ANGER SUPPRESSION VERSUS CHALLENGE
Despite the ample evidence that anger is fraught with danger, human debasement, and ineffective functioning, many people seem reluctant to put their heart and soul into learning more effective alternatives. Why is this? One of the biggest reasons is that our culture presents in both direct and subtle ways the theory that suppressing anger can be harmful. Here we will explore this theory. As we do so, we will learn that we can, if we so choose, sail from the region of Anger to Challenge—and thereby improve our chances for survival and a safer and more pleasant ride on the great Sea of Conflict.
According to Sigmund Freud, if anger reactions are inhibited, they are replaced by substitutes, some of which may lead to harm. In The standard edition of the complete works of Sigmund Freud, (Strachey, 1974), the clearest statement about this appears below:
When Bismarck had to suppress his angry feelings in the King’s presence, he relieved himself afterwards by smashing a valuable vase on the floor. This deliberate replacement of one motor act by another corresponds exactly to the replacement of natural pain-reflexes by other muscular contractions….(p. 202)
If, however, the affect can find no discharge of excitement of any kind along these lines, then the situation is the same with anger as with fright and anxiety. The intracerebral excitation is powerfully increased, but is employed neither in associative nor motor activity…. The excitement arising from the affective idea is “converted” into a somatic phenomenon. ( p. 206)
Freud believed that some of these somatic phenomenons were undesirable. After Freud, others promoted this idea. For example, Dr. Albert Ellis, one of the most popular psychologists of the twentieth century, stated that anger suppression “can easily result in psychosomatic reactions, including high blood pressure, heart problems, ulcers, and various other physical conditions.”
In an effort to test this hypothesis, scientific individuals began to carry out some systematic studies. Some seemed to find support for this notion that suppression can be harmful. For example, Hokanson, Baker & Schaie, and Gambaro & Rabin (1969) found that angered adults often achieved a faster decrease in blood pressure to baseline levels if they counteraggressed toward their antagonist than if they were given no opportunities to respond. In other studies carried out by Holmes and Kahn however, counteraggression was found to sustain elevated arousal, whereas nonaggressive activities reduced it.
Dr. Albert Bandura, attempting to make sense of these apparently contradictory findings, carefully examined this body of research and finally concluded that the physiological tension of angry individuals is determined by what they do, the perceived consequences of what they do, and also what they think. People who believe that freely expressing their anger will discourage future negative responding from their antagonist experience relief after anger outbursts. Those who believe that freely expressing their anger will spur even more severe threatening responses from their antagonists maintain their elevated blood pressure subsequent to angry outbursts. Those who believe kindly responses to provocation will discourage future negative responding from the antagonist experience relief after providing a kind response. Those who believe kindly responses to a provocation will lead their antagonist to take advantage of them will maintain their elevated blood pressure after providing a kind response.
James J. Gross has reviewed more recent research on suppression in his fine article titled, “Emotion Regulation: Taking Stock and Moving Forward” (Emotion, Volume 13, June 2013, pp 359-365).
“Affectively, suppression leads to decreased positive but not negative emotion experience, increased sympathetic nervous system responses, and greater activation in emotion-generative brain regions such as the amygdala. By contrast, reappraisal leads to decreased levels of negative emotion experience and increased positive emotion experience, has no impact on or even decreases sympathetic nervous system responses, and leads to lesser activation in emotion-generative brain regions such as the amygdala and ventral striatum (Gross & Thompson, 2007). Cognitively, suppression leads to worse memory. By contrast, reappraisal either has no impact on subsequent memory, or actually improves it, and can enhance exam performance (Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010; Richards & Gross, 2000). Socially, suppression leads to less liking from partners, and to an increase in partners’ blood pressure levels. Reappraisal, by contrast, has no detectable adverse consequences for social affiliation in the laboratory (Butler et al.,2003).”
Anger Management Training without Suppression
The association of anger suppression with anger management training is understandable, for when one has spent many years acting one way, learning alternative behaviors can be frustrating. This uncomfortable sensation may be seen as the suppression of one’s “natural” mode of behavior. It’s a similar experience to how actors might feel when first learning a new role or golfers a new swing. At first the skill to be learned feels awkward, and the early phase of learning can leave them to observe their heart racing and their blood pressure skyrocketing.
However, by designing a program in small incremental steps and heeding the following suggestions, the feeling of suppressing one’s natural behavior can be largely reduced or even completely eliminated.
