Two common causes of anger are a feeling of encroachment in areas we hold precious, and feelings of abandonment when we lose things we hold dear. If another employee gets the promotion that we feel we should have been ours, we can be very angry at that person for “stealing” our opportunity, or at our boss for being stupid and passing us over. If we are threatened by the loss of a close friend or spouse we can feel very angry at their “betrayal.” This second type of anger may contain holdovers from childhood when adults let us down, leaving us feeling abandoned. When we experience a current situation that suggests we are being unfairly abandoned it reinforces and justifies our sense of outrage.
As adults our feelings of protectiveness extend to family members or beliefs that we cherish. Sometimes this can flow into areas where a cool head would be more appropriate. If our child is passed over for an award or is not given enough time at bat we may feel angry because our loved one has been “mistreated.”
Thus anger can be considered:
- A response you learned early in life to help cope with pain and fear
- A temporary way to overcome feelings of lack of control or helplessness
- A habit you do not know how to break.
Anger can co-exist with other emotions
In spite of its frequent occurrence, anger may be considered a secondhand emotion. It is preceded by feelings such as fear or pain. In fact some experts describe anger as an afflictive emotion because of its association with pain, suffering, or injury. Moreover, some of the physiological responses to anger and fear are the same, even though we acknowledge different feelings. It is our psychological interpretation of the experience of an epinephrine rush that gives the experience meaning. Is that sinking feeling in your stomach, the sweat on your brow or the nervous palpitations of your heart a sign of fear or anger? Ask yourself: Does the present situation threaten you with personal or professional embarrassment? Do you feel like someone is taking advantage of you or preventing you from doing something you want or need to do? Is there something about this situation that evokes one of your anger triggers? If so then you are probably becoming angry in addition to whatever else you may be feeling.
Some anger is an alternative or substitute emotion
Anger can temporarily protect you from having to deal with threats suggesting personal weakness. Getting angry helps you hide from others that you find a situation frightening or that you feel vulnerable. An angry person feels powerful. However, angry outbursts only work temporarily. Anger does not resolve the problems that made you feel fearful or vulnerable in the first place. The challenge is to learn how to use your anger productively.
Physiology of anger
Our bodies let us know when we are angry. For example, when we encounter one of our emotional triggers we begin to feel tense. Hormones called catecholamines are released which cause us to experience a burst of energy. This initial burst of energy lasts several minutes. Next hormones, such as adrenaline and nonadrenaline are released, which can keep us in heightened aroused for hours or even days. This is why a rather minor irritation can cause you to explode in anger if it is preceded by an earlier upsetting episode. In any case, once we begin to experience these physiological changes our face flushes, our heart rate accelerates, blood pressure rises, respirations increase.
Although some major elements are the same in the face of fear and anger our interpretation is different. We say we are “hot and bothered” when angry and “cold and clammy” when afraid. This is because while our heart rate may go up in both instances, skin temperature changes are different. Our skin temperature increases when we are mad which is why we feel “hot” or that we have “lost our cool.” In contrast, when we are afraid our skin conductance drops and we feel cold.
Polarizing effect of anger on attention, memory
When a person is attending to something they are interested in, such as watching a play or listening to instructions explaining how to do something they really want to do, their heart rate drops. Even babies show a heart rate drop when attending to something of interest to them. If a person is trying to concentrate on a problem and must block out distractions their heart rate rises. Thus if you are trying to block out your feelings about the guy that cut you off and nearly caused a wreck as you were driving to work, your heart rate will be elevated and you will have greater difficulty concentrating than if you were attending from a more neutral perspective.
In fact, epinephrine and norepinephrine fuel many emotions. These hormones help the brain learn and enhance memory, concentration and performance up to a point. However, when the body becomes flooded with epinephrine you become too excited and concentration and performance decline. If you become too aroused you are like a deer frozen in the headlights of an approaching car. This is why you cannot remember the details of a really explosive argument, although the person you were arguing with and who was not as angry has a clear memory of what transpired.
Motivational effect of anger
The physiological experience of anger energize us for vigorous action. Anger mobilizes actions to strike out at the threat. It gives us the determination to go forward.
· Gives a sense of power and control
· May motivate a person to change a personal weakness
· Defends a person against feelings of guilt, fear, grief, hurt, pain, sadness, and helplessness
· Can help you get what you want, at least temporarily
· Can point out social wrongs and motivates you to work to change them
· Gives a sense of power
· Minimizes a sense of inadequacy temporarily
· Gives you the resolve to leave an abusive situation
· Allows frustration to be vented and tension released
· Makes you appear superior, or powerful
· Makes you feel justified in your beliefs
· Helps you see that you are not getting what you want
· Gets you attention from other people
· Can be used to coerce people to do what you want them to do.