Rage and the Peaceful Commuter

Some asshole shoved me as I was waiting to board the 5:17. I got really pissed off. Then I asked myself, "Why did I get so angry? Why did this guy shoving me piss me off so much?"

A recent interview on Inquiring Minds with neurobiologist Douglas Fields answered this question.

In his book, Why We Snap? Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain, Fields explains that the root cause of rage is that stress has lowered the threshold of our brain's threat-indication circuitry. In times of great stress, things that would normally not bother us become dangerous threats, and our brain responds accordingly.

As I was listening to the interview, I immediately started thinking about my commute in general, and that incident in particular. I'm not surprised I did get upset--after all, commuting can be a time of great stress; my threat detectors are going to be very sensitive. If I am late for the train, stuck in traffic, or the Brown Line is delayed, the slightest thing (like some jackass shoving past me) might set me off into a rage.

Fields identifies nine triggers that cause people to snap--that is, to fly off into fits of uncontrolled rage and anger (easily remembered using the mnemonic LIFEMORTS):

  • Life & Limb (a physical threat against your life or physical health)
  • Insult (a threat against your ego)
  • Family (a threat against a member of your family or inner circle)
  • Environment (a threat against your personal space or territory)
  • Mating (a threat against your spouse or the encroachment of a romantic rival)
  • Organization (a threat against established rules or acceptable patterns of behavior)
  • Resources (a threat against things that you think is yours or something you are entitled to)
  • Tribe (a threat against your particular group)
  • Stop (a threat against your freedom of movement, such as being restrained.

Fields recommends that instead of suppressing our feelings of rage, we stop and take time to recognize which of the triggers is being activated.

I looked back at that situation when that guy pushed by me. I was waiting to board the 5:17 to Elgin/Big Timber. The platform was jammed because the trains were running late--again. It was noisy and I was soaking wet because it had been raining and I had forgotten my umbrella. Then he shoved me, pushing through to get ahead of me in the queue to board the train.

Now, I could have reacted unskillfully: I could have shoved him back or said something inappropriate, thus escalating the conflict. I could have suppressed my anger, leading me to experience anxiety or depression.

Or I could have reacted skillfully by following Fields's advice. That someone pushed by me. could have been a Life & Limb trigger (he pushed me!), as well as and Organization trigger (cutting in line is an attack on orderly behavior and the unwritten rule of "first come, first serve"). There could also have been an Environment trigger (it's crowded and noisy, I'm wet; all in all, it's a lousy environment to be in). It might also have been a Resources threat (I'm worried that if he gets on the train before me, he'll be taking the seat that I want).

Having identified the triggers (Life & Limb, Organization, Environment, and Resources), I was in a position to ask the question, "What do I really want? Do I really want to get angry over this?" I wanted to get on the train so I could get home. That some person shoved me is irrelevant to that goal. I was still angry, but in identifying the triggers, I had disarmed that anger, meaning that I had the freedom to not act on it. I recognized that my anger was not going to help me achieve my goal--it was not going to help me get home any quicker.

So, if you feel yourself getting angry--if you feel like your are going to lose your shit--follow these three steps and watch the anger drift away:

  1. Stop. Take a breath (two or three would be even better). These breaths act as an emergency break on your impulses.
  2. Identify the trigger. Which of the LIFEMORTS are being triggered? Just name them--don't qualify or analyze them.
  3. Ask two questions. What do you really want? Will getting angry help you achieve these goals?

You'll be surprised how much peace these steps will bring as you travel through life.