Anger: Beware the Cognitive Hijack

Anger is a strong emotional reaction experienced when something may have provoked, insulted, or hurt us. Physiological markers that accompany anger often include a change in facial expression, increased heart rate and increased adrenaline (epinephrine) release. Adrenaline is a hormone that equips our body to deal with a perceivably dangerous situation, and allows us to decide if we want to fight or take flight.

If you choose to act on anger, the resultant behaviour is usually aggressive – whether it is to speak in a caustic manner or even to physically attack someone or something. Long-term aggressiveness can damage relationships as well as our health. One study for example, found how older adults who tended to lash out when angry were more likely to have calcium deposits in their coronary arteries, thus increasing their chances of a heart attack.

Being constantly angry also raises your stress level, which is known to be a silent killer. It should hardly surprise us but mental upset can lead to physical upset, and stress is one of the primary avenues whereby this is possible. When we are stressed our immune system can become over-activated and even start to attack our own cells (i.e. autoimmune disorders). Stress can also increase chances of heart disease, sleeping problems and depression.

  

Cognitive Hijacking

Violent criminals have given especially useful insight into the causes of extreme anger and aggression. The director of the Australian Institute of Criminology began his report on violence prevention with: “The management of anger is a crucial issue in the prevention of violent crime.” This is fascinating as it pinpoints the critical importance of managing anger from going out of control. Studies have concluded that it is when there is a “mental state that alters his or her ability to exercise cognitive control in a healthy manner” that violence occurs. This is why Prophet Muhammad stated that:

“The strong man is not the one who can overpower others (in wrestling); rather, the strong man is the one who controls himself when he gets angry.” [Hadith]

Without a doubt, the ability to prevent or execute violence is held in the control of cognition. However cognition is very easily disturbed by sustained anger – we are all familiar with the notion of not being able to think straight when angry. This loss of higher thinking functions is what we call cognitive hijacking.

Interestingly substance abuse has also been statistically linked to aggression and violence, and indeed the inability to regulate our rationality is also interrupted by using intoxicants such as drugs and alcohol. Intoxicants have such a degree of accountability for violence that a study found that it was actually mental illness combined with substance abuse that lead to violent crime rather than simply mental illness alone. In actuality, those with mental illness who don’t dabble in substance abuse are no more likely than the average person to commit violent crime.

Thus, uncontrolled anger and substance abuse – both prohibited in Islam, can lead to cognitive hijacking. Subhanallah, within the religion of Islam, maintaining the ability to exercise rational thinking is extremely important. As a matter of fact, even not having adequate sleep can affect rational thinking – and funnily enough the corpus of Islam also endorses the importance of sleep! (Read more about sleep here).

Preventing the hijacking of your reasoning abilities is thus essential. As Imam Ghazali put it in The Alchemy of Happiness – “The highest faculty [of man] is reason…[with it] he leaves behind him all tendencies to passion and resentment and becomes capable of association with angels”. Reason is therefore seen to elevate man towards his angelic attributes whereby the loss of reason reduces him to his animalistic attributes.

  

Satan’s Role

But why, you may ask, is cognitive hijacking such a bad thing. What is wrong with letting go for a while? Why can we not give in to our beast-like desires of rage and passion? Why must we hold on to rationality?

Islamically, it boils down to the fact that when we are in a state of cognitive hijack, we are more susceptible to the whispers of Satan. By entertaining anger we open the doorway to temptations from Satan, whose only aim is to lead us to sin. By having allowed the cognitive hijack to occur by allowing the anger to steam in our minds rather than subduing it, Satan’s whispers grow louder in comparison to the voice of our rational minds. This then naturally increases our likelihood to follow through with the sinful action!

May God protect us! Ameen.

Psychology, while it does not accept or promote the notion of Satan, it does surmise the existence of the ego, or the selfish form of the ego named Id – terms coined by Freud. The Id is essentially selfishly driven in order to fulfil its desires, at any cost, be that stealing to fulfil hunger, having an affair to fulfil sexual desires, or killing to fulfil greed and so on. Studies attest to the fact that anger (and intoxicants) all decrease the ability to think rationally and make you more likely to give in to selfish desires. Muslims would add here that these “selfish desires”of the Id are actually what Satan coaxes the human being to crave as a way from turning away from what Allah has ordained. The word Nafs could also been synonymous with Id.

 

Getting Angry vs. Being Angry

As shown above, staying in a state of anger invites the whispers of Satan and the reduction of rationality. But does that mean that anger is haram (forbidden)?

No.

