S3E8 Anger

Dr. Rubin highlights the evolution of anger and how this emotion can be helpful. Like most things in the practice of mindfulness, as long as we do not let any of them control how we think, feel and behave, they can be useful. Dr. Pete discusses the role of anger in performance and how the East has interpreted and written on this emotion. Remember, it is just one emotion. Do not give emotions too much power. Tune in to learn about how to effectively feel anger!




Nikki: So, today we're going to talk about, not maybe the most comfortable emotion but we're going to talk about anger.


Pete: Why is it not comfortable?


Nikki: Well, I don't know about you, but you know, I don't personally love feeling anger, maybe you do, I don't know. Some people get a little addicted to feeling angry, which we'll talk about, but I personally don't enjoy it.


Pete: No, I don't enjoy it either.  And with the practice of mindfulness, I really don't feel it as much as I once did.


Nikki: Yes, it's more regulated. It’s not quite intense, it's more regulated totally.


Pete: Yes.


Nikki: Well, I think we've done a lot of episodes on other emotions, and of course, when we've done these episodes, we always start with talking about the evolutionary function of emotions. Because most people aren't that understandably aware of like, why we feel things like what's the point, why does this exist, you know? So, if that's okay, can I maybe jump into some good old fashioned historical evolutionary?


Pete: Yes. Bring the knowledge, Dr. Rubin.


Nikki: Okay. So anger serves a purpose, evolution did not select for it for no reason. So we've talked in the past how all emotions are hardwired with something called an action urge, which basically means what your emotion is telling you to do. So anger evolved to help us fight back when either ourselves or someone that we're cared about or like, you know, human tribe was being attacked, right? So anger, basically what it does is it calls us to action, calls us to respond. So if we think about fight, fright, or freeze, this is the fight response, right? 


Pete: Yes. 


Nikki: And that was really helpful because again, if you were being attacked by sabretooth tiger, you don't want to just you know, necessarily stand still, right? You'd want to run maybe you'd freeze but you might want to fight back sometimes. And this is really important to understand because I want listeners to think about when we feel angry we often feel like very powerful, right? Like, it sort of creates this surge of energy, even think physiologically, you know, there's like an increase in heart rate, like we kind of tense up, we might flush. And, you know, and this is where we'll get into some of the stickier pros as well, but we can also feel very righteous about things like we're right. I don't know anything else you want to add here?


Pete: Well, why do you think people get angry? Maybe, simply like some examples of when you were angry?


Nikki: Like in modern times?


Pete: Right. Because I'm even thinking like, one thing for me is always like customer service. And I think especially during the pandemic, I realized that like, it seems as though customer service has shifted whereby the customer's aren’t necessarily always right anymore. Those things are gone. 


Nikki:  Maybe not such a terrible thing, but yeah. So, if we start with the evolutionary piece of like, anger calls us to action when we're being threatened in some way, right?  In modern experience like, there's a whole spectrum of what that can mean, right? So we can feel angry, if anger's in the middle, if everyone imagined listening to a spectrum here the most intense would be rage. And the least intense would be like a slight irritation or [crosstalk 03:47]


Pete: I just had a word affiliation; can I bring that to you?


Nikki: Yeah, please.


Pete: Rage against the machine.


Nikki: Great band.


Pete: Okay. Go ahead. Move on to the spectrum.


Nikki: Great nineties band. Yes, I love that. And frustration is somewhere like in the middle between say, anger and irritation or annoyance. So we feel angry when we feel that's something has happened that's not just. We feel angry if again something awful has happened; like we've been harmed in some way or someone we love has been harmed. Anything else you would add here?


Pete: Well, I'm going to give you an APA definition maybe. How's that?


Nikki: How did I not expect that?


Pete: I know, because it's been a minute since we recorded. So it's an emotion characterized by antagonism towards someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong, which is exactly what you just described. 


Nikki: Yeah, exactly.


Pete: And it could be good, and it just motivates you to find solutions to problems.


