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« Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #39 of 52: Is Consciousness Epiphenomenal? | Main | Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #41 of 52: Stress Management »

April 04, 2006

Ozodi Osuji Weekly Series on Psychology 2006, #40 of 52: Anger Management

by Ozodi Thomas Osuji, Ph.D. (Seatle, Washington) --- Anger is one of the human emotions. It seems a necessary emotion. In fact, it seems necessary for survival and without it, it is doubtful that human beings can survive on planet earth.

Anger is actually the same emotion as fear. The physiology of anger and fear is the same. From the body’s perspective, it is impossible to distinguish the two for the same physiological responses are involved in both.
Fear has two sides to it: flight and fight. When we are in fear we feel an urge to run away or to stay and fight back. Anger is the fight aspect of fear response and what folks call fear would be the flight aspect of fear response.

When an animal organism, human beings included, feels his life threatened he experiences a powerful urge to flee or to fight back. Both motivations are designed to enable the individual to take measures that would protect his physical and or psychological existence.

Fear and anger responses are involuntary responses, that is, they are not undertaken consciously; they are done involuntarily.

Perhaps, the best way to describe these responses is through an example. Let us, therefore, examine an example.

You are walking down the streets of inner City Los Angeles (this is an actual story that happened to me…I am keeping these essays real, not hypothetical) and a young Mexican man runs up to you with a gun. Without pausing to think about what to do you find your heart pounding furiously, as it wanted to fall out of its chest cavity; you breathe rapidly, inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, you find that your face is red, your muscles are tense, your fingers are clinched, your legs are ready to run and that your fists are ready to hit at the threat.

You are in anger and fear mood. Your body felt threatened and poured out adrenaline, an exciter neurochemical and it stimulated most organs in your body to work faster. Your body released sugar and your blood pumped faster carrying that energy to most muscles of your body preparing them, giving them energy to do the additional work they are required to do: run or fight. Your Belly feels knotted because you temporarily stopped digesting food as blood is redirected to the limbs to enable you to fight back.

In anger response, you are like a soldier at a battle field; you are ready to do battle for your existence. Your goal is to survive and if fleeing from the danger would best enable you to survive you flee, and if staying and fighting back would enable you to survive you stay and fight back. The goal is physical and psychological survival

Messages are sent to your central nervous system (brain, spine) from your entire body (the peripheral nervous system). The brain searches its memory bank and judges whether you have what it takes to fight back and survive or not? If it judges that the gunman could kill you it urges you to run. And you will run fast for your whole body is now mobilized. If you normally ran the 100 yards dash in fifteen seconds, when your life is threatened you could do it in ten seconds, a time that could get you into the Nigerian Olympic team; that is not bad for a normally lazy chap.

If your past experience tells you that you could fight back you stay and call the gun man’s bluff. And all these decisions are made in split seconds, for messages are relayed in the nervous system at a very high speed, indeed, they are not done consciously, you do not think about them. You just find yourself doing what you have to do to survive.

For some reasons, when I am threatened I feel angry and fight back. I seldom run. This is in contradiction to those who seem physically bold. These people will run at the slightest sign of danger. The school yard bully who shows off how tough he is, is very likely going to run if confronted by real danger; bullies are almost always cowards.

When I am confronted by danger, somehow, my brain stays calm and figures out what to do. I am cool under crisis. So, I stopped and looked at the young Mexican chap (he was no more than sixteen and I was at least ten years older than him) and said nothing. I just stood there with both of my arms in my pocket. It was like we were engaged in a battle of wills to see who would blink first. I come from a warrior family and folks would rather die than accept another man physically defeating them. In my mind, I said a short prayer that went as follows: Grand father, Osuji, I am coming home, if that is what it means to save our family honor. But I will not give in to this Mexican punk. Let him kill me. (Igbos call themselves Christians but in danger they generally pray to their ancestors, not to the foreign god that was imposed on them by their European masters.)

So, both of us stood there, staring at each other. I was expecting him to ask for my money or shoot me, but he did not and after a while he ran off.

When he was gone, I relaxed and rather felt proud of myself. In my mind, I did something that my ancestors would be proud of. If I had chickened and begged for my life, I would have felt like I shamed my ancestors.

