Anger can be OK

Anger seems to get a bad press. I guess it is because the actions promoted by anger can have unhappy consequences. That’s rather sad as one US researcher – Karim Kassam – concluded that of all ‘negative’ emotions – anger appears to look like happiness in the brain!

Neurological studies demonstrate that anger can cause the left prefrontal cortex to be active. Anger-based patterns of brain activation appear rather similar to joy. They share the same neural building blocks with pleasure and arousal.

There is a neuroscience behind these anger and pleasure circuits.

When I ask people to remember a time when they felt anger I am aware that this safe experiment is:

activating the reward system in our frontal cortex, and

our threat system, within our limbic system.

So, smarter and younger sibling is as engaged as much as our older and not-so-smart sibling.

This means 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.

Problems arise when there is under-activation in the front of the brain. Then we can act out our feelings and can behave badly. More problematically, the experience of anger can be an addictive state as it increases activation in the pre-motor cortex. The pre-motor cortex is a part of the frontal cortex that plans behaviour. It gets us ready to go. That becomes increasely active during an episode of anger.

Anger and hostility can see a person consumed by the activation of the fight system in the brain. If you look at the brainstem factors — fight, flight, freeze, and faint — this is a person with an active fight system, but their cortex is 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 categories on the emotion spectrum

  1. shame with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness,
  2. sadness that ranges from subtle misery all the way into clinical depression,
  3. fear that ranges from apprehension all the way to panic and terror,
  4. 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. We want 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 immediacy of the moment or to assess the long term consequences of our actions. Anger can come back on us and threaten our peace of mind as too often happens in courts of law.

However, anger may be seen in a safer light. It is telling me that there are things underneath that need to be looked at. Anger can become a defence – a preference to help me avoid taking a closer look. Looking my anger in the eye may be one way to look behind the feeling. This is based on the assumption that emotional disconnectedness creates pain arising from not belonging. Such feelings can make us vulnerable. That can be something to avoid yet it pays to stay in touch with vulnerabilities if there is to be any move to process that feeling and stay with it.

Therapy can help identify such triggers for anger –  being shut out, being abandoned, not feeling important, or being rejected.

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, we do better to manage our own reactions. Trying to look past a full-force of the emotional attack requires skill and resilience if we are not to let anger get under our skin.

One way to do this is to see the scared and hurt being in the eyes. To make progress here, we need to slow down ourselves and the other person. This may help us unpack what is happening and what has happened. This strategy is termed “one down”; slowing things enough for each of us to take responsibility our own role in shaping a ‘new normal’.

The problem relating to anger is: how do you manage it just enough? Can we create a safe place for the unpredictable force that is anger? Possibly indirectly; via other emotions that can be accessed safely. Doing 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 open to other feelings as a preliminary to facing more difficult emotions.

Awareness of our Script can be relevant. When we can see that we are more than the story of our life, the need to protect it with aggression can be lessened. It is useful to talk about our life story and to explore how it might be threatened. This talk can open us to our imperfections, it can take the fuel out of our anger. That said, trauma adds a unique challenge to working with our anger. Anger can become a vigilant protector, defending us against any threat of re-traumatization but we can lose the will to face up to the trauma.

In summary, then, anger and hostility may provide evidence of a dysregulated fight response. The task of therapy is to identify how to work to re-integrate that potentially life-saving response. The key is to integrate aggressive action in a way that the sub-cortical brain (not so smart, and older ….) does not take over.  Can the actions associated with rage be regulated so that the cortex (smarter and younger ….) can stay online when rage is felt. If therapy is to integrate action with feelings and sensations in the body, then it aims to reduced unthinking reactivity.

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 for it to happen.

At these moments, it is particularly helpful to remember that the anger is there for a good reason, and we can 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.

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 lived with and 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 attachment experience, it can make for pretty volatile relationships. Once I can be present with my anger, that’s a great opportunity for me to begin reprocessing 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 or disconnection.

In an attachment relationship, any response is better than none. If I can’t make you respond to me in any way at all 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.

I have been asked if there is a time when anger is not OK. Well, the feeling is OK, but any impulsive, thoughtless and disrespectful action is not OK. Anger might be the engine-house of those actions as can other emotions such as fear, dispair and hatred.

Our laws tell us that but when my cortex is off-line I am not mindful of our laws.



How to give yourself a nudge

More on flight and fight