The Anger Addict
Everyone gets angry occasionally; it is a basic human emotion that we express when we are faced with frustrations and emotional hurt out of our control. At times anger can be constructive as it motivates us to get things done. However, that last quality is what also makes it destructive, particularly in a marriage relationship.
Many times, when a couple is arguing they may, unconsciously, trigger childhood anger. What triggers each person’s anger is unique, based on his or her unmet childhood needs and expectations.
Let’s look at a case: Ethan and Debbie, a young couple married less than a year. One of Ethan’s parents was bipolar, and the other had issues of depression as well. To make things worse, neither one of them ever sought counseling or treatment. Whenever his parents did communicate with each other, it would cause emotional havoc. As Ethan grew up, he witnessed the range of anger escalate, with yelling, cursing and fighting in front of the children.
As a teenager Ethan tried being the parent mediator by making suggestions on how to calm his parents’ temper flare-ups. He would say, “Take a timeout and leave the house; this will dampen your arousal before you lose it.” They weren’t interested in his tips for anger management or his so-called anger alternates. He was embarrassed by his parents’ anger outbursts, and he and his siblings would often go to bed early and pretend they were sleeping just not to hear the hostility when his father would come home from work.
I often tell couples that the brain does what’s familiar; what you did in childhood to survive will kill you in your marriage. Now, by nature, Ethan was a kind and giving person, however when he got upset, he would leave the house to give himself a “timeout” until he cooled off. For Debbie, not having a clue as to when he would return was just not acceptable. She had her own issues relating to parental abandonment. Debbie’s father was seldom home. He would often go on business trips, and when he came home, he was tired and not emotionally and physically available to anyone. When Ethan would walk out, Debbie felt anger, hurt and emotional abandonment from childhood. In time, as she continually chose anger to vent her frustration, she realized that her anger not only gave her energy, but it blocked her pain.
What can we do to change our old brain patterns, and build new circuitry? We start with understanding the old thoughts profile along with hypnotherapy to build new circuitry.
Understanding the Brain Thoughts Profile:
It all starts with part of the brain located right behind the eyes called the neocortex. It is for screening, judging and regulating the way our brain responds. It is also the conductor, responsible for sending messages to the other parts of the brain, mainly the amygdala, the alarm bell of the brain. Thus, letting us know whether we are safe or in danger, and determining what type of coping response is required—fight, flight, or freeze. The amygdala is the part of the brain linked with a person’s mental and emotional state.
For example, it’s like having a receptionist at the front office to greet visitors; let’s call her/him Neo, for neocortex; and a manager in the back office; let’s call her/him Amy for amygdala, making sure everything is running smoothly. Should Neo the receptionist feel threatened by a customer, she will text Amy the office manager—danger comes quickly. Since Amy is responsible for emotions, memory formations and stress response, it is Amy who will determine which action is required. It will set off the security alarm system in the office—fight, flight or freeze. Should Amy choose anger as an action in this stressful situation, the anger will activate every muscle group in the body, and you are ready to fight. Cortisol, a hormone that will mobilize energy, is released, and sent to the brain. In addition, inside your brain, a sort of shidduch is about to take place: Neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamine and dopamine are released, one to give you more energy and the other to give us pleasure and numb the pain.
That is why Debbie in counseling would say, “I like yelling; I feel like I can do anything.” However, the consequence of this feeling is that your attention narrows and focuses on the target of your anger. While this may present temporary relief, a chronic dopamine release causes the brain’s receptors to desensitize, but it lowers our anger threshold, making it easier for us to get angry again. Once the surge of anger is gone, what follows is a feeling of depression—and a cycle begins.
Craving a larger release of dopamine, and to feel good again, a person will look for reasons to get angry, and an anger addict is born. When one is addicted, feeding the addiction is all we can think about. Even worse, after a while, the chemicals released begin to alter the brain chemistry and functionality. When the neocortex does not function properly it affects our emotions and behaviors, causing us to say the wrong things and jeopardize our marriages and relationships. For Debbie, once the drug entered her body she was trapped in a never-ending cycle of abuse and depression.
How can anger addiction be treated? We begin by explaining the process. If the amygdala handles emotions, the prefrontal cortex handles the judgment call. Through cognitive therapy and hypnotherapy we simultaneously treat both at the same time: the cognitive prefrontal cortex to stop the misguided distortions messages; with hypnotherapy, through a process of reframing, we calm the amygdala so it will decrease and desensitize specific triggers. This way the brain will feel more secure and safe.
With the help of their rav and counseling, Ethan and Debbie got the help they needed. They loved each other but they were afraid to give up the only communication they had, and that was anger. Yet baruch Hashem, they did give it up, and today their marriage is stronger than ever.
Moishe Herskowitz, M.S., LCSW, CH, is a graduate professor at Touro College. He is the founder and instructor of Cable Therapy, a 12-step program that uses three connecting pathways:energy, cognitive therapy and hypnotherapy, to heal couples in crisis.