• At the Oscars, Will Smith slapped host Chris Rock around the face after Rock made a joke about Smith's wife

  • Therapist Lucy Holbrook explores what this event, and everyone's reactions to it, tells us about anger

  • If you struggle in your relationship with anger, we have therapists who can support you here

Well, Sunday night at the Oscars certainly threw out some unexpected drama! If you didn’t catch it, Will Smith slapped the awards presenter Chris Rock in the face on stage. This was in response to a joke Rock made about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s (the actor's wife) shaved head, which is actually a result of the hair-loss condition alopecia. It has set off a frenzy of comment and judgement – both in support of and against Will Smith’s action.

Will Smith has since gone on to try and make amends by apologising in a statement posted on Instagram, saying: 'Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive… My behaviour at last night's Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada's medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.'

I have been reading some of the comment and judgement of Smith’s behaviour and noticing that it seems quite polarised – in simplistic terms 'for' or 'against' it. In my experience this is not an uncommon reaction to such behaviour, which is after all a form of anger expressed through physical violence in this incident.   

How we respond to our own angry feelings

Anger typically goes alongside the familiar survival response of 'fight' that we feel when under actual or perceived threat (along with 'flight' and 'freeze'). What can happen when we experience this survival response is that the part of our brain that handles judgement (the pre-frontal cortex) goes 'offline', and in the process reduces or takes away our capacity to think straight, reflect or problem solve.  

Hence, we react without thinking, rather than respond with our thinking. Will Smith’s behaviour at the Oscars illustrates a clear example of this kind of 'reacting without thinking' which he acknowledges in his apology: 'I reacted emotionally'. Once he was away from the heat of the moment and had time to calm down and allow his pre-frontal cortex to come back 'online' he was able to reflect on his behaviour. His apology is then part of the process of repairing the hurt has action caused though it took several days for him to apologise to Rock.

How we respond to the anger of another person

This survival response is also typically activated to a greater or lesser extent in those who are either on the receiving end of someone’s anger, or those who witness it. In response to being slapped, Chris Rock froze momentarily, before recovering his composure remarkably quickly. Likewise, apparently everyone fell silent in the press room – another manifestation of the freeze response. I am left wondering if this vicarious threat response activation is, in part at least, fuelling some of the polarised commentary on the incident.

What really interests me in response to this incident is how can we use it collectively as a catalyst to open up the conversation about anger. As someone who runs workshops to help people better understand and regulate their anger, I am meeting people who actually feel quite desperate – they are confused, guilty, shamed and have no idea what to do with 'the beast within' that makes their life difficult on daily basis.  

Anger continues to be misunderstood and perceived as difficult, problematic or just plain or bad. This makes it hard to talk about and even harder for those who really struggle to regulate this emotion to deal with it. Yet the reality is that anger is just one of our many emotions and a normal part of our human experience. I describe anger as:

  • An emotion designed to alert us to something that needs our attention or that something we value is threatened in some way
  • An 'end' emotion which arises to protect us from other underlying uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability such as shame, embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, jealousy or grief

What is the purpose of anger? 

We typically experience the emotion of anger as energy that is forceful and intense. As with all emotions, anger has both and upside and a downside. Sometimes anger feels energising and empowering – this is what I call Protective Anger – as it motivates us to be protective of our boundaries and safety. 

At other times anger feels discomforting, overwhelming our body and brain such that we react with Defensive Anger – as we defend ourselves from our own feelings of vulnerability by hiding them with our anger. Again, Will Smith’s behaviour on Saturday is an example of this. However, one problem we can create for ourselves is defensive anger often comes across as offensive to others. This makes it harder for them to recognise our hurt and vulnerability and just provokes their own need to defend themselves.   We can end up in escalating spirals of powerful emotions which overwhelm our brain and nervous system and we react without thinking rather than responding with our thinking. 

