Allow me to confess something horrible. On somewhat regular occasions—way more often than I’d like to admit—I feel the sudden and overwhelming urge to pummel complete strangers.
Just a few weeks back, I was waiting in line to board a plane when a guy in a suit—it’s always some entitled prick in a suit—nudged past, certain that because he’s an Important Businessman it must be rightfully his turn to board. His blithe disregard for my rightfully earned place in line, or anyone else’s, had me debating internally whether I should stick a foot out and trip him there, in full view of everyone, or wait and push him out of the baggage door on the Jetway. Then there was the Audi SUV driver who appeared in my rearview mirror on the highway, pulled to within inches of my bumper, and flashed his lights like an ambulance. Forget the fact that we were both already doing 80 mph and I had two kids in the back—hey, Jason Statham here had places to go! For a split second I actually fantasized about running him off the road. Then there’s Time Warner Cable customer service—well, let’s just stop there for now.
But here’s the thing: I’m not an especially angry person. I’ve never actually pummeled a complete stranger—or anyone else, for that matter. I hate fighting and avoid conflict whenever possible. Had I played football, I probably would’ve been a punter. Yet even I can’t help it when certain objectively trivial events cause my senses to heighten, my muscles to tense, my vision to tunnel, and my sweat glands to churn, and before I know what’s happening I’ve gone from mild-mannered father to white-hot rage monster.
And if you believe the media, I’m hardly alone. In 2016 everyone seems overworked, overstressed, and overcharged by an onslaught of bad news that runs the gamut from terrorism to droughts to racial violence to constant angry rhetoric from politicians who can’t stop yelling. Anger in America is so pervasive that when NBC conducted a national poll on the matter in November, nearly half of all U.S. adults surveyed described themselves as angrier than they were a year ago.
And all this rage isn’t harmless. A recent study by the University of Sydney found that, for as long as two hours after an episode of uncontrolled anger, your risk of a heart attack is nine times higher.
So when I heard talk of a supposed “rage specialist” named Mitch Abrams, Psy.D., I had to give him a call. Abrams, a 43-year-old psychologist, has made treating anger his life’s work.
His primary job is running the psychology program in five New Jersey prisons, but he’s even better known in psych circles as the guy who teaches elite athletes—both professionals and amateurs—how to harness their most primal feelings. These are men and women (but mostly men) who thrive in a realm where aggression is encouraged. And if this guy can talk to NFL defensive backs (or, God forbid, serial killers) about harnessing their rage, surely he can handle a father of two from Brooklyn who gets riled up in airports.
“Mitch really stands out as the person in our field who can talk about anger,” says Alison Rhodius, Ph.D., chair of the sport psychology program at John F. Kennedy University in San Francisco. “He’s the one person who’s taken this issue and just run with it.”
Abrams begins our first conversation by assuring me that anger is normal. It’s a core human emotion and one of the body’s natural physiological responses to danger. Dealing with anger is, simply put, a choice. It’s how you choose to respond to anger—how you hone your ability to recognize and deal with the impulses—that ultimately determines whether you’re a healthy and happy human being.
“Think about it this way,” Abrams says, settling into one of his favorite analogies. “You can’t make a good steak without fire, right? If you can control the flame, you can make wonderful things happen. But if you can’t, you’re going to burn up the steak. Anger is like that fire. If you learn how to harness it, there are all kinds of things you can do. If you can’t control it, you’re going to burn yourself up.”
To Banish Anger, Should You Imagine a Warm Beach or Hammer a Heavy Bag?
Whether he’s talking to a regular guy like me or an NBA power forward, Abrams’ first lesson is this: You can’t control anything until you acknowledge that there’s a problem in the first place. To illustrate, he brings up football. “Did you watch the Steelers-Bengals game?” Abrams asks one afternoon, taking off his gray pinstripe suit jacket and pulling a rolling chair out from behind his desk at the main branch of his private practice in New Jersey. Abrams is a large man—6', 240, he says—and he sits in his chair in an athletic posture, his legs spread and his feet firmly planted, as if he’s preparing for the snap. “That fourth quarter was the validation of my entire career. For the Bengals, when you live by the sword, you die by the sword.”
He’s referring to last season’s AFC Wild Card game, when the Steelers edged the Bengals in one of the ugliest and most violent football games in recent memory. By the second half, the game had completely devolved into a battle of dirty plays and cheap shots—the NFL later handed out nearly $140,000 in fines to seven players—and no single player bore more responsibility for the mayhem than the Bengals’ volatile linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The 25-year-old committed three nasty personal fouls, the final of which knocked Steelers All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown out of the playoffs with a head shot in overtime. Burfict personally rang up about $70,000 in fines and a suspension for the first three games of the 2016 season.
