Inside Anger

It is Friday. You woke up, went to the kitchen, and poured some orange juice into a glass. Your week has been very productive so far, and today’s weather is particularly conducive to a good mood. To enhance that positivity, tomorrow the weekend will begin and you have some interesting travelling plans.

You walk towards the door and grab the latest edition of the newspaper from your footpath. Ten seconds later, your facial expression has changed, your muscles have become tense, and your head feels a bit radiated. You have read that an innocent young man was murdered last night without any particular motive. You feel angry.

What is Anger?

Anger is a common part of our lives. Everyday we experience varied sorts of frustrations which derive both from ourselves and from external sources. In the previously cited scenario, feelings of anger would have been developed for many reasons, but they are all common to the fact that it was a situation that opposed your core convictions. Although you did not burst into tears or destroy the glass of orange juice sitting on the table – the emotion was there. You may ask yourself: “But I don’t know this person, so why do I care?”

The answer to this question is not as clear as the emotion you felt, and nor is it simple – but there are some leads. Let’s take a journey into the complex psychological mechanisms that produce this controversial (and mostly misunderstood) emotion.

The Physiological Framework

Fear, stress and anger are closely related processes. In previous articles published in this ezine, we’ve discussed several mechanisms that create stress, and their natural purpose. In a nutshell, the pituitary gland (part of the limbic system and responsible for the expression of emotions) receives signals from the Hypothalamus (brain region responsible for controlling autonomic processes) referring to a possibly dangerous situation.

This gland activates a series of hormones which are responsible for activating a ‘response mechanism’ or ‘alert state’. The outcomes are increased blood pressure, sugar levels, heart rate and redirection of the blood to selected organs. This is the process which creates stress, or the ‘stressed physical state’. Both fear and anger are based on the incidence of stress.

In general, once the body has reached its stressed (‘ready for fight or flight’) condition, it is our interpretation of the event which will denominate the emotion of fear or anger. The pre-cortex, responsible for decision-making, will send messages to other parts of the brain and the following reactions will be based on its decisions. For this reason, some researchers attest that every state of anger is a result of fear. In detailed physical terms, anger invokes a reaction in which the skin temperature and electrical conductance are increased (the ‘firing sensation’) whilst the opposite occurs when fear is established (the ‘cold sweat sensation’). 

All these body responses are biologically designed for survival. There is no evidence that anger per se is hazardous to the human body – the problem lies in the expression of anger, and how easily people get angry (it has been previously stated that excessive stress causes physical harm to the body).

For more information on the physiological basis and outcomes of stress, visit the AIPC Library and search for the article Dealing with Stress.

The Sociological Framework

The perspective on anger has changed over time. The initial societal approach to analysing this issue originated in the principles of several different religions and their particular codes of conduct. In three religions – Buddhism, Islam and Christianity – the view towards anger and violence were never favourable. Buddhists consider it one of the five major negative states (also known as hindrances or nivarana) which directly oppose the way to enlightment. The Islamic religion believes anger is a sign of weakness and an undesirable feeling, whilst early Christianity considered it one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Science has also played its role in defining the perspective on anger. Before Sigmund Freud, most scientists believed that there was no direct biological disposition for the expression (and emotion) of anger. At the end of the 19th century, Freud proposed that individuals were born with an innate aggressive instinct – which when neglected would instigate hostility and aggressive behaviour.

This proposition was disregarded in 1988 when the American Psychological Association and the American Anthropological Association reviewed several research papers and concluded there was no clear indication that anger was genetically predisposed. After the human genome was mapped and other scientific advances were accomplished, however, such perspective towards anger began to shift again.    

Nowadays, despite the biological or sociological premise of anger, the expression of this emotion is regarded as a highly negative trait in most societies. People that are prone to ‘explode’ are less capable of forming healthy relationships with others, and usually develop a ‘bad image’. Workplaces and social environments commonly object to violence and are intolerant to rage. However, there are some cultures in which violence is a common part of people’s lives – usually in developing countries where there is a significant gap between social standards which cultivates hatred between different layers of society.