The episode is reminiscent of what happened during the Biafra war. Nigerian jet planes were almost always in my town, spraying bullets at people, killing folks. There were lots of military installations around: 14th Division, 63 brigade, an army training ground, a military hospital etc. Apparently, the Nigerians were particularly interested in the area’s military installations and made life miserable for the civilian folks. Many people I know were either killed or wounded by the incessant air raids.

People were almost always hiding. It got to a point where I said to myself: damn it, I am not going to hide no more; I am just going to go about my business and if I am killed so be it. Thus, the planes would come around flying at roof top and folks would be scampering into hiding places and I would ignore them and went about my business. I was ready to be killed at any time. I was not afraid of dying.

The air raids were particularly heavy in 1969 (when I was 14 years old). I just simply did not care. My Moniker is agu (tiger). For some reason, my extended family members have always called me agu, tiger, since I was, may be, six years old. I understand that they do so because they believe that once my mind is made up it was useless trying to persuade me to change it. Once I said no, do not even bother trying to talk to me to change my mind, for we would then enter into a battle of wills and I would rather die than allow you to win over me. That was just the way it was and is still with me. I am stubborn. I seek the truth and once I have an idea of the truth I stick to it and will not go along with any ones idea of the truth unless it makes sense to me. Any way, folks would ask: agu why do you want to die?

Anger is the response to danger that urges folks to fight back. Its objective is to enable the individual to defeat whatever is threatening his life. Anger mobilizes the body to remove obstacles in ones life. Anger mobilizes the body to destroy what could destroy the human organism.

When angry, the individual is very strong. When angry his brain is in a fighting back mood…I can just see me standing in the village road shaking my feeble arms at the airplane flying above me, daring the “god damned, mother fuckers” to come get me. (I read so many American novels, particularly Westerns, beginning around age ten that I cussed like the cowboys I read about did. My favorite words in those days were sonofabitch, damn, cocksucker, chump etc.)

In anger, you perceive an obstacle, you fight it; you remove it; you survive (or the obstacle overwhelms you and you die).

In anger, you felt frustrated by something and the physiological responses attendant to fear and anger enable you to fight whatever is frustrating you. Anger is a mechanism for dealing with whatever is preventing you from attaining your objectives.

Have you understood fear and anger? They are the same, as far as the body is concerned. This is why they say that an angry man is also a fearful person. (I have told you somewhere that I was a fearful child, a shy child. So I was both fearful and prone to anger.)

The medications employed in treating anxiety (fear without known cause) are the same medications employed in treating anger. The anxiolytics (the various benzodiazepines like Librium, Valium, Xanax, Ativan etc) relax the body and some doctors use them to treat anxiety and anger.

If a guy is unable to manager his anger he is often given these medications and they help him manage his anger. Unfortunately, these medications are all habit forming and if you go down that road you develop tolerance for them and will be needing more and more of them before you feel calm and eventually will be addicted. It is difficult to quit them. They have serious adverse side effects. Their withdrawal symptoms are similar to the withdrawal symptoms of alcohol addiction: DTs, visual hallucinations and possible cardiac arrest. Please don’t go there; I mean, do not try to use medications to deal with your anger. Try cognitive behavior therapy.

BEHAVIORAL MANAGEMENT

In anger, your whole body is aroused. The arousal is function of chemical changes in your body. The first thing to do when you are angry, therefore, is to reverse the chemical arousal in your body. Notice when there are physiological changes in your body.

So your wife is talking to you and you feel angry. You notice that your fist is clinched, your face is red, flushed with blood, your muscles are tort, your stomach is knotted; when you try to talk you talk rapidly, a mile a minute. You are angry. Certain chemicals have been released in your body. They have reduced the activities of your cortex, the reasoning part of the brain and accentuated the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for involuntary responses; this is done to enable you do what you have to do survive as an animal. You are now a pure animal. You are not in a rational frame of mind. You are about to fight back, to hit at somebody, to kill somebody.

No, no, no. Do not fight back. Do not hit any thing. Just walk away. That is what you are required to do in anger management: walk away from the stimulus arousing your body.

