Why Giving In to Anger Makes Us Dumber

“Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools.” — Albert Einstein

Everyone knows what it’s like to feel angry. Our heart beats faster. Our chest tightens. We become fixated on the person or thing that caused our anger, and we start thinking about how we can get even.

Anger is a natural human reaction to situations that we dislike, but it isn’t a very effective one. If we take a moment to think about the consequences of anger, we’ll realize that it rarely solves whatever problem provoked it. If we become angry about another person’s behavior, it probably won’t result in them changing that behavior. If we become angry about an unfavorable event that befalls us, our anger will do nothing to reverse what has happened.

What’s worse is that anger inhibits our ability to respond to the situation intelligently. Psychological studies have shown that people process information less thoroughly and judge others more harshly when they are angry. This can cause us to behave in ways that only perpetuate anger instead of addressing its cause.

In short, being angry makes us dumb. Fortunately, it’s possible to live without anger if we train our brains to respond to anger-inducing situations differently.

The Function of Anger, Then and Now

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In his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson suggests that anger is closely related to our instinctual “fight or flight” response. Anger is marked by physiological activity that prepares our body to fight off an aggressor, such as the release of adrenaline in our brain and increased blood flow to our muscles.

For our earliest ancestors, Dr. Johnson argues, anger was a useful emotion. It helped them confront or kill animals or other humans who posed a threat to their life. Anger’s natural intensification of “us vs. them” thinking also might have been useful for protecting the tribe during conflict, thereby increasing the individual’s chances of long-term survival.

However, the survival benefits of anger have been rendered mostly obsolete by modern civilization. Physical assault and murder are not acceptable in our society,  nor are they necessary for day-to-day survival. To solve interpersonal disputes today, we must use logic, reason and understanding—which is much harder to do when we feel angry.

So, how can we become better at relying on these higher-level problem solving skills? By changing our thought patterns to weaken anger’s control over us.

Rewiring Our Brains for Calm

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According to Dr. Johnson, anger is caused not only by what happens to us, but also by how we habitually think about these things. For example, if a stranger on the street makes a rude comment toward you, you can view it in one of two ways: as a personal attack on your character or as an outburst that reflects more on the speaker than on you. If you think about the situation in the first way, you are much more likely to become angered by it.

Fortunately, it’s possible to change our way of thinking so we’re less easily angered. The first step is to desensitize ourselves to our environmental “triggers.” Make a list of every situation you can think of that typically makes you angry, and then imagine these situations in your mind. As you picture each one, concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths and relaxing the muscles in your body. With practice, you’ll become much better at controlling your emotions and staying calm when confronted with these anger-inducing situations.

Once we’re desensitized to our anger triggers, we can work on reframing our thoughts about them. If we take some time to think about why we become angry, we’ll discover that it’s usually because we assume the worst intentions. Work on questioning these assumptions. Consider if there could be a positive intention behind the behavior, if there are compensating factors that make it more understandable, or if there might be a hidden benefit that comes out of the situation. In the above scenario, for example, you might consider that the rude person could simply be having a bad day. Alternatively, you might decide that their actions provide you with a good opportunity to practice compassion.

If we work on changing the way we think about situations that anger us, we’ll find in time that anger no longer controls us. This is the best way to help ourselves make smart, effective decisions in anger-inducing situations—instead of ineffective and dumb ones!

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Dr. Ashleigh Woods Explains How—and Why—to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” — E. Joseph Cossman, American businessman and author

It’s hard to overstate the good that sleep does for the human body.

Sleep is our natural recovery period, when all of our bodily systems can recuperate and reenergize for continued use. It plays a pivotal role in the functioning of our endocrine and immune systems, and it’s essential for maintaining mood, memory and cognitive performance. Unfortunately, too many of us take for granted the benefits that sleep provides.

The average adult needs at least 7 hours of sleep every 24 hours. However, the CDC reported that 35.2% of all American adults did not meet this threshold in 2014. (In Indiana, rates of insufficient sleep surpassed the national average at 38.0–44.1 percent.) This is a worrying trend, because not getting enough sleep can lead to serious issues for physical and mental health.

To learn more about the connection between sleep and mental health, we spoke with Cummins psychologist Dr. Ashleigh Woods. Below, she explains some of the negative health consequences of chronic sleep deprivation and a few simple things we can all do to improve the quality of our sleep.

Dr. Ashleigh Woods on the Psychological Power of Sleep

Ashleigh Woods, Psy.D., HSPP, holds a degree in Clinical Psychology and is a staff psychologist at Cummins’ Indianapolis office. As part of her work, she helps clients who are struggling with insomnia and other sleep disorders.

“There’s a huge connection between mental health and sleep,” Dr. Woods says. “If you’re not getting enough sleep or good quality sleep, you’ll have a harder time managing your emotions, and you could have trouble focusing or thinking clearly. Let’s face it—everything is harder when you’re not well rested.”

In fact, research has shown that sleep deprivation is closely related with psychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Many people who have these conditions experience difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and evidence suggests that chronic sleep deprivation may even contribute to the development of some of these disorders.

However, it’s possible to break the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and psychological impairment if we make an effort to follow good sleep practices. In many cases, treating a sleep disorder can alleviate the symptoms of co-occurring mental health conditions.

Best Practices for Falling (and Staying) Asleep

So, what can we do to improve our sleep habits? For the average, healthy person, the simplest and most obvious solution is to get enough sleep each night. Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep every day, but this number could be higher or lower based on your individual physiology. As a general rule, if you don’t feel sleepy during the day, especially when sitting quietly, then you are getting enough sleep.

But what about people who have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep? Fortunately, there are many interventions you can try for better sleep hygiene, as Dr. Woods explains:

“To get a good night’s sleep, be sure to use your bed for only sleep or sex. Reading or watching TV in bed keeps your brain active and makes your body associate your bed with wakefulness. Also be sure to create a good bed time routine to help your body wind down in the evening: limit screen time, use lamps instead of overhead lights, don’t drink caffeine past 2:00 p.m., limit alcohol and cigarette use before bed, and most importantly, add some relaxing activities to your evening, such as taking a warm bath or doing some gentle yoga stretches.”

Relaxation techniques such as autogenic training can also be helpful for falling asleep and promoting deep, restorative sleep. However, autogenic training should be performed with help from a mental health specialist before you try practicing it on your own.

For more tips and suggestions for healthy sleep habits, check out the following resources:

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Training Ourselves to be Optimists: Positive Psychology

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet…Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” — Stephen Hawking, American physicist and author

Difficult life circumstances can contribute to mental illness, making hope of recovery seem unlikely. However, growing evidence shows that positive psychological attributes like optimism are associated with a longer and healthier life.

Optimism can be defined as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes. This positive state of mind allows people in difficult professions to be more resilient when work becomes stressful, and leads to more fulfillment in life. Studies establishing the link between optimism and health beg the question: Is it possible to train ourselves to become optimistic?

Observing Depression in Dogs

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For starters, we know that it’s possible for people and animals to learn pessimism. In India, elephant trainers will tie up a baby elephant and let it struggle for days before it learns it is not strong enough to break the rope. This lesson stays with the animal long after it grows into a hulking adult. A fully grown elephant could easily break the rope and escape, but it never tries to do so.

These kinds of observations inspired formal experiments involving dogs who similarly stopped taking action, even when minimal effort on their part could prevent a painful electric shock. Dr. Martin Seligman was researching the causes of depression and pessimism in humans, and he demonstrated that these dogs had been conditioned to believe they had no hope of avoiding the pain they experienced. 

There was also some good news from these experiments: to Seligman’s surprise, some dogs were not dismayed so easily. As psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson explains in his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, “What we learn from Seligman’s brilliant dog experiments is that suffering is separate from pain. We all feel pain. But how much does that pain bother us? How much must we suffer? It depends entirely on our own resiliency.”

Inspired by his findings, Seligman set out to determine what made some dogs more resilient. While we can only speculate about the inner workings of a dog’s mind, when something bad happens in our own lives, humans seek to explain it. Seligman and other researchers have identified three ways that humans do this: by making assumptions about how long pain will last (permanent/transient), whether we are responsible for it (personal/impersonal), and what areas of our life it affects (pervasive/local).

Relearning Optimism

In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman explains how pessimistic explanations lead to passivity and dejection while optimistic explanations lead to action and increased energy. Just as we can learn to view our stress response as helpful, we can learn to maintain positive emotions amidst negative events. However, it takes work. Seligman suggests looking at the link between our beliefs surrounding an adverse event and what we do in response to these beliefs. He argues that becoming aware of this link is the first step in changing our explanatory style.

Optimism fights depression. Seligman defines optimism as having three core tenants: 

  1. Good stuff lasts (bad stuff doesn’t)
  2. Good stuff is caused by me (bad stuff just happens)
  3. Good stuff spreads (bad stuff is isolated)

To practice bringing optimism to the forefront of one’s mind, Seligman recommends his “ABC” journaling exercise. In this exercise, a person records an Adverse event that happened to them, their Beliefs surrounding the event, and the Consequences of their actions based on those beliefs. 

You can try this exercise on your own. Whenever something bad happens to you over the next few days, write it down. These may be as small as, “I missed the bus,” or as large as, “My partner broke up with me.” Next, write down your beliefs about the event. Does it affect your life in the long-run? Is it your fault or someone else’s? Does it affect other areas of your life? Seligman says that activities like this can help us recognize our own reflexive feelings (like those of the shocked dogs) and change our actions in turn—hopefully allowing us to break free of ties that have seemed to bind us.

Cummins Behavioral Health Systems aims to inspire hope of recovery and to help those we serve achieve their goals and aspirations. Of course, self-talk is not the end. Problem solving, negotiating, and asserting yourself are also key to fighting depression. It all begins with these kinds of small steps, best attempted with help from a mental health professional.

Or, as Stephen Hawking once put it: 

“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up—there’s a way out.”

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