Most researchers agree that violent expressions of anger commonly result from ‘behaviour modelling processes’. Children from violent domestic environments tend to behave like their violent parent(s) – and, most of the time, this occurs because they assume it is the appropriate or ‘normal’ way to express their angry emotional state. Violence and anger are also related with situations where being aggressive results in power and social recognition (or perceived respect). Many bullies (particularly male children) act violently upon others to gain status as the alpha male of the group, or simply to express their fears and frustrations by shifting attention and blaming external sources for their personal problems. As previously stated – anger and fear are closely related emotions.

The Bright Side of Anger

If anger is a natural response of the body, why should we oppose it? Being angry is a synonym of being healthy and lively – as much as stress works in the same way. People that express no anger are usually incapable of standing up for themselves, achieving important goals or surpassing difficult obstacles. Anger is not only part of human nature, but also beneficial to the existence of humanity.

Put yourself in the first scenario again: imagine if you felt nothing when you read that newspaper. Anger enables individuals to quickly create an emotional scale which is directly related to their ethical principles and to the avoidance of pain and particular experiences which have resulted in negative outcomes in the past. It is similar to stress defensive mechanisms. If we are completely numb towards something which is totally opposite to our ideals, we are likely to accept it, and as a result, not develop drive and passion towards our most desired goals in life.

The presence of fear, anger and stress helps create the alertness and readiness required to react to the environment. But the decision-making process plays a very important role in how anger will reflect in our behaviour. Most people tend to associate anger with the actual aggressive responses that may follow it. Being angry does not necessarily mean attacking someone or breaking something. Generally there are two types of behavioural responses to anger:

(1) Active responses (fighting, screaming, breaking objects, etc) and;
(2) Passive responses (retreating, sulking, showing hostility or tension, etc).

The actual response cannot really be classified in terms of good and bad – but the intensity and duration of the response, along with the individual’s anger threshold (how easy it is to make a person angry), are the main determinants of an unhealthy anger-responsive behaviour. So if you often get angry with minor problems or situations, or you are unable to control your ‘temper’, or you often get extremely angry about something but simply ‘take it’ and walk away (and then develop hatred) – you may want to consider anger management. Furthermore, the propensity to experience anger can also be increased in particular (and inevitable) situations such as: menopause, PMS, birth, withdrawal (physical), bipolar disorder, etc.

The Dark Side of Anger

If you fit the description in the last paragraph, or know someone that does, there are many options for controlling anger responses in order to have a productive and healthy life. Anger Management has become a popular topic in the last decade. If you type in ‘Anger Management’ on Google, you will find over 31 million pages on the subject and, along with them, numerous strategies and approaches to combat this ‘dark side of the force’. It is important to note that anger and stress directly affect both psychological and physical health in a normal person – therefore it needs to be considered as a ‘real’ threat. Furthermore, it also has a very negative effect in the societal bonds that an individual may have, or could potentially gain.

Counsellors use various approaches in helping clients manage anger. The goal of anger management is to reduce both emotional and physiological arousal that anger causes. Like previously noted, you cannot constantly avoid or change every person, thing or situation which causes anger, but you can learn to control the reactions to them. ‘Letting it out’ or ‘releasing the bad energy’ is not a practical way to get rid of the problems which arise from anger: imagine if a person punches someone or something every time they are angry? This is a practice that is not physically or socially acceptable.

One of the main strategies used by counsellors is relaxation. Relaxation techniques such as imagery, meditation and breathing can assist with controlling feelings of anger and a tendency to violence. Cognitive restructuring provides the client with the opportunity to create a positive mindset towards the world.

Using rational thinking and logic, clients aim to ‘defeat’ anger and replace explosive and anti-social behaviour with reflective actions. If you do not believe, ask Anthony Robbins: “Using the power of decision gives you the capacity to get past any excuse to change any and every part of your life in an instant”. Simple, yet effective.

Various other strategies include: changing the environment (when it is really inappropriate), using humour (silly humour can be a great substitute for anger), avoiding certain situations (there are some avoidable situations which can be, well, avoided), and improving communication (sometimes the core source of anger is plain miscommunication).

In the end, the objective is to provide the individual with tools he or she will use to become a person who can manage their anger – from their perspective and within the social context.