Before starting the presentation of anger-transforming techniques, I want to describe briefly and schematically, the basic biology of anger. This knowledge will help us understand why the techniques work. Figure 32.1 is similar to figures found in most textbooks for introductory psychology. It shows two nervous systems, the central (CNS) and the autonomic (ANS) nervous systems. The CNS, consisting of the brain and spinal cord, is more familiar. The brain, of course, is associated with perception, thought, memory, and awareness. The ANS is a network attached to and surrounding the spinal cord. It carries out much of the automatic "housekeeping," controlling the heart, glands, and arteries.
The ANS works in two opposing directions. When we are relaxed it slows the heart and the breathing, facilitates digestion, redistributes blood (away from limbs and muscles). This relaxed state is called the parasympathetic function. When we are under stress, however, when we specifically are provoked into anger, the ANS acts in the opposite direction. It speeds up the heart and breathing, inhibits digestion, and sends blood to the limbs, preparing the body for action. This aroused state is called the sympathetic function.
Figure 32.1 shows the effects of a provoking stimulus. Of course, that stimulus is outside of ourselves and must be conveyed by the senses to the brain. The brain interprets the incoming sense information as a provocation and sends a signal to the ANS that a challenge is occurring. The ANS is never directly (i.e., without the mediation of the brain) affected by external stimuli. The signal from the brain triggers the ANS into sympathetic function. Some of the resulting changes in the body are listed in Fig. 32.1.
The list is really in two parts. Changes 1 through 5 are different from Changes 6 and 7. Changes 1 through 5 are uniquely ANS-driven. The brain cannot (except very indirectly) cause our pupils to dilate, our blood to redistribute, or our
salivation to stop. The brain leaves Items 1 through 5 virtually entirely to the ANS. The last two items, however, are different. The brain, as well as the ANS, has some direct and immediate control over breathing—we can slow down or speed up our breathing voluntarily. Similarly, we can tense or relax our muscles at will. For these last two items on the list, in other words, there is overlap in CNS and ANS function.
This overlap suggests, in a general way, one form of control over the physiological conditions of anger. It suggests that by deep, slow breathing and by practicing relaxing the muscles, we might counteract the aroused ANS activity, and might even reverse it back to the relaxed state. In other words, it suggests that through slow breathing and muscle relaxation, we might calm ourselves in a provocative situation. Also, through regular practice of these two processes, we might even prevent an ANS (arousal) response to a provoking situation.
The brain also has a third link to the ANS, a particularly important source of control. A brief review of Fig. 32.1 should reveal to you what that is. The brain interprets the incoming stimulation as a provocation, and transmits this interpretation to the ANS. By changing the interpretation of the stimulus, therefore, one presumably should change the response of the ANS. This, of course, suggests that we should look for rationales and techniques for reinterpreting provocations. Such methods might reduce or eliminate anger.
One final aspect of ANS function not portrayed in Fig. 32.1 concerns its time course. Suppose the stimulus is brief (e.g., your spouse says something annoying) and it triggers the ANS into its arousal function (you feel your anger start to rise). If the incident is over, that is, if the stimulus is not repeated, then the ANS follows a time course of perhaps a minute or two during which it gradually returns to the relaxed state—you start to "cool off" and feel less angry. Of course, if you keep thinking and brooding about the incident then the brain is prolonging the signal to the ANS and you stay in the angry state. Without that recycling of the stimulus, however, the aroused ANS quickly returns to its relaxed condition. 1
*Dr. Edward Katkin, a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, informs me that following cessation of an arousing stimulus the return of the ANS to the resting (parasympathetic) state is rapid, a matter of minutes or even seconds. See also Chapter IV in Sternbach (1966).
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