We all get angry and I am sure we have all felt that feeling of frustration welling up inside to the point where we want to explode... But for most of us, we will control that feeling until it is rationalised and controlled.
For some however this is simply not the case. Some of us find it challenging, almost impossible to walk away from these feelings. Here anger management expert John Landaw talks us through anger, what it is and how to manage it.
Imagine this situation. You are driving along in town, in no special hurry, when a car pulls out in front of you, forcing you to brake or collide with the car. The driver is now in front of you. All you can see is the back of their head, their brake lights perhaps, because the traffic is slow-moving. All quite maddeningly provocative. And if you are someone provoked by such situations you become angry.
So what are you physically feeling? Energized? Warmer - face flushed? Heart palpitating? Breathing shallow and quick, as in a panic attack? Tenser - jaw tight, gripping steering wheel?
And what do you want to do? Yell at the driver in front - call them a bloody fool? Hit them? Wish a horrible death upon them?
The sort of situation mentioned above may not be a trigger for you, but others may be.
You are having an argument with your spouse. You have asked them to take the rubbish out, but yet again, he/she has forgotten. You confront. The temperature rises. Each feeds off the anger of the other. There is even a certain enjoyment in the release of rage. And have you noticed how hard it is to recall the details of the argument when anger is involved? The words you use in the argument will feel totally justified at the time....you’re the most selfish/ inconsiderate/thoughtless/ nagging...
Note the black and white nature of the language. And this is because anger is a state of heightened arousal, a trance state, causing the finely calibrated thinking centres to switch off. In neurological terms, extra adrenaline is secreted and cortisol production raised. This overrides the function of the thinking part of the brain - the pre-frontal cortex (situated just behind your forehead) and explains why it so hard to recall the details of the argument, and why the words used are extreme, because they come straight from the emotional centres and out of our mouth, unmediated by the pre-frontal cortex.
Why do we feel angry?
If you consider the above scenarios, the anger stems in one way or another from feeling either not considered/ listened to, or from feeling under personal attack or accusation. The partner who consistently fails to pull their weight in the home is taking the other for granted. The partner who nags, however justified in their nagging, makes the other more, not less resistant, to change because they feel attacked - and so seek to defend themselves. A battle starts, which is not about the grievance, but about each other.
If the driver of the vehicle who cut in front of you were to raise his hand in apology, your anger would dissipate almost immediately, wouldn’t it? Why? Because you have been noticed, the wrong done to you acknowledged. It may even be that you are fairly sure that the driver had seen you when he pulled out- but this won’t matter much if the apology be given.
Is anger an instinct?
Yes, and also no. It originates in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions, also the part that identifies threats and responds to them: ‘the fight or flight mechanism.’ Through the release of adrenaline and cortisol it provides a burst of energy, and psychologically the narrowing of the attention onto the object of anger or fear. If your child were in physical danger, this sudden burst of energy, enabling you to take instant action, is exactly what is needed because this angry energy would focus on the aggressor, with indifference to your own personal safety.
But angry styles are not natural, they are learned, often in childhood. Perhaps the child was routinely subject to parental anger and belittlement, was frightened by it (fear and anger are very closely connected both physiologically and psychologically), and grew up to replicate this behaviour with others: the victim becoming the aggressor. Such a child may promise themselves never to suffer like that again, and their anger may be a kind of revenge against the whole world for what happened to them. Its mastery - for it is nearly always about power and control - may be a shield against the intolerable feelings of helplessness they had as a child. The physically or verbally abusive partner will almost certainly come from an abusive background, and may well think of themselves as ‘behaving normally.’
Is anger a problem?
- Anger creates a sense of power and control.
- It can motivate. Imagine a situation where you are with a group of people at a meeting who are talking over your head, even though you are part of the team. You feel sidelined, ignored, even slighted. Anger will motivate you with the sense of indignation it brings.
- It will give you resolve, lead you away from the feelings of helplessness.
- Similarly, it might give you the strength to leave an abusive relationship that you have suffered for years.
- Anger can be the spur to fight for moral causes.
In 2002 a news item on the BBC website was headed: Angry Young Men Risk Heart Attacks. A finding of a 36 year longitudinal study was that young men who react quickly to stress with anger are three times more likely to develop heart disease. Of course, this risk is not confined to men. Here is a list of possible adverse effects of regular or chronic anger:
- Damaged or blocked arteries-linked to elevated bad cholesterol production
- Increased susceptibility to infection (because cortisol released when we are angry suppresses the immune system as the body prepares for a fight)
- Longer recovery from major traumas to the body - either operations or cancer
Next: Recognising and managing anger