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! There is some neuroscience behind these anger and pleasure circuits.
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.
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.
There is more on this on the website and you can follow the hyper-link to come to find out how smarter and younger sibling is as engaged as much as 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.
In early childhood, some people have learned the hard way about how conflict can be punished and it does not take long for the avoidance of conflict to become a priority. Expressing anger becomes an ‘error’ and, in time, even feeling anger can become an error – something to be avoided. Soon enough, we can allow others to control our anger and, indeed, other ways we feel about our world.
For many, there is a fear of the consequences of feeling anger as it leads to acting out ‘angry’ and that can do harm. Once it is let go, there is no holding it back. 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 increasingly active during an episode of anger.
Fear of that possibility of behaving badly can foster a growing insensitivity to our own anger. This leads to a lack of familiarity with the feeling and our ability to ‘converse’ with it confidently begins to slip. This can be a problem as the smarter and younger sibling can stop speaking the language of anger. There is under-activation in the front of the brain but our not-so-smart sibling can lead us to act out our feelings – now that is behaving badly.
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
- shame with feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness,
- sadness that ranges 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 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 way to avoid taking a closer look. This can mean avoiding 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. 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.
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 feeling in the eye, 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.
Awareness of our Script can be relevant. When we can see that we are more than the story of our life, then the need to protect that story we have written about ourselves 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. However, it can help us NOT to face up to the trauma – merely hit out.
In summary, then, anger and hostility may provide evidence of a dysregulated fight/fight/freeze and faint response. The task of therapy is to identify how to work to re-integrate that potentially life-saving response. The key is to integrate angry actions 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 ….) stays online when rage is felt.
If therapy is to integrate action with feelings and sensations in the body, then it aims to reduce 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 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.
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.
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.
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. Our laws tell us that, but when my cortex is off-line I am not mindful of our laws.