Anger is a natural emotion, and therefore it is not a sin. The problems arise however, when anger gets out of control leading to violence, hurtful comments, and other actions that we tend to regret. It is thus the consequential action acted out whilst angry, that is usually haram. For this reason, the Quran and Hadith ask of humans to not allow themselves to be angry as the consequences can be sinful. It is instead recommended to overcome the anger, and then take action.

Getting angry is therefore different from being angry. One is involuntary, and one is a choice.

Of course, we cannot be getting angry at every little thing. If you were to get angry because your friend did better than you on an exam, that would not count as a valid reason to get angry as it would indicate you suffer from envy (read more about envy here).

However, there are many cases where anger is justified. For example, if you were to see someone oppressing another, you may find yourself getting angry. This would indicate that you value the sanctity of treating others right, and to see someone violate a law of Allah makes you angry. This is an example of a justifiable cause for anger.

However, if you stay in a state of anger, the anger may escalate and lead to cognitive hijacking, and thus affect your rational ability. You may even end up committing an action you regret, for example going overboard with your rage at the one who committed the oppression and even becoming oppressive yourself.

Indeed, this “justified anger: unjustified action” dichotomy can be seen in the Muslim world today… take for example the “Drawings” of the Prophet. It is a justifiable cause for anger as it is mocking our beloved Prophet. However, to then stay in a state of elevated anger and become so cut off from logical thinking that groups of people were to conduct protests threatening to “punish all kufr”, burning flags and provoking others into mocking Islam further and ironically behaving exactly oppositional to what the Prophet would have wanted… is clearly not the way. Instead, to have become angered, and then subdued the anger, understanding that the Prophet had haters aplenty even in his own time, and to remember how through beautified actions he was able to win people over. Then, with our cognition intact, to follow in his example, as is required of Muslims, educate people, share stories about how forgiving he was of even his enemies, and to spread peace and love… would that not have been the better action to take?

Thus, clearly, even if the cause of anger is justifiable because it violated a law of Allah…the resulting action is not always moral. And the key lies in whether you take action in a state of ‘anger induced cognitive hijack’, or if you take the time to calm down and take action rationally in lines with what Islam promotes.

This visibly highlights that with anger, there are three key defining points.

  1. The cause of anger: justifiable vs. unjustifiable
  2. Staying angry vs. subduing the anger
  3. Action taken

 

By now it should be evident that the best course of action would be justified cause of anger > anger suppressed > taking rational action. As demonstrated you can have justified cause of anger, but still go on and behave irrationally and potentially commit a sin. The crux of the matter lies in stage 2, whereby suppressing anger increases the chances of rational behaviour.

The litmus test for stage 1 is best determined by asking yourself “Is this violating a Law of God?”.

Stage 2 – suppressing anger – may need further guidance, as it does not come naturally to us all. Thankfully, we can find plenty of advice within Islam and Psychology.

 

Be Water, Not Fire

The Messenger of Allah said of anger that:

“Anger is the effect of shaytaan and shaytaan was created from fire. And water extinguishes fire.” [Hadith]

It is a useful reminder that anger can be like fire. Indeed a mere spark of fire can burn a whole town alight in a mere night, without water. It comes as no surprise that it is recommended to do wudu whilst angry, after all sometimes we just need to cool down.

Anger is undoubtedly destructive. Islam promotes suppressing that anger so you can take action rationally. This lines up with what Psychology also advises. “The aim is to inhibit or suppress your anger and convert it into more constructive behavior,” explains Charles Spielberger, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger. “The danger is that if it isn’t allowed outward expression, your anger can turn inward—on yourself.”

Essentially turning anger inwards and hating yourself is clearly not the key. Neither is lashing out. Instead, as outlined by Charles Spielberger: suppress and convert. Take fruitful action. Resolve the problem.

But how can we suppress anger?

The prophet asked us to recite: “A’udhu billahi min ash-shaytaan-ir-rajeem”

“I know a word, the saying of which will cause him to relax, if he does say it. If he says: ‘I seek Refuge with Allah from Satan the outcast’ then all his anger will go away.” (A’udhu billahi min ash Shaytanir Rajim) [Hadith]

This needs to be recited with full belief that Allah can provide such protection, and belief that you need direct protection from Satan. We have seen above that waswasa (whispers of the satan) enable the fires of anger to spread and hijack our rationality. By immediately asking Allah for help, as Muslims we believe we are capable of overcoming it, essentially to have a cognitive rescue. This enables stage 3, the action we take, to be logical, and less likely to cause us regret or accumulate our sins.

