger thoughts, followed by more anger, and so on.
In cycle two, there is always an intervening moment of pain (loss, rejection, despair, fear, frustration, hurt, abandonment) between the trigger thought and the anger. But the perception that the pain is someone else’s fault quickly ignites the anger and establishes the feedback loop.
- McKay, Matthew, Rogers, Peter & Judith McKay, How to Change Painful Feelings Into Positive Action When Anger Hurts, MJF Books: New York, 1989.
Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information
about creating anger. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
According to McKay, what is the difference between anger cycle one and anger cycle two? Record the letter of the correct answer