Trigger Awareness

by Shlomo Radcliffe, MACP, RP

Anger Happens So Fast! But Does It Really?

When describing difficulties with managing anger, many people will say something like: “I just get so mad so fast - I go from 0-100!”. Indeed, anger can certainly feel that way, as if we are calm one moment and in a blind rage the next. We can have the thought, “I’m going to keep my cool this time.” and suddenly find ourselves yelling, blaming, or storming out of the room the very next minute despite our earlier best intentions. Framed this way, people may wonder how they can ever start to change the anger dynamic - it seems so out of their control. The truth is, at that stage, things ARE somewhat out of control. However, in most situations like this, it is rarely a move from 0-100 as much as it is a move from 80-100.


Consider the basic building blocks of the anger cycle: the Build-up, the Anger moment, and the Make-up (or not), BAM if you want an acronym! It is true that in the heat of the anger moment, it can be exceedingly difficult (although certainly not impossible) to put the brakes on things and slow yourself down from whatever you are about to do. Yet, most successful anger management work takes place earlier in the cycle, at the stage of Build-up. Build-up refers to the immediate situation, what’s happening in it, who is involved, and what has just triggered you.

Let's look at an example

Say you’ve just asked your 5 year-old to clean up their toys. They say no and while ignoring you continue to play with their toys. You ask them again. No response. You ask one more time, even throwing in a warning of an impending consequence. Absolutely no response. No movement. No acknowledgment of your existence. You yell at them, grab the toys from their hands, and ground them. Your immediate triggers here might be:

 

  • I asked and I was ignored

  • I don’t have time for this right now - I’m running late to a meeting

  • My spouse just criticized me for not taking care of the ‘not listening’ problem 

 

In addition to the immediate triggers, there might be things that have happened throughout your day, taxing your resources, contributing to stress, and affecting your mood and ability to self-regulate. For example, day-time triggers could be:

 

  • I had an extra long day at work

  • There were many difficult interactions with customers and my boss while at work

  • I have not eaten more than a few bites all day

  • Traffic to and/or from work was particularly frustrating and taxing

  • Work internet was slower than usual

  • I slept poorly last night

But wait, we’re not done yet! We also should consider some of the general life context triggers showing up including:

 

  • I’ve got too many demands piling up right now

  • Finances are really stretched thin and I’m worried about my financial future

  • Things are pretty tense between my spouse and myself recently

  • I haven’t had any time to hang out with my friends or socialize in the last month

  • My general health habits including eating well, sleeping well, and exercising have been out the window because I’m feeling overwhelmed

  • News of war, COVID, other viruses, and environmental disasters leaves me constantly worried about the future and always on edge

 

Let’s do one more - historical situation-relevant triggers:

 

  • This is not the first time my child has not listened to me, it’s a longstanding problem that has been the source of much frustration over the last year

  • When I was a kid and my parents spoke, we jumped and listened right away - I can’t understand why he’s not listening and what’s wrong with him, or me

Truly, we could go on, but I think you get the point. While we may only pay close attention to the anger moment, there’s a whole lot of build-up going on behind the scenes. When people say that their anger is 0-100, they usually mean that it doesn’t take too long for A (trigger) to lead to B (angry reaction). Take a look at what actually happens from A to B, with the list of triggers we’ve gathered here:
 

A) Trigger:

  • I’ve got too many demands piling up right now

  • Finances are really stretched thin and I’m worried about my financial future

  • Things are pretty tense between my spouse and myself recently

  • I haven’t had any time to hang out with my friends or socialize in the last month

  • My general health habits including eating well, sleeping well, and exercising have been out the window because I’m feeling overwhelmed

  • News of war, COVID, other viruses, and environmental disasters leaves me constantly worried about the future and always on edge

  • I had an extra long day at work

  • There were many difficult interactions with customers and my boss while at work

  • I have not eaten more than a few bites all day

  • Traffic to and/or from work was particularly clogged up

  • Work internet was slower than usual

  • I slept poorly last night

  • I asked and I was ignored

  • I don’t have time for this right now - I’m running late to a meeting

  • My spouse just criticized me for not taking care of the ‘not listening’ problem

  • This is not the first time my child has not listened to me, it’s a longstanding problem that has been the source of much frustration over the last year

  • When my parents spoke, we jumped and listened right away - I can’t understand why he’s not listening and what I’m doing wrong

 

B) Anger moment:

Uh… that doesn’t look like zero! In most cases, it is less likely that we move from 0-100 and more likely that we are already walking around at an 80 or 90 without realizing it; from that point, it’s not going to be too hard to move to 100.

What Now?

So what can we do with this information? First, it helps to realize that the anger reaction we are having towards someone is only partly due to the current situation. Perhaps it is reasonable for some anger to show up here, but maybe THIS much anger is not due to the current situation. Taking a step back can help us moderate our in-the-moment response. We can also work on increasing our awareness of what we are feeling and what’s going on for us so that we’re more likely to clue into where we are ACTUALLY at on the 0-100 scale. Strategies such as mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy skills can be particularly helpful for this. By increasing our awareness of what is actually going on for us we can also better position ourselves to take action to help us with what we really need: to reduce our stress, find ways to manage uncertainty, and anxiety, and take care of ourselves so we are in a better position to relate to those around us. When we conceptualize our anger as being 0-100 we limit the many - very real - opportunities we have to change. Understanding what is really going on for us, helps us get what we need, improving our well-being, relationships, functioning, and hope for the future. If you’d like some help moving in this direction, you can set up an initial consultation with any of our therapists who can help you better work with reducing anger that is 0-100, or more commonly, to help you figure out what you can do now when you’re walking around at an 80 all the time.