Nikki: Exactly. So that piece is really important. So it's saying like, when we feel angry again, it calls us to action. It calls us to do something and that's very effective. So, I don't know about you, but like, I work with a lot of people that you know, they don't let themselves feel angry. It's kind of like that gets judged as something, you know, bad quote, unquote or negative. But I'll say anger is oftentimes justified, I don't know if you've had this experience clinically Pete. But you know, sometimes like when I'm working with people that have experienced trauma there is understandably hard time accessing anger initially because of course the fear dominates right.


Pete: So interestingly I'll say that with my clients, you know, tend to be these like you know, really high…..


Nikki: The athletes?


Pete: Yeah. They access anger too often.


Nikki: Well, I work with those folks too, but say more about that.


Pete: So their trauma brain would likely actually access anger more because it's sort of a default. And so there's research that supports that neurologically, sort of their fight fright or freeze went right to anger because that's what protected them. Or at least that's at least the understanding in which that we would have as to why they go there so quickly. But that we would see that they go there quickly.


Nikki: And, you know, this is where we get into the nuance of you know biology interacts with learning history and experience is like sometimes there may be some like gendered learning experiences in terms of emotional expression, right?


Pete: Yeah.


Nikki: I mean, I know you work with athletes of all genders, but I'm wondering if mostly men, right. 


Pete: Yeah.


Nikki: I don't know, will you say a little bit more about that?


Pete: Yeah. I guess socially it's more accepted for men to be angry, whereas a woman, so, you know, Nikki, if you and I were to get a fight one day while we're on air you'd be seen as, you know the B word. And I would be seen as strong, you know, for assertive or something.


Nikki: Right, right, right. When I'm thinking of our masculinity episode of toxic masculinity, and we’ve talked a lot about this, right?


Pete: We did yep. And so also though, there is another area of research that finds that sometimes men express anger as a result of depression or sadness. And so that's like the phenotype is the anger but underlying that is really sadness.


Nikki: I love that you just said phenotype. It's one of my favorite genotypes and phenotypes. Love that. And I think just even more broadly outside of sort of the context of gender, I think most people can think about times when they've not wanted to feel sadness and they'll sort of feel angry instead. And that is something I talk about with, with all kinds of patients, because again, anger makes us feel powerful. It also like distances us from something, right, where sadness, think about like when you're grieving, right? .  Like sometimes, you know, part of the process is being angry which is normal, right but anger does feel better than feeling sad because it feels as though like you can do something. There's like a fighting reality quality, right?


Pete:  Is that an anger character on inside out, that movie?


Nikki: There is an anger character.


Pete: Okay.


Nikki: Yeah, if no one's watched it yet, it’s a great, great movie. So, a lot of times people will go to anger over sadness or even other unpleasant sort of like downregulated emotions like shame or guilt. That's another one I've seen before, right? When someone's done something, you know, maybe that they feel guilty about, right? Like appropriately guilty, they'll sort of turn it around and be angry at the person that's, you know, sort of calling them out for that. Why? Because it's like, you don't have to sit with the guilt, you don't have to contact that pain. But like I said, I also see people that have a hard time accessing anger right, they don't allow themselves to feel that way.


Pete: Yeah. Why do you think that is?


Nikki: Because again, I think if I'm speaking about trauma, you know, sometimes it's that the anxiety of fear has dominated, right? So, it's like there's sort of like no space for the anger until the fear response has been effectively processed then there's space to be angry about it. But I also think that, again, if we go back to sort of like contextual factors and we can talk about women you know for example are often like kind of taught like, you know, it’s not okay to be angry. Or I hear things a lot of times like oh, I shouldn't be angry about this. As if it says something negative about one's character or something like that.


Pete: Right. Well, that's a good old cognitive distortion anyway. [Inaudible 10:02] statement there.


Nikki: Yeah. Well, Peter, I'm wondering like, what does Zen Buddhism say about anger specifically if it does, I’m very curious?


Pete: There's lots of guesses. I know that you always like, put me on the spot for some of this stuff.


Nikki: Because I want to know.