First of all, expect occasional missteps. By studying the posts on this blog, it is likely that several situations will occur that you now find yourself handling much better than before. If the response by others you are engaged with ends up being favorable, this will encourage you to utilize the same approach again and again until it begins to feel natural, that is, second nature to you. Other skills will come off a bit awkward or you will get a less than favorable response, and you may experience frustration. When you try the skill again, you may now feel unsure and your effort may lead you to interpret this as suppressing a more “natural” way to respond. You may, therefore, give up and conclude that you are helpless to make a meaningful change in this type of skill.
The solution here is to reread the section that discusses the skill, and then practice over and over in your mind a narrative that has you envisioning utilizing the skill. When you can smoothly imagine in detail carrying out the skill, try it out again in real life. You may have to do this a few times until you get it right.
As you increase your skill to deal with anger arousing situations, your confidence in handling them will increase. Because anger arises when we experience a threat, with your increase in confidence you will then find you are less likely to experience situations that use to feel threatening as threatening. Consequently, you will be less likely to suppress anger because you won’t experience anger as often.
For more difficult to change behavior, form a small group of two to four people who agree to work together on the skill. Then assign a leader on a rotating basis. Conflicts in which the group members typically experience anger are identified. Then a video recording is created with the group members serving as the actors. One scenario is acted out demonstrating what actually occurred. Then a non-angry approach to dealing with the conflict that has the support of the group as being more effective than the angry approach is created. Video recording devices are fairly inexpensive these days. Moreover most people can borrow one from someone who already has one sitting somewhere in a closet collecting dust.
Keep in mind that the acting doesn’t have to be an Academy Award winning portrayal. Just a fun process is encouraged. By participating in this acting process and then viewing the video recordings displaying alternative behaviors, some will find they will adopt the skills in an effortless manner.
In the next part of this group process, competent behaviors are further encouraged by creating another set of video recordings using slightly different scenarios. Concrete examples are thus repeatedly affectively, cognitively, and behaviorally rehearsed while clear audiovisual feedback is provided. Observers can ask to pause at a little section that worked particularly well and review it a few more times until it becomes more and more familiar.
Throughout this process, some of the group participants’ suggestions may begin to feel uncomfortable to one or more of the other participants. This can interfere with the training process if poorly handled. I have found it useful from time to time to preface my recommendations with the same gentle admonishment that the famous physicist Niels Bohr used to give his students: “Every sentence I utter should be regarded by you not as an assertion but as a question.” This tends to disarm those who find that they are resisting suggestions, sets the stage for a helpful collaboration, and fosters interest from the satisfaction derived from fulfilling one’s own internal standards.
As you go through this process several times, you will find more and more that your behavior will begin to change in real life situations. At such times, you will often find people reacting very positively to your new style, and this will further encourage you to continue to utilize it. You won’t feel like you are suppressing anger, but rather, comfortably learning a new set of skills that works better than anger.
At other times, even a skilled real life response to a situation that had previously led to anger arousal will be met with someone acting in an undesirable manner. The group you have formed will provide you the opportunity to have some support to address this type of experience. Together, you can continue the problem solving required for addressing a wider and wider range of situations until you feel sufficiently confident to go it alone. It is important to keep in mind that even the most skilled techniques will not produce a perfect result on every occasion. The best we can hope for is to increase the probability that we will obtain a favorable outcome.
If you find it difficult to identify a small group of individuals to do the video recording skill development just described, consider hiring a professional counselor who will go through the process with you. Most professional counselors and psychologists that I’ve met are particularly skilled at modeling empathic understanding, a crucial skill that is necessary for working through anger arousing situations.
 A. Ellis, 1977, How to Live with—and without—Anger, New York: Reader’s Guide Press, page 200.
 J. E. Hokanson, 1970, “Psychophysiological Evaluation of the Catharsis Hypothesis,” In E. I. Megargee & J. E. Hohanson (Eds.), The Dynamics of Aggression (pp. 74-86), New York: Harper & Row.
 J. W. Baker & K. W. Schaie, 1969, “Effects of Aggressing ‘Alone’ or ‘with another’ on Physiological and Psychological Arousal, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 80-96.
 S. Gambaro & A. I. Rabin, 1969, “Diastolic Blood Pressure Responses Following Direct and Displaced Aggression after Anger Arousal in High- and Low-Guilt Subjects,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 12, 87-94.
 D. S. Holmes, 1966, “Effects of Overt Aggression on Level of Physiological Arousal,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 189-194.
 M. Kahn, 1966, “The Physiology of Catharsis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 278-286.
 A. Bandura, 1973, Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.