Walk away from your wife, if she is the one whose running mouth is making you feel your manhood belittled and you feel like smacking her mouth to shut the damn thing up.

No, big boy. If you smack her and she calls the police, off you go to jail. That is right, in the USA, if you slap your spouse you are arrested and jailed and then sentenced to one year of batterer’s treatment. So you can not afford that urge to smack “dat woe to man around a bit to show her who is de boss”.

Walk away. The idea of walking away is to give your body the opportunity to reverse the biochemical’s it produced when you are angry.

Go take a walk. Trust me, I know what I am talking about; it works. I used to have anger problem of sorts. As a child, I was willful, unruly and stubborn. I generally kept to myself; I read most of the time. But if you crossed my path, may God save you. When I got angry there would be no peace in the world. I recall at age eight lying on my bed. I had just gotten home from school and was lying on my bed. My cousin, Bernadine, a girl, about my age, came into my room. She began touching me, tickling me. I asked her to stop it and to leave my room. She refused, I gave her an ultimatum and she still refused to leave. She had defied my will and I had to show her whose will would prevail. I got up and smacked her so hard that she began crying and ran out. Her father happened to be around and she told him what I did. He walked into my room and smacked me on the buttock. My God, he did what not even my parents had ever done, smack me. I was enraged and went after him. I destroyed all the glasses in his house. I went on and on that it took several hours before several folks managed to subdue me. No, you do not cross my path and get away with it. I was flogged just once at school and I fought with that teacher. I must have destroyed the entire classroom. No, Tom may be quiet but if you treat him unjustly, you are in for real trouble. The point is that I had an anger problem of sorts…I only feel angry when unjustly treated… and had to learn how to manage it.

If you cannot walk away from the person you believe is making you angry, count to twenty. I prefer to count backwards: twenty, nineteen, eighteen etc. Doing this enables your brain to be tricked into performing an abstract mathematical function, hence distract it from the animal anger response it wants to engage in.

Go do some exercises. When I feel really angry, I go run. Nothing will calm you down like a five mile run. Just go run. Go ride your bicycle. Go do some weight lifting? Go swim. Just do some physical exercises, will you, they help burn all that noxious chemicals that you produced in anger. (Your body’s enzymes are trying to neutralize them.)

Do some slow breathing? Breath in slowly, hold your breathe for a while and slowly let it out. Breathe from you stomach, not just room your chest.

Go to your room and close the door. Be by your self and try to relax your body. Try what Dr Benson calls systematic relaxation exercises; that is, lay on your back and try to relax your entire body, beginning with your arms: say, my hands, now relax and try to use your mind to relax it, then proceed to your legs, to your belly, to your face etc, it works.

If you have a book read it. I usually have my Bible handy and if I am angry I open it randomly and read whatever page it opens on. Any kind of reading tricks your mind to perform abstract functions rather than the animal function of anger.

Stay away from the source of your anger, the person that you thought made you angry. Stay away for at least one hour. If you remove the stimulus your body does not respond to it and calms down. It is not an act of cowardice to leave the presence of the person making you angry, it is biologically necessary to calm you down.

If you must address the issues that made you angry, do not do so immediately. May be you should stay away for at least a day before you tell the person who made you angry about your feelings. Please do not talk to him when you are still angry. Anger and fear and reason do not mix. What I usually do is go to my computer, in a separate room, and sit down and type what I would have liked to tell the person I believe made me angry and save it. When the next day I come back and read it, I wouldn’t believe in that I would have told that person. I would have said some awful things. I recommend that you sleep on the issue before you try to process it.

And when eventually you process it, do not talk to that person in an accusatory manner, for if you accuse other people, even if they are culpable, they will defend themselves and off you go again on an anger trip.

Use first person singulars and say: I felt angry when you said so and so; please do not say so again. Thank you.

If you are beginning to feel angry, again, stop, walk away. If she begins to defend herself, say; I just wanted to let you know how I felt, I am not accusing you and I do not want to argue with you, please do not do that again. Do not call me Mr. Big Stuff, again. Then walk away.

Some women would not let you off that easily. They would follow you around, nagging you, itching for a fight.

Go to your room. Close the door and stay there. If that does not work, leave the house and go walk around the block. For Christ’s sake, do not argue with your spouse.