Pete: Yeah, I mean it's purposeful, it's a, you know, natural order of suffering. Obviously the goal is to get away from it. So, what I opened up saying earlier or as we began this episode is I do feel it less, you know? And so I think with the practice of meditation and mindfulness, while I can regulate it more effectively, no doubt, I also experience it less frequently. Because, when I'm connected with peace more regularly, the other emotions, and that's hon honestly why sometimes high performers don't like mindfulness or meditation because it almost feels like it's too level. Like there are fewer ups and downs. 


Nikki: Yep. 


Pete: And that's really supported in the research to say that, well, as my brain changes, there will be less ups and downs, you know, all the other aspects of behaviorally, like, okay, I'm not judging my emotions, I've regulated them more effectively. And then over time, like say for example, some of anxiety, we don't do this in third wave CBT, but one of the things I'll say is like, we're not saying we're going to eliminate your anxiety or anger. However, as you practice, you'll likely notice that there's a steady decline of your experience or understanding. And so Buddhism would kind of be similar in that way where they're saying allow anger to arise and then find some antidotes to prevent it. You know, because anger itself is going to hijack people's current state or the actual present moment. And so, the antidote, one of them in particular, like Pema Chodron writes a lot about, well, she'll say ‘patience’. And then you know, you and I talk a lot in here about interpretation, so what anger actually is, and like Sanskrit or some other languages that this has all been written in. But often they'll use that as like aggression synonymously. So that'd be interesting for you to break down because I think in the West we would think anger is the emotion aggression as the behavior.


Nikki: Yeah.


Pete: I'm wondering, would you agree with that?


Nikki: Yeah, that's a hundred percent what I would say, because even like, if you go back to what Pema Chodron says, like patience is a behavior, practice of patience right. And so, that makes total sense to me when we practice patience that would help regulate anger because it's like slowing down, right. It's not fighting back against everything, right?


Pete: Right.


Nikki: But, I think maybe, you know, Pete it's important to distinguish between like regulating anger overall, which is I think what you're speaking to, which is yeah When you used any kind of mindful approach, like you're going to feel anger less intensely and less frequently, right. And I think that's because it's like the day-to-day things don't grab us as much if we go back to that spectrum idea, right. Like things that are an annoy us or irritate us or hurt our feelings maybe those things you know, don't get in as much. Like they don't sort of like puncture us in the same kind of way. And so what I then have personally experienced and how I understand it is like, okay, so then you're not feeling anger as often or as consistently or as intensely, though. That doesn't mean that you're not going to experience anger when, you know, for example, you're being attacked or a loved one has been really hurt. 


Pete: Of course. 


Nikki: It's like feeling anger maybe when it's more justified is kind of how I approach it. Like, as opposed to having it show up like for less justified reasons, I guess.


Pete: Yeah, and that would seem to me to think about like the spectrum like you're saying. But because Buddhism is really rooted in peace if I'm attacked, they're still meant to be peace as a response, like it's not an aggressive.


Nikki: You're right. 


Pete: Now that's in theory that we know there's parts of the world right now that Buddhist practitioners are attacking, you know, other religious practices because humans, as we've said before, like kind of screw everything up


Nikki: Right, Buddhism and other eastern practices, they are practices created by human beings. And so, nobody is infallible to the downsides of the human brain and the human condition.


Pete: Correct. Maybe I'll read from Dhammapada, Again, I study mostly like in the end world like Japanese based sort of traditions. This is a little bit more Indian based, but there are the idea that how anger is really clouding and causing suffering. So, the belief there is that it's detrimental. So here's like just a saying for you all. So beware of bodily anger and control thy body leave the sins of the body and with thy body practice virtue. Beware of anger of the tongue, and control thy tongue, leave the sins of the tongue and practice virtue with thy tongue. Beware of the anger of the mind and control mind. Leave the sins of the mind and practice virtue with thy mind. The wise who control their body, who control their tongue, the wise who control their mind are indeed well controlled. So this was verses 2: 31 to 34. Again, I don't like the word control, you remember that?


