The OTW Anger Series | Backseat Driver: Anger and What It’s Masking

by | May 23, 2017

“I think of anger as the tip of the iceberg. Generally, almost every time someone gets angry, it’s something else and that can be their feelings were hurt,
or they’re sad, or depressed, and this is how they’re dealing with it.”
Photo by Taren Maroun.

“Anger is a secondary emotion.” This struck something deep inside of me when Dr. Lena Dicken and I were chatting, just a week or two before November’s presidential election. I’d heard this before, through Brene Brown’s work and my adolescent preoccupation with psychology, yet I’d not absorbed it – clearly, because it was a brand new revelation to me when Lena said it. But consider it – just how right it feels. What does a secondary emotion mean? It means anger isn’t the real player; it’s showing up for at least one more dominant emotion or state of being, like its convoy or stand in. Perhaps it’s hurt, fear, depression. Anger is the outward manifestation or “coping mechanism” but not the driver. It’s the defense mechanism, but beneath it is the true perceived threat.

“I think of anger as the tip of the iceberg. Generally, almost every time someone gets angry, it’s something else and that can be their feelings were hurt, or they’re sad, or depressed, and this is how they’re dealing with it. Another reason is when people feel powerless. One way to counteract that is to conjure up anger and take up power and feign it. Take the example of road rage: someone out of nowhere cuts us off. We first respond by flipping them off and thinking ‘dude, you almost screwed this all up.’ You don’t want to show how scared you were, so you become agitated or irate. The question with anger is usually: ‘what is this protecting against?,’” Lena expounded.

We all met Lena last summer when we interviewed her about Saltwater Sessions, an integrative program she created combining surfing and mindfulness, originally focusing on substance abuse. If you’ve got a staid or traditional conjuring of a therapist in your head, Lena will break that mold for you. She was raised in western Maryland to a family tradition of meditation and Eastern philosophies. She coasted to Hawaii to complete her undergraduate degree in Integrative Medicine, while teaching meditation and yoga and surfing every opportunity she could. Now based in Los Angeles, working as a therapist for six years and completing her licensure, she’s part of a new wave of therapists who offer eclectic modalities of therapy for their clients.

Dr. Lena Dicken

After Lena and I talked in November, I put anger studies away for a bit in the wake of that election and the ire of the beginning of the year. Forget studying it, I was immersed in it. As I returned to this piece on the actuality of what anger is, dear Lena was kind enough to chat with me again, and I revisited a valuable article on anger I’d read last summer.

It seems a real challenge for adults to overcome/change in regards to anger responses. What are some prompts you can give them?
“When someone is angry or leading with anger I ask them to tell me what happened, what led to this feeling. Again, this is where the discovery of what is really driving the anger happens. I often tell them they need to set boundaries, and we work together on what those are. Perhaps their relation to saying no, stating their feelings, saying what they want and don’t want. Boundaries can serve a really healthy purpose. I also teach patients mindfulness meditation. This can be true meditation or excusing one’s self to go for a walk as soon as the anger begins rising. The challenge is inserting some reprogramming so that the next time anger surfaces it can be managed and understood for what it really is.”

A reader wrote in inquiring: “I’d like her opinion on mindfulness techniques with rage. Does it suppress it, is it a Band-Aid or a long-term correction? People who suffer from PTSD with rage over decades – does it ever leave your body or do you constantly have to battle it?”
This is my background, and I absolutely believe in meditation and mindfulness as a powerful aid to any sort of pervasive rage or PTSD. But that’s often times just not enough to successfully alter the reaction. If you don’t really deal with it then yes, of course, it’s a bit of a Band-Aid. That’s what various forms of therapy are really for: to go in and explore and process things.

Given the current political state of affairs and crises around the world, have you seen an increase in clients and/or fear and rage on the rise?
There’s definitely an uptick of fear and helplessness in a lot of my clients, on this sort of global and community level. The political state of affairs is also bringing up some traumas that come from childhood. It’s personally difficult because I can’t take that away from them when this is the pervasive landscape, but I can work with them on it.

* * * *

In the wake of the Orlando shooting last summer, I read a timely article by a psychologist named Laura L. Hayes – well-timed in that we had already begun working on our Anger Series, and I could see people struggling more and more to understand these kind of tragedies taking place with more frequency. Laura’s primary thesis of the “Can We Have Compassion For the Angry” article was essentially this: “Violence is not a product of mental illness. Violent crimes are committed by violent people, who are unable to manage their anger.” She posited that this pervasive belief that anger stems from mental illness, copiously propagated by groups like the NRA, is wildly dangerous and misleading, citing that over the span of a lifetime, around 47.4 percent of Americans alone have the chance of having some kind of mental disorder. But the number of Americans who will go on to be violent is hardly 1 in 2. Anger is not relegated to the mentally ill, it can affect us all and wreak havoc if unmodulated.

Most violent people, she cites, see external areas of life as a perceived threat or danger (see prejudice, racism, sexism, and so forth) and begin to externalize blame and lose lucidity and objectivity. She, along with Lena and I and many people around the world, recognize anger dysregulation and acknowledgment through treatment are pertinent, especially in these global times, unfolding minute by minute.

If you’re not familiar with neuroplasticity, we’ll get into that in more Life Coaching posts, but essentially it’s the ability to structurally change brain responses. Laura L. Hayes references there were more than 1,000 published studies (not certain in America or globally) as of 2016 demonstrating significant structural changes in mentally ill brains through mindfulness tactics. This is plasticity.

As Dr. Joe Dispenza, Researcher, Chiropractor, Lecturer and Author has said, “Every time you have a new thought you create a new connection in your brain.”

We are not fixed, and this is the real work. The wisdom Of The Wolves shares, the research we conduct, the experts we bring on – all this focus on rituals and self-awareness and everyday human experiences we share is not just a means to THAT end, it’s for our basic right to thrive and because unregulated emotions can be deadly, to ourselves and others.