It is the usual scenario.
You hit the snooze button on the alarm clock once too often and now you are running late for work. When you get in the car, you see that it is low on gas and the line-up at the gas station serves to put you further behind the eight ball. The traffic is particularly heavy today and the traffic lights seem to conspire against you, their constant red interjections putting you in danger of missing your first meeting. And this meeting is a biggie. An important client who wants to re-negotiate his fees and one you don't want to be late for. The senior partners will be there and you are itching for that next step up the corporate ladder.
Some two miles from your office, the cars bank up in front of you, an immovable source of frustration. The traffic report on the radio confirms the worst - an accident a couple of blocks ahead and the reporter drops the dreaded buzz words 'extensive delays' and 'avoid the area'. Damn. You think you know a short cut, or at least another way to your office that will hopefully bypass all this congestion. Just need to get out of the peak hour traffic and away from this bottleneck. You check your rear view mirror and hazard a quick glance left to check that the coast is clear. Done. You indicate and slot into a gap in the traffic in the lane beside you and then swing into a u-turn. Just as you commit yourself to the manoeuvre, a car bears down on you out of your blind spot.
The driver has to slam on his brakes and tragedy is narrowly averted as he instinctively pulls to the left, missing your bumper by inches. Completing your turn, you accelerate away. You look in the rear view mirror and the other driver is fuming, waving his fists and you don't need to be able to lip read to interpret the stream of invective issuing forth from his mouth. Your heart is racing and your thoughts are not so much of the near miss but the delay it would have caused. It would have been inexcusable and wreaked dire consequences on your promotional aspirations. Your musings are disturbed by the sound of a horn beeping behind you. Looking in the rear view mirror, you see the driver of the car you almost hit riding your backside. He is so close that you can't see his headlights bar their flashing. He is mouthing a torrent of abuse and you can just make out a litany of four letter expletives through your closed windows and above the disjointed cacophony of the traffic. You feel a combination of embarassment and indignation and look for the side street shortcut so that you can get away from this reminder of your errant driving. There it is and you make the turn expecting your tormenter to accelerate past you and continue his verbal volley.
He doesn't, making the turn with you and, if anything, follows you even more closely than before, continuing to flash his lights at you and gesticulating. This is getting scary and you feel the embarassment and indignation make way to a mix of fear and anger. At the end of the street the light flicks from green to amber and you unconsciously do the math before accepting that you won't make it before it turns red. You do a quick yes-no to the thought of running the red, then reason overcomes the urge to flee and you brake. Behind you, your tail does likewise, but not quickly enough, the front of his car crunching to a halt with the help of your tow ball. The smell of burnt rubber wafts into your car as smoke rises from the asphalt. He honks his horn and you can clearly hear the profanities from behind. You wind down the window and throw some petrol on the fire by flipping him the bird. The yelling gets louder, if that is possible and people in the cars passing in front of you slow and stare, sensing the tension and caught between wanting to get to their Point B and watching the smouldering powderkeg to see what will happen.
As your face flushes with anger, you are gripped by indecision. Caught between a rock and a hard place. You have been involved in an accident and know that you legally have to exchange insurance details, yet the other party is not someone that comes across as either the most rational or agreeable of people. Yes, you did a silly thing, with both the manoeuvre and the gesture, but this fellow's reaction is way over the top and the situation bubbles over into something else. The meeting is also lost now, as are your thoughts of promotion. You his car door open and slam and something primal takes over. With nowhere to go, the flee option evaporates and you steel yourself for what must surely follow. Before you know it, you have turned off the car, pocketed the keys and opened your door. Heat radiates from your skin as you clench your fists and walk back toward the approaching driver.
What happens next?
The time for diplomacy is well and truly over and the chances are that this is going to end with violence. Someone is going to get hurt, possibly badly or worse, perhaps more than one person and at some point the understandable anger has crossed the threshold of rage. One is perfectly normal and serves as a kind of pressure valve to release the build up of stress, fear and frustration. You still maintain your twin grasp of being able to reason and act rationally. Fail to manage that anger in a timely or appropriate way and you get its dark half brother - rage.
Rage is an unhealthy extreme of anger and is characterised by violence and a complete absense of reason and rationality. It is an intense, unfocused and consuming emotion and, like a hurricane, you either get out of its way or wait for it to blow itself out. The wind analogy is a good one as anger is like a storm or gale. It may do a bit of damage, but generally it is short lived and more bark than bite. At some stage, if it blows over some kind of meteorological tipping point, it becomes a hurricane, a destructive monster that can wreak all manner of carnage.
This topic 'How to control your anger' is really a bit of a misnomer. It makes anger out to be a bad thing. I disagree and feel that anger has its place as a way of helping us to face danger. A range of physiological and psychological changes occur when we become angry that help us to survive, by enhacing our ability to process risk related information, seek justice and trigger the fight or flee response to potential threats. While aggressive behaviour is seen as anger's unwelcome sidekick, this is not always the case and usually only occurs when you cross over the threshold into rage. The problem is that there is no clear line of demarcation between anger and rage and the tip over points are probably different for everyone. Something that may cause one person to become midly irritated, say an annoying piece of doof-doof music on a neighbour's stereo, might make another person angry. Yet another might become so agitated that he (or she - rage isn't gender specific) will go around and pound on the door and then mete out their lack of appreciation in a violent way. So, rather than understanding how to control anger, what we really want to do is to stop that from spilling over into rage.
Strangely enough, our understanding of anger and rage hasn't progressed much over the last several thousand years. Psychologists still suggest coping strategies that were first put forward by the likes of Seneca and Aristotle. Seneca's approach was to be conscious of our anger and to find ways to either not be angry, stop being angry, and/or stop others from being angry. Remain calm at all times, be empathic (give people the benefit of the doubt and try to see things from their perspective) and not react instinctively. Perhaps a bit of music to calm the savage beast. All quite sound advice, though putting some music on might be a bit of a struggle to pull off successfully. Seneca also had some sagely snippets of advice for dealing with angry children, namely to never grant a child's request when he or she is angry as they will come to associate their anger with being rewarded and that is one thing you do not want to do. He also believed that children should be taught to not be angry with each other and that play is a privilege of children who are not angry with each other - the play nicely principle that remains in use to this day.
Modern anger management techniques seem to revolve around recognising the triggers that make us angry and focusing our attention on things, thoughts, images and feelings that do not make us angry. Essentially relaxation or meditation techniques, of which controlled breathing is a key component. The triggers and anger itself are taught as being a among a sequence of manageable stages of emotion and that each can be dealt with to minimise or remove it altogether. This could involve a variety of relaxation and/or meditation techniques, breathing, outlining what is an appropriate verbal and physical response to various displays of anger or simply recognising that you are becoming angry, identifying the triggers and working to overcome those triggers.
As there was between anger and rage, there is a fine line between not being angry and suppressing anger. Suppression is a big no-no. Think of suppressed anger as a bit like a pressure cooker. It can contain the anger up to a point. Eventually though, the anger builds up to a point where it can no longer be contained and rage is the result. I'll go back to the wind analogies. Whereas rage is like a hurricane, you can think of suppressed anger as a looming tornado, forming quickly and explosively and equally as destructive. Deal with anger, accept it as a natural outlet for our anxities, fears and frustrations - don't suppress it.