COGNITIVE RESPONSES

So far, I have described behavioral responses to anger. The other response is cognitive. That is, understanding how you think when you are angry and changing your cognitions, changing your thinking.

You would not believe how much this stuff works. Anger is mostly due to bad thinking, and due to poor interpretation of what other people say.

Epictetus, a Roman stoic philosopher, said that it is not what happens out there that makes one angry, sad, anxious etc but how one sees it, how one interprets it. What a person said that made you angry can also elicit different response from you.

In our modern world, we pretty much have removed most of the natural causes of anger, such as an animal attacking one. What makes folks angry is their problematic self concepts, self images, ego; their false pride. If a man feels that he is a very important person, is proud and you said something that he perceived as degrading, he would feel injured pride and feel angry. He could even indulge in narcissistic rage and attack you. Killing you would assuage his injured vanity.

It is the 1970s. I was an undergraduate student in a mostly white town? I am walking down the street on a Friday evening, say 11PM and a car filled with a bunch of white high school kids drives by and the punks yell at me: Nigger. I would react with fury and chase after them. Of course, they would speed away.

Family tradition has so much hold on Africans. People just do not know how much they’re controlled by their family culture. In my home, the Osujis do not permit others to insult them. They fight whoever tries to insult the family name. So when a bunch of white punks call me a negative name, I feel an urge to defend my family name: no one calls an Osuji names and gets away with that.

But that was me at twenty. That was then. Now is now. Now, I am an adult. How do adults respond to anger making situations?

Certainly not in a knee jerk manner. You process events differently. I tell myself something like this. Those punks are probably scared shitless. They are cowards. Only cowards call names and then run. Real men face you face to face, amano-amano. Or, I would say something like this: they feel so inferior that the only way they feel important and powerful is to put other persons down. Na, they are not worth the trouble. Or, I would say something like this: they are miserable, pitiable lost folks, have pity on them.

And if I put on my spiritual hat, I would say: God forgive us our stupidities. They do not know what they are doing. God help me to forgive them and to still love them despite what they did.

One can engage in all kinds of self talk. You can talk yourself into a different response to anger. You do not have to respond to anger with knee jerk fight response. You may even get to a point where you smile and are in peace as the world tries to get you to loose your cool. I am not yet there, but I know folks that you would call a put down name and they would smile at you (Asians do that a lot…see the essays on Hinduism, Buddhism and Zen.)

The Zen (Japanese) say that if you fight back in anger you have lost the battle. The Samurai warrior never fights in anger. When you insult him, he goes inside and meditates and tries to calm down. When he is cool and collected he challenges you to a duel and calmly cuts off your head. But if he kills you in anger he feels bad about himself. Calm down, calm down, atta boy.

I want to keep this essay to five pages, so I am going to wind it up. Anger is that response we all engage in when we perceive obstacles to our goal attainment. In primitive society it was probably appropriate to respond with anger. In today’s society if you respond with anger, off you go to jail. In fact, even calling somebody negative names may result in his suing you for verbal and emotional abuse. And if you have lots of dough, and he gets himself a good lawyer, you have to say good bye to your smackaroos.

You could be found guilty of causing some one psychological pain. Wealthy or not, try to stay calm when otherwise you would loose your head.

I have talked about some of the ways you can remain cool. If you really cannot walk away from the person making you angry try visualizing a good scene, say walking along a beach or walking in a rose garden; visualize anything that makes you feel happy.

Whatever is peaceful and happy making counteracts the noxious feeling of anger. Get a grip on yourself, man; real men do not give in to childish temper tantrums.

Real men stay calm when others loose their heads. Real men are calm in crisis. Real men are cool and collected under pressure. If you are the religious type, try meditation and prayer; they work. Try whatever makes you control your anger, but for God’s sake do not give in to the urge to be angry at folks and smack them around. You do the hitting; you do the time in the big house, jail house. Remember that whenever you are angry.

Anger is part of our physiological nature, we cannot wish it away but we can manage it. What you cannot get rid of you can manage. Manage your anger.

Ozodi@africainstituteseattle.org

Posted by Administrator at April 4, 2006 01:04 AM

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