Anger Management: The Myth of the Pressure Cooker

When individuals act aggressively towards others, they often excuse their behavior by saying something like, “I lost it,” or “I just blew my top,” implying that they had no control over themselves, like a pressure cooker that exploded because the steam-release device was broken.  At very high levels of anger, it can certainly feel like you have no control over your anger.  But is this literally true?  Please read the scenario below and answer the questions.

When you first arrive at your office after the usual commute, your anger level on a scale of 1 to 10 is about a 2, meaning that you are feeling mildly frustrated, but otherwise fine.  However, later in the morning, your boss screams at you in front of your co-workers, and hints that you might be the next employee to go in the next round of layoffs.

  • What is your anger level at that point, on a scale of 1 – 10? _________

In the afternoon, while trying desperately to meet a deadline, your spill a cup of coffee in your lap.  After having to stay an extra hour to answer a lot of pointless e-mails, you leave the office only to find yourself in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way home.  When traffic finally picks up, a police officer pulls you over for speeding.  This is the third moving violation you have had in the past year, and you are now in danger of losing your license.

  • Has your anger level gone up or down? What is your anger level now? _________
  • How do you respond to getting this new ticket? Do you start screaming at the officer, maybe throw the ticket in his face, or just punch him?  Or are you more likely to just keep your mouth shut, grit your teeth and wait for him to leave so you can take your anger out by kicking the side of your car?
  • If you chose to not act-out on the officer, what kept you from doing so?

When describing their anger and how they responded to a particular situation, people say things like, “I was really steamed,” “I felt hot under the collar,” and “My anger just boiled over.”  In fact, you are not a pressure cooker, and there is no “steam” inside you.  For sure, you feel tension in your body, and your adrenaline levels may go up, but other than making you feel uncomfortable, there is nothing inherently threatening or harmful about your immediate feelings of anger.  There are no accounts in any medical journals of someone actually “blowing up” because they were too angry.  Instead, think of your anger like a smoke alarm.  A smoke alarm is loud and obnoxious.  Furthermore, when a smoke alarm goes off in your home, it doesn’t tell you how big the fire is, or even if there’s a fire at all (someone may be cooking) and it certainly doesn’t tell you how to put it out.  But it is very necessary, and thinking of your anger like a smoke alarm will allow you to use it more productively.

John Hamel, LCSW