While there is much useful and valid information in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, it is missing something. That something is an understanding of the role the body plays in our anger. Like so many approaches, it hasn’t yet integrated what we have learned about the physiology of anger. This discovery has come through the research done on the effects of trauma. The many wars of the 20th century (and still continuing into the 21st) have overwhelmed the healing professions with people who have been seriously affected by violence. This appalling legacy of traumatized individuals has demanded that we come to a better understanding of what is involved in this type of wounding.
What we have learned is that the body has developed its own methods for responding to threat. It wants to either fight, flee, or collapse/freeze. If it doesn’t do at least one of these things, it can’t let go of the feeling that something awful is about to happen. This feeling then haunts the person, generating waves of anxiety, anger, compulsion, and/or obsession. There is a relentless driving energy that doesn’t allow us to rest peacefully. This energy is held in the brainstem, and mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. Eventually we are worn out with the effort of being angry, driven, worried, apprehensive, or scared. At that point the body collapses, the parasympathetic nervous system taking over and shifting to inaction. This is the biological basis of depression, exhaustion, apathy, and sadness.
Most importantly, we have discovered that there is only one way to communicate to the brainstem – that is through the body. It is the oldest, most primitive part of the brain. The other two parts, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex, are not wired directly to the brainstem. This means that no matter how much we feel, emote, cry, or even laugh, there is nothing getting through to where the trauma is held. Likewise, no matter how much we analyse, observe mindfully, or change how we think about what happened (assuming we remember what it was), can we release the trauma from our body. Fortunately, the actual solution is much simpler than any of the above. We simply have to imagine ourselves back in the original event, and then push it, run away from it, or allow ourselves to collapse and stop fighting with it. These are the basic movements the body has developed over millions of years. When these are done in a safe space, the body is then able to release this stuck energy. We don’t even have to remember what it was that scared us. We simply feel the fear and then respond with an action of successful defence.
Having learned about trauma from wars has also helped us to identify it in people who have been traumatized in other ways besides wars. We can now see that there are many sources of trauma in our lives. It is much more common than most people are aware. Crucially, we have come to see that the younger a person is, the more easily they are traumatized. An infant has very different needs to an adult. But if those needs are not met, they can quite easily die. Infants don’t perceive danger if someone with a gun walks into the room. Rather, if someone screams at them, or their mother ignores them, or someone shakes them so their head moves in an unsupported way, they experience immense threat. It is not mediated by thinking. It is a felt sense that their need for safety and holding has been violated. This is not something we will remember as adults, but it will just as surely leave us feeling afraid or anxious.
Before we release the energy of trauma from our body, however, it is really important that we not allow past events to control our behaviour in the present moment. This can be very difficult to do if we are not conscious of the energy that feeds our anger, anxiety, fear, or depression. So becoming mindful of ourselves is crucial to acting responsibly in the present moment. If we are only on autopilot, we don’t notice that our behaviour is making our life worse rather than helping us love ourselves and those around us.