What is anger?
Anger is a core human emotion, like happiness or sadness that evolved in higher organisms because it helped us survive. Anger is related to our “fight, flight, freeze” response in the sympathetic nervous system and prompts us to respond to our environment. The emotion served the function of keeping us alive by signaling us to fight, flight, or freeze when an observed threat was near and is often described as an intense feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or irritation.
Anger is also a secondary emotion, which means that we feel another emotion first (whether we are aware of that or not), and what comes out (felt or seen by ourselves and others) is anger. Often, the primary emotions under anger include but are not limited to fear, grief, sadness, loneliness, and disgust.
How do we know we are angry?
Common physical responses and symptoms of anger, or how the body lets us know we are feeling anger, may include muscle tension, tightening of the chest, headaches, feeling hot, churning stomach, sweating, and increased heartbeat, to name a few.
If we continue to hold onto anger, it can become unresolved. This can do damage to our physical health. When we get angry, it releases hormones in the brain that have harmful properties over time to the prefrontal cortex (logic center). This area is associated with judgment, short-term memory issues, and a weakened immune system. Unresolved anger has also been linked to chronic headaches, high blood pressure, and increased anxiety.
Does anger get a bad name?
When we think of anger, most of us may think of it with a negative lens which is justified, given the expression. We find people are scared of reactions and their internal anger as it can be unsafe, frightening, and traumatizing to be both on the receiving end of and to feel it. In no way are we minimizing those experiences. But if we think about anger as a secondary emotion, then there are thoughts and feelings not shown.
What we do not see is the underlying cause of the intense reaction. