We’ve all experienced it. That bubbling up of frustration when something consistently doesn’t go according to plan, the sheer exasperation of the person cutting in front of you in traffic or the argument that goes around in circles, becoming increasingly heated by the second. We’ve all experienced anger in its varying forms. We’re often aware we have our own ‘hot buttons’ and pretty sure that everyone else knows how to push them. But how much do we really know about anger and what purpose it serves?
What is Anger?
Anger is the disruption or interference of personal expectations. It is a core human emotion, which varies from person to person in strength and frequency. It is experienced in a variety of states and intensity ranging from simple annoyance to frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, and fury (intense anger).
What purpose does anger serve?
Anger as an emotion, according to evolutionary psychologists, formed as individual response to interpersonal conflicts of interest and as a method to bargain and satisfy such interests. However, anger is far more than a cave man’s negotiation tactic. Experiencing anger allows us to identify when our needs or expectations are not being met. It highlights when our personal boundaries have been breached and can create an intention of purpose or action to overcome the deficit in what we want for ourselves.
Anger, like any of our core emotions, is impossible to eradicate from our emotional repertoire, therefore it should be acknowledged, respected and managed in a way that allows us to evolve personally and improve the quality of our relationships.
How do we become angry?
How we become angry depends on a number of elements. These elements include an event or circumstance that triggers an emotional response (triggers), who we are as a person, or our own individual disposition (emotional characteristics) and how we perceive the situation (cognitive appraisal) and on what evidence we adopt and our method of reasoning.
A trigger may be an interference with our ability to move forward with an intended task or action, it may include rejection or criticism from someone we love, experiencing inefficiency or bureaucracy, encountering opposite beliefs, being belittled or humiliated by an employer or authority figure or worse case, being wrongfully accused.
Our own individual disposition includes the dominant qualities or temperament of our mental and emotional self. Are we sunny and cheerful by disposition or are we more cynical or irritable in nature? Our emotional outlook or attitude has the ability to create the foundation in which we respond in a given situation.
Cognitive appraisal is our own, individual interpretation of a situation. When a trigger occurs, we instantly make an intuitive evaluation of whether the situation or event is considered a disruption or interference of our personal expectations. In this process, we reference beliefs, values, expectations, hopes and needs. Essentially, we incorporate a whole range of evaluative constructions that allow us to create our own inference or perception of a given situation.
What happens to us when we get angry?
Without going into great depth into the various physiological, neurological and psychological responses, the simple explanation of what we experience when we get angry can be described as an ‘amygdala override’. The amygdala is the neurological center for coordinating behavioral, autonomic and endocrine (hormone) responses to external stimuli, especially those with emotional content. The amygdala responds to a variety of emotional stimuli, but mostly those related to fear and anxiety (Swenson, 2006).
When a threat is perceived, the amygdala bypasses the sections of the brain (the cortex) that typically provides logic, reasoning, and judgment, and switches on a mass dump of hormones. This dump subsequently activates the secretion of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into the body. Essentially, the ‘amygdala override’ activates our flight or fight sequence that we’re all too familiar with and we find we’re flying off into a fit of rage.
How can we manage our anger?
It’s important to recognize that it’s ok to get angry. What’s not ok, is if anger leads to aggression and/or violence. When you are angry, it is our responsibility to express anger in a healthy and constructive manner. We are individually accountable for finding constructive ways to avoid losing control that could lead to aggressive, destructive or other maladaptive behaviors that may harm yourself and others.
1. Take notice of your ability to calm down: How long does it take? 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or a good couple of hours? The various hormones that flood the body take to secrete out of our bloodstream, so the timeframe in which we need to regulate ourselves can vary from person to person.
2. Take time out: yes, just like we do with our kids, the same strategy applies really well for angry adults. It’s important to take into account that your mental and physical tolerance may be impacted after an experience of activation, so do not re-enter a heated conversation if you’re still calming down. Remove yourself from the environment if you suspect you might be ‘re-activated’.
3. Adopt a method of self-soothing: Ask yourself, do you release your anger out, or do you harbor it in? Explore ways to be able to find to calm and regulate your anger. What are your triggers? How does your temperament influence your anger? Are there different ways of assessing particular experiences? What resources can you utilize to positively shape your response?
4. Practical tools: there are a wide range of tools and options to help ease the internal dialogue and physiological responce that swells up in the heat of the moment. Here’s an example of a series of internal dialogue points developed by the Anger Management Center of Toronto (2015), worth saying to yourself when the anger starts to heighten:
- I do not need to prove myself in this situation, I can stay calm.
- As long as I keep my cool, I am in control of myself.
- What other people might say is their own opinion. Opinions are not facts. I am the only person who can make myself angry or keep myself calm.
- I will allow myself to take time-out to de-escalate, if I feel that I am getting worked up or recognize my anger cues or signals.
- In difficult or stressful situations, I do not need to feel threatened or fearful. I can relax and stay cool. This will allow me to make better choices.
- I do not have to be strong and competent all the time. It is okay to feel unsure or confused at times. This will not make me less of a person.
- It is impossible to control other persons and all situations. I can only influence these in a positive way if I choose to if they are open to the process.
Anger is a complex creature. As humans, we are naturally predisposed to the emotion of anger and poignant experience. Our perception of anger can vary. Some individuals avoid anger at all cost, while others express it explicitly. Anger, like each of our respective emotions, serves the distinct purpose of highlighting when we are presented with an impediment to satisfying an expectation or need, or if we are faced with a breach of personal values or boundaries. The psychological and physiological effects of anger are complicated, however, if we are aware of the dynamics that create anger we are able to manage and control this important emotion without resorting to ineffective actions that compromise the relationship with ourselves and the relationships with others.
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Anger Management Center of Toronto (2015) http://www.angermanagementcentre.ca/programs-and-services/our-programs/anger-management-coaching
Center for Evolutionary Psychology (2016). http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/topics/anger.htm
Ekman, P., & Ekman, E. (2016) The Ekman Atlas of Emotions. https://www.paulekman.com/atlas-of-emotions/#actions:anger
Martin, R. (2011). Why we get angry. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-the-rage/201110/why-we-get-mad
Swenson, R.S. (2006) The limbic system. Review of Clinical and Functional Neuroscience, Dartmouth Medical School. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rswenson/NeuroSci/chapter_9.html