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SO2012-7How to Heal the Angry Brain : Mad Men

By Ron Potter-Efron

Over the past 30 years, I've spent nearly 25,000 hours counseling angry men, and until about two years ago, my enthusiasm was beginning to wane. If you've worked with angry male clients, you can understand why. These men are generally highly reluctant clients, who are often in your office only because they've gotten "the ultimatum" from their wives or girlfriends or bosses or sometimes court judges: "Get therapy for your anger or get out / you're fired / you'll go to jail." Many, considered by everyone who knows them to have an "anger problem," arrive in your office convinced that they don't have an anger problem: the real problem is their stupid coworkers, annoying girlfriends, demanding spouses, spoiled kids, or unfair probation officers. However, they arrive at your office with a shotgun at their backs, so to speak, and know they have no choice. They hate the entire situation because it makes them feel powerless.

No wonder they feel powerless: they're being coerced to lay down their anger, the only weapon they've ever had against feelings of powerlessness. They often trace their reliance upon anger to a childhood history of danger, trauma, shaming, and pain. Anger is the emotion they can trust, the one that might keep danger at bay. As they grew up, they continued to use anger to make people they regard as dangerous back away. By the time you see them, they regard just about every person in their lives as "dangerous," including loved ones. These men have become habitually angry. I liken their condition to the default option on a computer: their anger goes on automatically unless they consciously turn it off.

Of course, it isn't easy to turn off the default option when the way to do so is hidden deep within the machine's (our brain's) control panel. Furthermore, men for whom anger is a default emotional response to life's vicissitudes are often relatively untrained in experiencing and communicating other emotions. For example, one of my clients "went off"--screaming and threatening bodily harm against his father's doctors--when his father died, to the point the police had to be summoned, because he couldn't handle his grief. Anger was the only emotion he could call upon in time of need. Not surprisingly, when these men come to therapy, whether as individuals or in couples or groups, they're frequently defensive, argumentative, passive-aggressive, protective of their right to be angry, and doubtful about my competence to understand or help them in any way.

It'd be misleading to say that my most difficult clients are unmotivated. More accurately, they're antimotivated, committed to undermining any behavioral programs or specific anger management tactics I offer. Meaningful change takes many repetitions: "Practice, practice, practice" is a hallmark of anger-management training. For example, taking the time to put a problem into perspective ("On a 1-10 point scale, Joe, how important is it for your teenage daughter to get home every night by 8 p.m.?") works well, but only if the client is motivated enough to practice putting things into proper perspective perhaps as often as several times a day. It stands to reason that trying to argue such men out of their commitment to anger is pointless. I long ago realized I couldn't beat them in face-to-face combat; they're better at in-your-face challenges and making contemptuous remarks than I'll ever be. I needed a tool that allowed me to sidestep their oppositionality and create a therapeutic alliance.

At a deeper level, chronically angry people have become lifelong victims of what's sometimes called negative neuroplasticity. They've unintentionally trained their brains so well, through countless repetitions of undesired behavior (at least, undesired by the rest of the world), that they're primed to think, feel, and say things that increase their own anger. For example, Joe may well think that if his daughter gets home after 8 p.m. it means she's probably having sex with some male punk. That kind of thought pattern is automatic.

So now we have two major concerns. First, some of my clients enter treatment antimotivated. Second, their brains have been programmed to react automatically with anger and hostility to a wide variety of situations. What kind of therapeutic intervention can address these issues?

Focusing on the Brain to Increase Motivation

About six years ago, I stumbled across the answer when I attended a session about the brain at the Networker Symposium in Washington, D.C. The controversial brain researcher Daniel Amen was just beginning his lecture when he mentioned in passing that he'd been browsing through the books on anger in the sales area. "None of them said anything about the brain," he noted somewhat dismissively. Now many of those anger books he was trashing were my books, so at first I was defensive. But by the end of the talk, I realized he was right, at least about the books I'd authored. I hadn't mentioned anything about brain processes for a simple reason: I didn't know anything about them. That led me to immerse myself in the subject of the brain, and as I did so, my enthusiasm for working with angry clients increased exponentially.

How can learning about the brain--particularly the angry brain and how it got that way--possibly influence clients who have a hard time taking in therapy or sticking with anger-management techniques? Aren't concepts drawn from brain research simply too abstruse, too abstract, and apparently unrelated to daily life to make much difference to them? In fact, what I've found is just the reverse: these men are fascinated by information about how anger develops in the brain and why it's so hard to control, and they consider it far more relevant to their lives than many standard therapy concepts. Getting to understand a bit of what happens "inside their heads" when they get angry resonates deeply with them. In one way, they can cling to their defensiveness and denial systems, since they certainly can't be accused of deliberately messing up their minds. Sidestepping their defensiveness and emphasizing their opportunity to do something right that will retrain their brains gives them a positive direction and a possible source for well-earned personal pride. Furthermore, hearing me explain how, by regular, committed behavioral practice of various anger-management techniques, they can literally change their own brain circuits, stimulates both hope that they can change and desire to begin. For the first time in their lives, they feel they might be capable of literally using their own brains to change their brains. It is a real revelation to many angry men.

My own enthusiasm for brain science and my belief in angry men's inherent capacity to reorganize their own neural circuitry are probably another key to revving up their motivation to try. My "brain talk" to them isn't just a lecture about applied neurophysiology, but in truth a kind of triggering mechanism arousing their own curiosity and interest. Clearly, my enthusiasm evokes--in their brains--a mirroring enthusiasm for this process. It may well be that my sheer enthusiasm for this endeavor, my joy and excitement about the brain, triggers left-hemisphere mirror neuronal activity that bypasses right-hemisphere negativity and cynicism.

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