“I have no doubt in my mind I could help that guy,” says Abrams.
The main problem with Burfict, he says, isn’t that he was born angry or is constitutionally angrier than any of the rest of us, but that his environment has nurtured his rage rather than forced him to manage it. In fact, the linebacker has been known for his notorious temper since he was in college, at Arizona State.
Treating hotheaded athletes is challenging at first, Abrams says, because they’re often forced into therapy against their will when they do something wrong, like hurting someone, so they’re resistant to change. Abrams’ first order of business, then, is to show the player why he wants to be there. He’ll ask, “Do you want to lose your job, your wife, your life? OK, then—you want to be here.”
“I seduce the humanness out of them,” he explains, which is easier if the patient’s a parent. “That’s an in: Is this what you want your daughter to know you’re about?”
That’s when Abrams gets to lesson No. 1: When we snap, it’s almost never random and sudden. Reaching that point is a process of escalation in which the body’s mental and physical processes slowly ramp up until we reach what Abrams calls the “explosion threshold”—the point at which our anger boils over and we lose control. Abrams opens a book and shows me a graph illustrating the process.
As we become agitated, we experience a series of subtle physiological changes from what Abrams calls the “baseline”—our calm and contented state. Breathing and pulse increase. The hair on our arms stands up. We start to feel physically hot. We begin to think angry thoughts. The more stress we’re under, the further up that line we go, usually without even realizing it.
“We experience a lot of stressors subliminally,” Abrams says. A stubbed toe in the morning may set in motion a particularly angry day, exacerbated by a crowded security checkpoint at the airport, then compounded even further by a testy e-mail from your boss. “There are many things that annoy us, but we don’t consciously process them,” he says. “But our body keeps a tally of them even when our conscious mind doesn’t.”
There are other factors that can also send you spiraling toward the explosion threshold before you know it—“things that have even bigger meaning and might result in a more hysterical response,” Abrams explains. Maybe you’ve experienced a recent personal tragedy or are very sensitive about a political issue. Drugs and alcohol qualify, too.
“They numb the parts of the brain that might notice warning signs and say, ‘Hey, maybe it’s a bad idea to call that police officer a fucking prick,’” Abrams says. “Alcohol doesn’t make you an asshole—alcohol makes it impossible to hide the fact that you’re an asshole.”
Recognizing anger cues is harder for athletes because they’re already in a heightened state of arousal and may not notice the subtler cues, so Abrams teaches them to look for other warning signs.
“What I’ll often tell athletes, especially football players, is to pay attention to when their mindset is shifting—when it’s moving from executing the call to executing someone,” Abrams says. “That’s when anger’s taking over. And when anger takes over, it interferes with performance.”
In short, the key to control is awareness: Once you identify the changes in your body, you’re in a position to calm yourself. And the most common and effective approach to doing that? Visualization, says Abrams. He tells patients to get comfortable and conjure an image that makes them feel relaxed. The go-to image is a therapy-world cliché: a quiet beach, where waves roll in, one after another.
“Whatever problems you have, when you exhale, exhale those problems into the ocean,” he says, choosing nature as the context because whatever tiny thing has set you off is easily put in its place by the enormity of the natural world. “Recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, your problems are small.”
There are other ways to reel yourself in, including muscle relaxation techniques, in which you tense and release certain muscle groups, meditation, and music. “Music can be very powerful to amp you up or calm you down,” Abrams says.
One thing he discourages at all costs: yelling. “I hear people say, ‘If you’re angry, yell into a pillow.’ No—then you’re reinforcing yelling. And in an argument, once you start yelling, people stop listening.”
Exercise is another very effective way to burn up your anger, but the type matters. A particularly bad outlet: Punching a bag to “work it out.” In fact, Abrams actively discourages patients from using “striking exercises” to fight rage. “Let’s say that whenever I’m angry, I go hit the heavy bag,” he says. “I’m going to feel better, sure. But if that’s the go-to when I’m angry, what’s happens the next time, when I have not my punching bag but my wife in front of me? Bam!”
