I got a response to an email I send out to people who sign up for my email list. The email asks, "What is your #1 Challenge?" And the response she gave me is this -
"How to deal with: being stuck in anger and defensive thought patterns, keeping a person in a state of anger."
Anger and the Polyvagal Theory
Let's make sure we understand how anger fits into the Polyvagal Ladder first, something I am sure that my Polyvagal 101 students know already!
Anger is the felt emotional experience of the fight sympathetic state of the Autonomic Nervous System. When someone has fight flavoring lingering or stuck in their system, they will feel it as anger or irritability, most noticeably. They will feel impulses of the aggressive variety, like taking up space, raising their voice and speaking hurriedly in a monotone, lacking the vocal prosody that comes along with the safety and social engagement system.
Defensive Thought Patterns
Anyone interested in the basics of the Polyvagal Theory knows about the "Story Follows State" concept from Deb Dana. The thoughts in our brain emerge from our Polyvagal state. As our state shifts, so do our thoughts. The same context will lead to different thoughts based on what state the individual is in.
Imagine that Ray is doing his homework at a local coffee shop and notices someone looking at him. His thoughts might sound like these:
Shutdown - "They see me and think I'm weird. I need to hide." *looks down and puts hood over head*
Fight Sympathetic - "What the f&^% are they looking at?!" *grimaces at the person tensely*
Flight Sympathetic - "S&^% is there something on my face?" *hurriedly brushes face before going to the bathroom to check the mirror*
Safety - "They're just staring off in the distance. I know what it's like to zone out." *then waves and smiles at them, sharing a laugh*
It's okay to be a Polyvagal know-it-all
(just make sure you know it all! Download my Polyvagal Checklist to make sure you're learning all the PVT Fundamentals!)
How to "Deal With" Anger Emotions
So how does one "deal with being stuck in anger"? Well, they need to utilize the body's state, which means actually feeling and using the aggressive energy of the fight state. Of course, this does not mean actually hurting someone, themself, or destroying things. One can mindfully experience their anger and allow it to be present, then use the impulses of the body to discharge it. If they can do so, they can then climb their Polyvagal ladder into their flight state and then up further into their safety state.
If you were to actually listen to your body, to mindfully experience the sensations within, then it will tell you what to do next. An impulse will arise. With anger, it's probably going to be something that involves the upper body: throwing, pushing, squeezing or hitting, as examples. When done mindlessly, these impulses will be acted on, but end up harming someone or something. When done mindfully, these impulses will open up ladder climbing.
Before using mindful experiencing, one needs to be able to witness what is happening within them. And before that, they need to be able to anchor themselves in their safety state. This is a simple process that I call A->W->E and you can learn more about it in my Unstucking Defensive States course.
How to "Deal With" Anger Thoughts
Really, it's the same thing as above. I recommend focusing on the emotion that is driving the thoughts. Then delving a bit deeper and eventually experiencing the sensations of being in a fight state. Then allowing the body to utilize an impulse that reveals itself through the mindful experiencing.
I find that attempting to confront or stop our thoughts is exceedingly difficult. I suppose some people are able to switch their thinking rapidly, but I haven't met this person. I only hear from them in their marketing, but never met them in person. That's just me though.
And if you try to stop or confront your thinking from your fight state, it's still going to have that fight flavoring to it. You may end up berating yourself, judging yourself, shaming yourself for your aggressive thinking. In effect, reinforcing the angry thinking. Instead, anchor yourself in safety and then bring your anchored awareness to your emotional experience of anger and what lies underneath it on a sensation level.
Thanks so much for reading this and for the person that submitted their #1 Challenge. I'd love to hear from you about yours. Sign up for my email list in the footer and you'll receive this question via email in a couple days. You'll also get links to my Trauma and the Polyvagal Paradigm free eBook!