Understanding the Fire within the Firefighter: The Ins and Outs of Anger

If you get angry, you’re not alone. Anger, irritability, and lashing out tend to be one of the top reasons firefighters seek out behavioral health providers. It usually comes to a head after you lashed out at family, friends, or crew members over something seemingly small.

Anger can occur for many different reasons and doesn’t always mean something is wrong. For example, most of us get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic. On the other hand, anger could also indicate you’re struggling with behavioral health difficulties. For example, recent research demonstrated a strong relationship between anger, post-traumatic stress symptoms, and substance use among 660 firefighters.

More alarming is the relationship between anger and suicide. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance lists anger as one of the top 5 risk indicators of suicide. Specifically, they stated, “Within the 945 firefighter and EMS suicides, we have validated that 46 are murder-suicide events“ (Dill, 2017).

So, we should probably talk about that anger.

What is Anger?

Let’s start with why we get angry. It’s actually pretty simple: We’re pre-wired for anger. What we call anger is our body’s natural reaction to feeling threatened in some way. Ever hear of the fight-flight-or-freeze response? Notice the first word is FIGHT!

The fight response is a quick and easy explanation of the autonomic nervous system at work. The sympathetic nervous system prepares the body to take life-saving actions by increasing the heart rate and body temperature, tightening and tensing muscles, and generating hyperarousal. Keep in mind that this system functions almost automatically and involuntarily at the perception of a threat.

This is where things can be a bit tricky: the perception of a threat. From a survival perspective, the fight response is extremely adaptive, healthy, and normal. The problem is that most of the times we experience anger, we are not in immediate life-threatening danger. So, what the hell is going on?

The Power of Perception

When I was in high school, my biology teacher used to do this thing after every one of our exams that pissed me off: She would write down the range of test scores in the class. The reason this made me so angry was because everyone knew who got the lowest grade on the exam: It was me. I was terrible at biology and every one of my classmates knew it.

I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I felt really stupid. These feelings are painful, raw, and vulnerable. They make me feel weak. Anger makes me feel more powerful, strong, and defended. It’s like a suit of armor.

This makes sense in the context of FIGHT mode. In caveman days, weakness could lead to death. Even though we don’t have to deal with saber-toothed tigers anymore, a feeling of weakness still signals the primitive parts of our brain to defend ourselves (FIGHT mode).

So, our brains are just simply trying to do what it thinks is in our best interest for survival. Unfortunately, the primitive parts of our brain can’t distinguish between the vulnerability of standing in front of a sabered-tooth tiger and the vulnerability of feeling embarrassed and ashamed in high school. As soon as the familiar feeling of vulnerability and/or weakness arises, so does the armor of self-defense (i.e., anger).

The trick is to train your brain to recognize the different parts of anger so that you don’t get lost in it. We can break anger down into 5 component parts.

5 Parts of Anger

Let’s set the scene. There must be some external or internal stimuli before you experience any parts of anger. In other words, something happens in your life (or in your head) that provokes anger. This could include being skipped for promotions, kids going nuts, or just simply remembering the last argument you had with your spouse. When that happens, we usually experience the following parts of anger:

  1. Pre-Angry Feelings: This is the stuff no one likes to admit – the vulnerable stuff. For me in high school, it was shame and embarrassment. For firefighters dealing with significant others who don’t seem to understand the impact of the job, pre-angry feelings can include loneliness and helplessness or feeling unheard and unloved, among many others.
  2. Angry Thoughts: There are a variety of thoughts, images, and memories you might experience when confronted with a situation that provokes anger. This can include judging, criticizing, cursing, insulting, blaming, and more. We might automatically use harsh labels, such as idiot, lazy, a-hole, or some other colorful description.
  3. Anger Feelings: This is the sympathetic nervous system (i.e., FIGHT mode) kicking into gear. We experience a range of different physiological responses, including rapid or pounding heartbeat, clenched jaw, muscle tension, blood pumping, increased body temperature, and fast breathing. Remember, this is the body’s natural response to threat.
  4. Impulse to Act: This is an urge to do something directed by the angry feelings. Maybe there is a part of you that so badly wants to yell “Go f*ck yourself” to a crew member, superior, or family member. Others experience a strong urge to scream, punch, or throw things. You can also have an urge to name-call, be sarcastic and condescending, or say hurtful things. Keep in mind, these are just thoughts and feelings (i.e., urges), not actions. Taking action on impulses is next.
  5. Angry Actions: Most people tend to deal with anger in one of two ways: Act out of anger or suppress angry thoughts and feelings. Acting out of anger can be actually yelling “Go f*ck yourself,” hitting, screaming, insulting, name-calling, being sarcastic or condescending, or even acting passive-aggressively. We also attempt to engage in catharsis, including punching a pillow, screaming by yourself, going to the gym, etc.

    Suppressing angry thoughts and feelings include withdrawing from others, staring off into space, numbing emotions, drinking alcohol or doing drugs, and trying to think of something positive. Unfortunately, suppressing thoughts and feelings can often have the opposite effect than we intended. In other words, it can be even more infuriating to constantly try pushing down your anger, only to realize you feel angry anyway.

Notice that the first 4 parts of anger are all things that happen inside of your skin in response to the things that happen on the outside. We typically respond so quickly that we never have an opportunity to notice these different parts of anger, let alone learn how to deal with them. Usually, that’s because the first 4 parts of anger occur almost automatically and involuntarily – It’s your brain responding to a perceived threat.

So, it can be helpful to let go of the expectation that you’ll stop your primitive brain from automatically preparing to keep you safe. Instead, knowing the processes that are in play might allow you to notice them as they are occurring. Noticing them, in the moment they are occurring, is one of the best ways to begin separating yourself from anger so it no longer controls how you act toward others.

If you’re really struggling with anger or any other behavioral health difficulty, feel free to call us or self-schedule an appointment.

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