What You Need to Know About Anger and Attention
Dr. John Schinnerer
Anger and attention are tightly woven together such as when you shuffle a deck of cards. What you pay attention to influences what you feel. How you feel influences that to which you attend.
Note: When you think of anger, think of it as existing on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is calm, 5 is somewhat angry and 10 is enraged. This way you can be more specific when you speak about your anger to your loved ones.
Let me explain by way of a short story.
Max comes home after a long day at work. He is tired and a little stressed from events on the job. On the anger scale, he is at a 2 (barely irritated). As he pulls into his driveway, Max suddenly hits the brakes to avoid running over a bicycle which one of his three children has left in his parking spot. Max stops the car, gets out, move the bike, gets back in the car and pulls fully into the driveway. On the anger scale, Max is now at a 3 (mildly annoyed). Max heads to the front door and sees the children were playing out front and left their toys and trash on the ground. He is now at a 4 on the anger scale. Max enters the house and is immediately startled by a small child who runs past him screaming with an older child in close pursuit. He picks up the computer bag which he dropped and notices he spilled a can of soda which was left on the floor near the front door. Max is now at a 6 on the anger scale (somewhat angry). He gathers himself, takes a deep breath and says “Hello’ to his oldest son who is deeply buried in a video game on a laptop. His son doesn’t hear him and says nothing in response. Max becomes aware of more trash on the floor in the hallway. Then he sees the pen marks on the wall. Max is now at a 7 on the anger scale (seething). At this point, he greets his wife (who has also had a busy, stressful day at work). The conversation quickly deteriorates into criticism, followed by blaming and raised voices.
Think of anger as the miniature ‘devil’ that sits on your shoulder. This angry ‘mini-me’ is only trying to keep itself alive. It’s sole purpose is to hijack your attention to focus on anger-inducing things that continue your spiral into irritation and annoyance.
Once you begin to notice this dynamic, you can begin to interrupt it – take a deep breath, go to the bathroom, step outside and look at the trees, smile, pull your shoulders back and expand your chest, and/or focus on things for which you are grateful. Many of the traditional anger management tools work to reduce anger. The trick is for you to stay on top of your anger in the moment.
What does not work is when someone else tells you to ‘relax’, ‘calm down’, ‘chill’, or ‘breathe’ when you are becoming angry. You are responsible for your own anger and managing it.
Simply by becoming aware of how anger operates, you can start to get in front of it. It takes practice and awareness. It is a learnable skill.