The impact of anger

Anger affects every aspect of our being: 

  • Our brain: any experience with an intense emotional charge can activate our survival response to what our body identifies or perceives as some kind of threat
  • Our body: increased heart and breathing rate, muscle tension
  • Our feelings: out of control, fearful, helpless or inadequate
  • Our thinking: this can become distorted, negative and we expect to be disappointed  
  • Our behaviour: I think we typically have two behavioural responses to anger – what I call anger IN and anger OUT

Anger IN is about restraining and redirecting our anger – sometimes onto ourselves – without directly expressing it. We try to control and express it 'non-angrily'. Examples include sulking, being passive/aggressive or blaming others.

Anger OUT is about directly and fully expressing the energy and intention of anger. This often gets acted out through a physical response to anger – 'better out than in' – which can end in violence.

Anger vs aggression

Many people have experienced anger as, and therefore equate anger with, aggression and vice versa. They are in fact different – anger is the emotion and aggression is our behavioural response. Aggression is what we do with anger, using its energy to fuel us in going after our target. There are different degrees of aggression from ill will at one end of the spectrum through passive/aggressive behaviour, to violence at the other end.

When expressed directly, proportionally and with respect, anger can help us to de-stress, become assertive and motivate us to change and improve a situation. In contrast, expressing anger defensively – by being aggressive or suppressing it – is often destructive for our relationships and can lead to mental health issues.


How can we deal with anger   

The key to dealing with anger lies in learning how to regulate our emotional state as this allows us to catch our anger before it becomes too intense and overwhelms our body and brain. Self-awareness is the foundation of this. By paying attention to our experience we come to understand our anger:

  • How it shows up via our sensations
  • Who or what seems to trigger it
  • What underlying feelings of vulnerability we might be avoiding with our anger
  • What beliefs we might have about ourselves or others around anger, etc. 

Gathering information about our experience in this way allows us to see and think about our experience consciously, which gives us choices about how we might try something different. Self-awareness puts us in the driving seat in relation to our anger rather than in the passenger seat being driven by our unconscious anger patterns and habits.

Really useful tools for regulating our emotional state and maintaining balance between our brain and autonomic nervous system include breath, movement, and self-compassion. Furthermore, they all come with the added bonus that they are within us and at our disposal whenever we need them.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could shift our collective perception of anger talk about it more openly and often? Perhaps we can help ourselves and each other do this by recognising that…

  • It as a normal and vital emotion 
  • It doesn’t need to be cured – people don’t have 'an anger problem', they have a skills gap in how to regulate the emotion of anger in appropriate and healthy ways 
  • What we do with it matters and we can learn to regulate it, just as we do other emotions. Self-awareness is always a useful place to start

An activity

If anger is something you struggle to regulate easily for yourself you might like to try this simple activity below. It can help you take a mental step back so you can start to look at your anger, rather than just be in your anger. 

Before you do it though, please remember there is no right answer to this – it is simply one way you can start to learn about your anger.

Find a quiet place where you can be comfortable for 5-10 mins. Get a piece of paper and pen and think about what would your anger be if it was…

A colour?

A sound?

A shape?

A taste?

A smell?

An object?

An animal?

Now allow yourself a few moments to reflect on what you have written: 

What do you notice in your body – any sensations or muscle tension?

What feelings come up – surprise, curiosity, disappointment? 

What thoughts do you have – are they critical or kind?

Having done this activity you may have discovered something about your anger that you would like to find out more about. If this is the case, I encourage you to stay curious and keep learning about your anger as the more information you gather, the more choices you offer yourself about how to regulate it. Also, please do find people you trust who will support you on this journey with kindness and patience – it’s so much easier when we feel supported.

Do get in touch with me if you would like to know more about my workshop Anger – The End Emotion.

Lucy Holbrook is a verified welldoing.org therapist in the Wirral and online

Further reading

Anger researcher Dr Ryan Martin explains why we get mad

How to break unhealthy patterns around anger expression

The neuroscience of emotions

Why women should get angry

Anger management: can therapy help?