Snapping in Rage
Who has not lost self-control in a blind rage, smashing a dish—or worse? We all wish to believe—need to believe—that we are in control of our behaviors and actions, but the fact is that in certain instances we are not. Something unexpectedly in our environment can unleash an automatic and complex program for violence, destruction, and even death—all of it an unconscious pre-established program.
Rage explodes without warning. Overpowering judgment, compassion, fear, and pain, the fiery emotion serves one purpose—violence, both in words and actions. While this human response has been vital to our survival since our species evolved, rage simultaneously puts your life at risk. And it seems there is no escaping the rage circuit once it has been activated. If rage is an automatic reflex are you really in control of your fate? That flare up with your partner or child or friend or even complete stranger can change your life in an instant, forever.
Despite the essentially peaceful lives most of us live most of the time, killing is programmed into the human brain. This is because, as with most animals, individuals in the natural world must be able to defend themselves and their offspring. Moreover, carnivores must kill living creatures for food. These behaviors are hard-wired in our brain, not in an area where consciousness resides—but instead deep in the core of the brain where other powerful impulses and automatic life-sustaining behaviors (feeding, thirst, and sex) are programmed. Each of these behaviors, just like the complex rage behavior, is automatic once triggered. The question is, what triggers this deadly switch for violence and killing?
The double-edged sword
The power of rage gives a petite woman strength to lift a car off the ground to free a trapped child. It is the stuff that drives a US Marine, 180 degrees against all normal instinct to run into the hail of bullets to save a comrade in jeopardy. But sometimes, this automatic live-saving rage reflex embedded in our brain by evolution, clashes against the modern world. “I just snapped,” the remorseful man confesses tearfully after having strangled his girlfriend in a fit of rage. Rage can ignite a crowd, resulting in sudden mob violence. The triggers can be small or large, individual or collective. The results can be devastating.
We must understand the biology of how the animal instinct inside us works to appreciate how rage arises. We must learn to control rage if possible, and to exploit it when necessary to save our lives. How much of this propensity to rage is genetically predetermined and how much is learned? Precisely what is it in any given situation, and in an individual’s personal history that will trigger rage? Does the tendency to unleash rage reside hidden and latent in everyone, or is it only programmed into a few? How do men and women differ in triggers to rage? As individuals and societies we need to examine the beast within us and confront, in the context of modern society, the biological roots of rage.
It would appear from the daily headlines that countless situations can provoke violent, often deadly rage, making it impossible to know how such varied tragic events get triggered. But it is not the case that these rage attacks are set off by so many different situations that they are incomprehensible. Setting aside cases of pathology, the normal human brain will not engage in violent behavior without very specific provocation. I propose that nearly all of the array of possible provocations can be reduced to only 9 specific triggers.
These triggers of rage can be remembered by the mnemonic LIFEMORTS “life/deaths.” The triggers are listed briefly here and then analyzed in greater depth in chapter six. The triggers could be lumped and split in several ways, just as the infinite variety of colors can be reduced to only 9 basic colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, black, and white) for the purposes of recognizing and categorizing any shade of color. For the important purpose of being able to quickly identify the trigger in any provocative situation, I have collected these provocations of rage into 9 major categories that can be recalled quickly with this LIFEMORTS mnemonic. Knowing this mnemonic can change your life. In a dangerous situation it could save it.
If you learn to recognize these triggers you can understand why a person snapped in a specific situation. No matter how misguided the response might have been, it will not be a mystery beyond comprehension. If you can recognize which of these triggers is igniting your sudden rise in anger or frustration, you can quickly disarm the rage response. Sometimes it is fully appropriate to unleash “the beast within,” because fundamentally all of these triggers exist to release violent behavior to save your life. The trick is to rapidly identify the trigger or triggers in a fluid situation, and ask yourself if this is indeed a potentially life-or-death situation, or has the trigger designed for life in the jungle misfired in the modern world. When encountering potential rage in others the ability to recognize the triggers will help you in understanding and reacting to it by avoiding inflaming and possibly defusing the situation. A lot of things can make a person angry, but if you perceive that the source of a person’s sudden anger springs from one of the LIFEMORTS triggers, you will instantly recognize that you are in a potentially violent, even deadly situation.