Another prophetic advice on suppressing anger was:

“If any of you becomes angry and he is standing, let him sit down, so his anger will go away; if it does not go away, let him lie down.” [Hadith]

 This advice has been followed for over 1400 years with love and faith. However scientists have recently discovered that brain activity when sitting upright makes you more likely to attack someone when insulted; however when lying down you are less likely to attack! The scientists found that when lying down, the urge to attack the person insulting the participants, actually went away quicker. Even though the anger felt by sitting and lying down volunteers was the same, it was quicker to ebb away when lying down. Subhanallah!!! The advice of the prophet somehow contained such an obscure fact about the way the brain operates – 1400 years ago. It is truly, mind blowing – and advice clearly worth following! (Click here to read more about the study)

Moreover, when angry we are also more likely to say things we regret, and hurt those we love. How many of us regret what we say immediately after a fight?

For this reason, prophetic narrations actually ask us to remain silent:

The Messenger of Allaah (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “If any of you becomes angry, let him keep silent.” [Hadith]

If we were more zen driven and not ego driven, controlling anger would be easier. This way the moment something merely whispers an insult towards our ego, we would be less likely to react. The importance of wholesomeness and peace would be bigger drives than “getting even”.

The Quran aligns with this when it promotes the concept of forgiveness:

“Those who spend (in Allah’s cause) in prosperity and in adversity, who repress their anger, and who pardon men, verily, Allah loves the al-Muhsinun (the good-doers).” [Quran: 3.134]

By forgiving that which made you angry, you rise above the materialistic and ego-driven mentality. Anger is strongly linked to our ego and to what we feel we deserve: whether that be prestige, respect – or last night’s cheesecake that we clearly labelled “Do not eat this – its mine!”

To be able to rise above the dunya and actually forgive, elevates us towards angelic attributes, and distances us from beastlike attributes, because peace truly becomes the primary drive. If you are fixated purely on this world, (the dunya), then this world will continue to anger you and seem unfair as you will continue to demand perfection from an imperfect world. However, if you wholeheartedly believe Allah is the resolver of all injustices and forgiveness towards others becomes more blessed to you than avenging rage, it demonstrates detachment from this world – it effectively moves your fixations from this world to the next. Ergo, to forgive is to truly exhibit loyalty to belief in the next life!

 

Analyse Your Anger

By now, you will have seen that there are 3 defining points of anger. You will have also seen that there can be both justifiable and unjustifiable causes of anger. You also have seen that we should try and suppress our anger, and take action in a rational and halal manner.

Click here for a printable worksheet you can download that allows you to analyse your reasons for anger and determine if you are utilising anger the way you really want to. The worksheet requires you to list examples of things that anger you, analyse why you think this felt unfair or broke your principles, and if you think this is a valid reason to be angry.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion getting angry is natural, and therefore not considered haram (forbidden) in Islam. However staying angry, and acting out whilst angry is where there is prohibition. Essentially a Muslim is advised to:

  • do their best to subdue their anger
  • be wary of speaking or lashing out whilst angry
  • wait it out until their anger is subdued
  • actively try to abate the anger
  • and the most highly recommended course of action, seen as better than just repressing anger – actively forgive that which made you angry

The last point of forgiveness for that which angers you is a typical hallmark of the beauty of Islam, where ihsan (excellence) is promoted. Ultimately, to leave justice in the hands of God and keep your heart free from resentment and grudges is ihsan, and gives the greatest peace of mind. If you are readily forgiving, you will be less angry as it would not register as worthy of entertaining such a negative emotion, and therefore sparing you from the negative impacts of anger outlined in this article.

And as always, Allah knows best.

Assalamulalaikum

 


Audio-Visual Credits & References:

http://aic.gov.au/media_library/publications/tandi_pdf/tandi227.pdf

http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2014/04/anger_causes_violence_treat_it_rather_than_mental_illness_to_stop_mass_murder.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/6016087/Insults-are-better-taken-lying-down-claim-scientists.html

 

 

About psychislam 12 Articles

PsychIslam aims to demonstrate how Islamic teachings taught 1400 years ago via Quran and Hadith hold truths that are being discovered by psychologists today. Read our articles to learn about fascinating parallels between Islam and Psychology that are scientifically supported. Explore a range of topics from miraculous advice about sleep to Prophetic wisdom about anger.

4 Comments

  1. Ma sha Allah amazing work keep going and may Allah the All Mighty help you people . The thing that I liked the most is that you combined
    the deen with present day affairs .And referring to medical researches is also great idea because by this type of data a person can talk to people of any background
    Thank you

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