Anger is physiologically a hot emotion. There are a host of bodily sensations associated with every emotion humans experience, and yet, anger feels different. This is because anger is an energising emotion. It gets our blood pumping and adrenaline running high. Where other emotions tend to make us want to distance ourselves from others, anger causes us to want to engage.
A lot of us have experiences of growing up being taught that anger is very bad and needs to be “managed”. And there are anger management classes at every turn. This approach of thinking of anger as needing “management”, reinforces the belief that all anger is bad. At first glance, we can see how this is helpful.
Uncontrolled anger has been known to cause disruptions to relationships and make us more impulsive and holds little, if any, regard for consequences. Traditionally, anger has been understood as a major player in interpersonal conflicts, leading aggressive behaviours that escalate or maintain conflict. This has led most people to respond to anger either by suppressing it, due to shame or guilt at feeling anger, or experience anger outbursts. Both of these responses to anger are detrimental to our well-being. Have you wondered if your anger is trying to tell you something?
What is Anger?
Let’s start out by defining what anger is, what it does in the body, the situations that cause anger, and what the aftermath of the experience of anger is.
Anger is defined as “a strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility”. Sounds quite clear. Of course, human emotions are anything but. Some of us shrug off mild annoyances, whereas others explode in rage. We understand through research that the causes of anger and the following response, results from a combination of the situation or environment the qualities or personality of the person their interpretation of the situation the emotions they were experiencing.
Much like other emotions, anger varies in its state from being a mild, passive annoyance, to rage, fury, and aggression towards the self, another person, situation, or object. Also like other emotions, anger comes with a host of physiological and biological changes; heart rate and blood pressure go up, along with energy hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, anger also diverts your blood flow away from your organs to your extremities, preparing your body to fight.
Much like other emotions, anger can be caused due to internal or external circumstances. You might be angry at a person (your ex) or a situation (a traffic jam), or you might feel anger in reaction to memories of events. It’s important to note that much like other emotions, the causes, intensity, and effects of anger are heavily impacted by upbringing, culture, gender, and past history of trauma. Anger is generally an indication that a boundary has been crossed, there has been perceived injustice carried out, or you are feeling unappreciated or hurt.
When met with anger, most of us respond with some level of aggression or hostility. Anger causes us to become irritable, snappy, short-sighted, and reactionary. This is because anger is an emotion that demands action! It doesn’t exist in a void and is therefore, a very powerful emotion to harness as a motivator for bringing positive change in your life.
All emotions drive us to action, none do it better than anger. We are always using a combination of conscious and unconscious ways to cope with waves of anger throughout our lives. A combination of social stigma and personal experiences with destructive demonstrations of anger keep people away from analysing their anger. However, the properties of anger make it a strong motivator for change.
Anger is rooted in the human need to live in safety and protect ourselves from threats in our environment. Since anger can result in situations where we feel helpless, the process of experiencing, expressing, and acting on anger also creates a sense of control.
Importantly, anger is something psychologists refer to as a “secondary emotion”. A secondary emotion is any emotion fuelled by other emotions. This means that often anger results in response to an external situation, at the heart of which is some degree of emotional pain. We all have anger-triggering thoughts, here are a few examples:
Assuming the motivation behind the actions of others
Feelings of helplessness or frustration
Negative assessments of ourselves, others, or the situation
The awareness that your anger may be protecting you from more painful feelings can help you look at your anger in a different, more empathetic light. Some feelings that anger commonly helps mask include betrayal, sadness, embarrassment, fear, guilt, and shame. Through therapeutic support, this leads to many people to helpful, guiding discoveries about their identities and values. Anger gives us energy to engage, if we find the right support, and turn that energy into understanding the motivators and drivers of anger, we may be surprised at our capacity for change.
By Almaas, psychologist.