How To Be Angry Better
As printed in Attention Magazine, April 2019
(The workshop “How To Be Angry Better” was presented at the International Conference on ADHD in 2018 and the Attention Deficit Disorder Association - Southern Region’s Regional Conference in 2020, as well as in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Round Rock, Texas.)
Many of us, including some with ADHD, have anger behavior problems. We know emotional dysregulation is a common problem. “We define emotion regulation as an individual’s ability to modify an emotional state so as to promote adaptive, goal-oriented behaviors (1) To modify one’s emotional state, one must have the ability to delay their action by having in-sight, looking inside one’s self to determine how they feel, what the issue is and how to solve it. Unfortunately, one of the key components of ADHD is impulsivity, which undermines the ability to have in-sight. The skills necessary for behavioral/impulse control are: 1. Notice you are angry 2. Think about why you are angry 3. Consider your options and 4. Choose an appropriate response. As you can see, this skill is not going to develop easily without the ability to self-regulate, to stop first and notice that you are angry, let alone think about how to respond not react to the trigger that caused us to be angry in the first place.
How is it possible for any of us, including those with ADHD who have anger behavior issues, to change our anger behavior? This article will address how to begin using epigenetics and rewiring our brains to learn how to be angry better through a communication theory called Anger Behavior Management, using the technique, F. I. B., which stands for Feeling, Issue and Behavior.
When asked, “why do you act that way”, many will reply, “that’s just the way I am”. The followup question should be, “But is that the way you want to be forever?” Many believe that the way we are can’t be changed. WHAT IF you were told you can not only change the way you act, but you can change your thoughts, your beliefs, your cells, and your genes? WHAT IF you found out that science has proven you CAN change all of those things, and in this case, your anger behavior?
In 2003, the Genome Project was completed, and it allowed us to be able to read our genetic blueprint. Like any blueprint, however, the final outcome can be modified. The blueprint of our genes can not only be altered from within, but more importantly, from other sources – our thoughts, our interpretation of the experience, our actions and the environment. The study of those forces is called epigenetics. “Epigenetics is the study of how variation in inherited traits can originate through means other than variation in the genes in our DNA” (2). One may ask, why is this important to the topic? The answer is because while our genes give us the outline of who we are, WE have the ultimate power of creating WHO we are – our thoughts, our beliefs and our actions. Our DNA and genes do NOT determine who we are, instead they are affected by how we interpret and respond to our perception of the world around us.
The really good news is that all the programming we have within us, whether we chose to think or act a certain way, or we picked it up along the way as learned behavior from being around others, can be re-programmed through intention, instruction and in-sight. To change ourselves, we have to change all that programming in our brains. It’s a good thing then, that our brains are wiring itself all the time through neuroplasticity, and all that wiring can be rewired through intention. Over time, that new wiring will affect our genetic code, and we become whomever we design ourselves to be.
When it comes to changing our anger behavior, we must first want to – that’s intention; second we must be given a blueprint on how to do that – that’s instruction; then we must be conscious about using that blueprint – that’s in-sight. Change does not happen first, shifts happen first. At first we will “default” to old behaviors, but over time, the frequency, intensity and duration of our behaviors will change.
When it comes to changing our anger behavior, we are told to “manage” our anger. We are sent to anger management classes. The interpretation is that anger itself is the problem. In fact, anger is NOT the problem. Anger behavior is the problem. Our anger behavior can be a result of the chemistry in our brains, the structure of our brains or from being around those who have not learned how to appropriately behave when they are angry. In that case, our brain literally becomes wired with the same inappropriate anger behaviors through mirror neurons. Or, we promise ourselves that we will never act that way, and we go in the opposite direction, intentionally not expressing our anger at all. Let’s be clear then, the problem is not being angry. As a matter of fact, anger is never a problem. We are probably justified in being angry. If you are so angry you want to hurt someone, having that anger is ok- as it really is ok to be angry, but it’s our anger behavior that becomes the problem.
To change our emotional behaviors, we must first understand that our feelings have a purpose: they are a communication tool to assist us in understanding ourselves and the world around us. The purpose of our feelings is to signal us on the inside that there is something going on in our world on the outside. If we understand the definition of each of those signals, we can better understand what’s going on and then we can try to find a way to return our world to the way we want it.
The signal of happy, by definition, means our outer world is exactly the way we want it. The signal of sadness, by definition, means there is a loss or “missingness” in our outer world. The signal of “fear”, by definition, means there is danger in our outer world. The signal of anger, by definition, means that someone or something just ‘rocked our world’ and we aren’t getting what we want. There it is: when we are angry, we aren’t getting what we want, and our anger behaviors are basically temper tantrums, which do nothing to solve the original problem.
The theory of Anger Behavior Management works on the premise that anger is a natural feeling and should be embraced. It should be experienced as it is letting us know that something is wrong in our outer world. It is telling us that if we want it back to the way we like it, we must figure it out and solve the problem. The technique is called F.I.B., standing for Feeling, Issue, Behavior. F.I.B is designed first to use to communicate within ourselves, to validate our feelings, figure out what we want, and then choose a behavior that will help us to solve the problem. Once that has been accomplished, we then use F.I B to communicate the same information to others, with the intention of helping them understand how we feel, what we perceive the problem to be and request them to help us solve it.
Example: I want to watch TV but my children have the music blaring. Using F.I.B, I’d say to myself –
“(F.) UGGG, I’m so frustrated. (I.) What I want is to hear the TV, but instead that music is so loud I can’t hear anything. (B.) What do I want to do to solve this?” (Notice, I have put the responsibility on me to solve the problem!) (The easiest thing to do at this point is to make a request.)
Then I’d F.I.B them-
“(F.) Hey guys, I’m really frustrated (to which they will probably say – Why?). (I.) I want to watch TV, but I can’t hear it because the music is too loud. (B.) Would you please turn the music down so we can both get what we want? (Notice, the intention of the resolution is to get us both what we want.)
This technique is respectful and because we have communicated, not ordered them to stop what they are doing while yelling at them and potentially escalating a situation unnecessarily, we are more than likely enlisting their aid in solving our problem with understanding.
Why is this especially effective for those with ADHD? Let’s look again at the skill set previously mentioned: 1. (F.) Validate your feelings. 2. (I.) Think about why you are angry. 3. (B) Consider your options and 4. (Still B.) Choose an appropriate response. Anger management works on the order of thoughts, feelings, behavior. Anger Behavior Management works on the theory of feelings, thoughts (issue), then behavior. How can one think when one is caught up in their feelings?
F.I.B requires a great deal of practice as does all attempts to rewire the brain. It’s effective, respectful and most of all, prevents feelings of guilt and shame for anger behaviors we regret having had. Anger Behavior Management works for the masses and for anyone with the intention of shifting their anger behavior.
- (“Emotional Dysregulation and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder”, Am J Psychiatry, 2014 March; 171 (3); 276-293 – Philip Shaw, MB Bach, PhD, Argyris Stringaris, MD, Ph.D, Ellen Leibenluft, MD.)
- (Genetics and Epigenetics in the Psychology Classroom. “How to teach what your textbook doesn’t.” Psychology Teacher Network, February 2013. Taken from the American Psychological Association website)