Even Nuns Lose It at the DMV
Abrams grew up in Brooklyn, in Starrett City, a small, working-class neighborhood in the borough’s southeast corner. He claims his life’s calling was revealed to him at 15 during a frightening tantrum in his bedroom. There was music blaring—“because no good temper tantrum exists without background music”—and in the midst of his outburst he took his rage out on a folding metal chair. “I ripped it in half like it was paper,” he recalls.
He was so amped that he hadn’t noticed his mom was in the room.
“It was the first and only time I ever saw her afraid,” he says. “She looked at me and said very clearly, ‘You need to get ahold of that because if you don’t, you’re going to ruin your life and you’re never going to get to where you could go.’ That was the first time I became cognizant of anger as a real emotion in real time that, if it was left untethered, could take me to all kinds of bad places. That’s when it all started for me.”
Abrams’ first job in the field was as the senior psychologist at Coney Island Hospital; he also began doing sports consulting on the side. It was just after he’d finished a talk on the subject of athletes and anger—based on his Ph.D. dissertation—at a psychological conference in 2000 that a man approached and asked him if he’d consider bringing his work to a New Jersey prison. He said yes.
Today Abrams oversees the psychology program in five prisons in the state, with 100 people reporting to him. And despite the fact that his private practice is booming—it’s now a second full-time job—he’s still staring down murderers.
And for the record: Criminals really aren’t angrier than the rest of us, Abrams says. As with out-of-control football players, their behavior is rooted in their environments and other psychological conditions for which anger is merely a symptom.
It’s not just athletes and cons who rely on Abrams for help. In recent years, he’s become popular with yet another group—one that often struggles not to cross the line between having just enough anger and having too much: corporate executives. “The truth is, you can’t be successful in life by being passive,” Abrams says. Though there’s always risk of “spillage”—crossing the explosion threshold—the right amount of anger can make you stronger.
It’s the same in football, he says. When you consider what they’re asked to do on the field, “football players on the whole have really good anger-management skills.” In fact, players often worry that seeing Abrams is going to make them “too soft.” Not a chance, he says. “I want them to be tenacious, hungry, focused. I want them to be aggressive. But I don’t want them to be so consumed by emotion that they lose their focus.” Guys like Burfict, he says—or even ex-Ravens running back Ray Rice and former Cowboy Greg Hardy, who both abused their significant others in fits of rage—are the exception, not the rule, because they haven’t learned to harness their anger.
The more I talked to Abrams, the more I realized that most of us—the raging masses—are looking at anger in a fundamentally wrong way. As Pixar’s Inside Out made adorably clear to families last summer, anger isn’t a condition but a natural emotion universally shared, no different from sadness or joy. Abrams once used the word “fix” to describe the process of treatment, but that’s not really what he’s doing; the truth is, a man’s anger will never go away.
When I tell Abrams about my own irrational episodes, he assures me that it’s all perfectly normal. “It may seem unimportant being cut off in line, but it’s an ego and a pride thing. That’s rooted in insecurity.” Most angry feelings, he says, can be traced back to feelings of insecurity—physical, financial, or otherwise. For this reason, old-fashioned psychotherapy is, without a doubt, your best tool for defeating them.
Abrams himself gets pissed when someone cuts him off in traffic—he’s just trained himself to deal with it: “I may mutter ‘asshole,’ but I also think, ‘Yep, you’re gonna die—probably soon. You can beat me there.’ It’s just better to let most things go.”
Most people who know how to deal with anger have found the right amount of heat without burning the steak. They employ what’s technically called “instrumental aggression”—using their angry thoughts to accomplish an actual goal. This comes across as tenacity, as passion, as spirit, whereas “reactive aggression”—a baseball player breaking a bat over his knee after a strikeout, me throwing a guy out of a Jetway—manifests as a loss of control. Michael Jordan used “instrumental aggression” every game.
Learning the skills needed to master anger, such as better understanding your body’s signals, isn’t easy, Abrams says; but truly motivated patients can do it in roughly eight to 12 therapy sessions. The process can take much longer if you’re resistant. “Getting to the underlying triggers takes time,” he says. “I find that men are especially hesitant to look at themselves, but once they start, it pays off.”
Toward the end of our last conversation, I ask if anyone has truly mastered anger. A Buddhist monk, perhaps?
“I think there are some people who are physiologically much less reactive to anger,” Abrams says. “They still get angry, but not as often and not as intensely. I think there are also people who are accepting and patient, so they get pissed off by fewer things. But I don’t think there’s anybody who doesn’t get angry. You send Mother Theresa to the DMV, I’m sure she would get pissed.”
And that makes me very happy.