Anger seems to get a bad press. Even so, there are times when anger can move us forward and help us break out of a negative loop.
I guess the ‘bad boy’ reputation for angry feelings arise when it triggers actions that have unhappy consequences. This is rather sad as one US researcher – Karim Kassam – concluded that ‘negative’ emotions such, as anger, appear to look like happiness in the brain! After all, such experiences create high emotion, even passion.
There is some neuroscience behind these anger and pleasure circuits. Anger-based patterns of brain activation appear rather similar to joy. They share the same neural building blocks with pleasure and arousal.
Can they help put our ‘triggers’ into a different context when neurological studies demonstrate that anger can cause the left prefrontal cortex to activate?
Connecting with anger
When I ask people to remember a time when they felt anger I am aware that question is:
* activating the reward system in our frontal cortex, and
* our threat system, within our limbic system.
This arises as I am asking for a memory, as well as an experience. There is more on this on the website and you can follow the hyper-link to find out what I mean by our ‘smarter and younger sibling‘ and ‘our older and not-so-smart sibling‘.‘
The end result is that our sense of self – who we are – is very engaged when we are angry. There is increased activation in regions of the frontal cortex. This includes the frontal lobe that helps us:
to detect error and conflict,
to articulate our sense of our values.
Anger and hostility can activate the fight system in the brain and a person with an active fight system is living with their thinking and ethical cortex at least part off-line.
Let’s put anger into a context, then, and explore what might constitute ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ anger. Tracking the costs of inappropriate anger and distinguishing inappropriate anger from assertiveness and fierceness may need to be explored.
Understanding the function of anger can open an important door in therapy
There appear to be four classic negative feelings arising on our emotion spectrum
- shame, likely to trigger feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness,
- sadness able to trigger anything from subtle misery all the way into clinical depression,
- fear, that ranges from apprehension all the way to panic and terror,
- anger that ranges from being mildly exasperated (SUD 1/2) all the way to a SUD of 9/10.
I find that most of us do not like to feel negative emotions. I am tempted to get away from feelings of shame or fear or sadness. Anger can fall into the same category but it is energizing. It can help us move away from the depression. It makes us feel potent and can move us away from helplessness.
It’s tricky to recognize the personal costs of anger in the immediate moment, or to assess the long term consequences of our actions. Anger can come back on us and threaten our peace of mind when we arrive in a court of law.
However, anger may be seen in a safer light. It can tell us that there is an ‘unknown‘ that need to be looked at. When we do not seek or give so verbal feedback, our anger can become a defence – a way to avoid taking a closer look. This can mean we might avoid a small defeat. That is not very often a good idea.
I have learned a lot from my small defeats through life. Looking my anger in the eye may be one way to see something important. Talking to myself and others helps me keep looking! Often that ‘something important’ is a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. Such feelings can make us very vulnerable; another thing to avoid. Therapy can help us stay in touch with that vulnerability and to grow more confident about how to converse with that aspect of ourselves. Any effective move to process that feeling – to live with it differently – does require us to stay with it: but safely.
Therapy can help identify such triggers for anger – being shut out, being abandoned, not feeling important, or being rejected.
Anger as a signal
As primates, anger is an important emotional signal. It is a real threat signal that there is something coming at us NOW so we really react to the anger of others and it can pay to do so. Your family may survive if you can get a predator to back off.
However, when the threat is a less clear and present danger, I’d do better to manage my own reactions. Looking past the full-force of the emotional attack requires skill and resilience if I am not to let anger get under our skin.
One way to do this is to have compassion for the scared and hurt being, including our own hurt inner being. Compassion helps us look at our negative feelings and not to side-step them. To make progress here, we need to slow down ourselves, and others with us. This may help us unpack what is happening and what has happened.
The problem relating to anger is: how do I manage it just enough? Can I create a safe place for the unpredictable force that is anger? Possibly indirectly; via other emotions that can be accessed more safely.
Doing safe experiments around acceptance and mindfulness work can improve our ability to trust.
This work helps us to construct and visualise our own, unique safe place. Maybe we can be more open to other feelings as a first step toward facing more difficult emotions.
A larger problem arises when I am scared of my anger. I may appear in control, even compliant and ‘nice’ but I am not in touch with my anger. The times when I am hurt and violated are not associated with any feeling of anger even though there might be good reason to feel this.
At these moments, it is particularly helpful to remember that the anger is there for a good reason. Can I find out what this anger is all about? Anger can foster change. It is a way through passivity and compliance, toward action and redress. Angry people may well want to be taken seriously. So, we need to go where the anger comes from, and we need to find a resolution for that anger.
Our anger gets shaped by others as we grow up
I have heard it said that anger can be a beautiful emotion! I don’t want to trigger shutdown of my system. To avoid that, my anger needs to be felt and part of the lived experience. This can include being open to disturbing experiences of abandonment and rejection. Rejection is the match that lights many fires.
When we grows up with a negative or dismissive attachment experience, it can make for pretty volatile relationships. Once I can be present with my anger, there’s a greater opportunity for me to be less ruled by it.
Attachment issues from infancy and childhood can promote feelings of ambivalence, uncertainty and avoidance. In relationships, one person can shut down to avoid rejection experiences. This is likely when they feel they are failing and do not know how to please their partner. That fear of disconnectedness leads them to shut out the other person out and the other person becomes enraged.
In turn, this may direct us toward maladaptive responses under the loose heading of “control”. The drive to control gives us a glimpse into the way anger and hostility conceals an oft frustrated wish to belong – anger and hostility as a defensive physiological response against vulnerability – or fear of loss and disconnection.
Anger in our attachments to other people
In an attachment relationship, any response is better than none. If I can’t make you respond to me in any way at all, then we have no relationship – no connection, and that is too much to face. The anger seen in distressed relationships can look like this:
“If I have to, I’m going to push you – I’m going to make you respond to me.”
So, please keep in mind that the longing for connection promotes pain when we just notice emotional disconnectedness.
Therapy can help identify what triggers anger when we feel shut out, abandoned, unimportant, or rejected. Such feelings can make us vulnerable. That can be something to avoid yet it pays to stay in touch with our vulnerabilities if there is to be any move to process that feeling and grow from it.