Nikki: Of course, I do.


Pete: But, what they're saying is like, understand that what you're saying is involved, your body is involved, your emotion is involved, and then ultimately how do you control your behavior?


Nikki: Totally. And I think, you know, as you're reading that and again, going back to what you said a moment ago about translation, I think as you know, we live in obviously the United States and the western world we're native English speakers like we have to be careful in how we interpret what's being said. Because I also have the experience a lot of times where people take Zen Buddhist concepts and use them as experiential avoidance. They use them to say, which, you know, for listeners if you've heard about this before. So experiential avoidance is the behavioral practice of trying to fix control, get rid of problem solve, ignore, suppress any internal stimuli, and that includes memories, thoughts, physical sensations, emotions or urges. And this is a thing humans do because of our, you know, language using brains. And so a lot of times, like for example, when you talk about anger, which we're saying this is built into our bodies and our brains, and it's not just humans right. Other animals also feel anger. So, it's coded in us biologically and again, I'm no expert here, but my understanding and experience of mindfulness practices around that is like, yes we're trying not to get dysregulated in anger. We're trying not to lash out. We're trying to keep it regulated and as best we can as to practice compassion towards ourselves and others. However, I think a lot of people would hear that and say, see, I shouldn't be angry. 


Pete: Right. 


Nikki: You know, and they kind of use that as a way to disconnect and distance themselves. It's like an intellectualization of emotion and that's something I encounter quite a bit not just with anger, you know, with other emotions too. And so yeah, I would be curious, you know, what some of the Zen teachers would say if somebody was sort of like going to that intellectual place about it.


Pete: So there are some teachers, even within my teacher's lineage that would really separate western behaviorism or any kind psychotherapy from some of their teachings. And, I can't like.


Nikki: Well, of course they're both part of you. That's why you can't.


Pete: It's funny because one of the teachers in particular mentions that a lot in her talks and I'm just like, I can't. I'll do just another writing of the tips before we end. Because I think some tips would be helpful. 


Nikki: Yeah.


Pete: My mom is very knowledgeable, so she's would say life sucks and then you die. But that actually is Samsara, which just says that life is un-satisfaction. And so that's part of anger patience again, like we mentioned from Pema Chodron analyze the situation, meditation and again, meditation and learning from your enemy. So what we're also asked to do in any kind of feelings of aggression or anger is to sit with it. That's a lot of the Zen way just to sit and see what comes up and watch it come up and not push it away. Watch it come up.


Nikki: And we got to be really mindful about this. Which listeners, that doesn't mean wallow in it. Because what happens in anger is we have the urge to ruminate, which means to go over in your mind over and over again, Rumination, intensifies emotion. 


Pete: Exactly. So we always, from a third wave CBT perspective will say, walk away from what makes you feel angry, but that includes in your mind as well right. So don't remove yourself from the situation and then think about how you've been wronged over and over again. Like, that's going to grow that anger to a much larger, stickier place.


Pete: And that's what meditation teaches you not to do.


Nikki: That's right.


Pete: And so as you sit, sitting with it doesn't mean ruminate. Sitting with it means see what comes up and then you move on to the next moment. Because everything isn't permanent, the sort of thing to think about that will even go around. And then the last two things are, think about karma and emptiness. So, karma is that how are you responding because that translates into your next life. And then emptiness that really anything you're responding to is empty, you know, and that it doesn't actually exist and that's where it gets a little bit more philosophical. But, you know, sometimes we like chant the mantra of emptiness just to remind ourselves that this does not exist and it's not who we are.


Nikki: Always difficult to end, end on a concept like that.


Pete: Why?


Nikki: But yes, I thank you Pete. It's, I always learned so much hearing from you, so listeners, I hope this was a helpful introduction to just understanding anger a little bit better understanding that it is a part of us. You know, it's in our biological code and it's something that we don't we don't have to let it dominate and rule our lives. So you know, go ahead, practice some of these suggestions and let us know how it goes.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Pete Economou.


Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present, Be Brave.


Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.


Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.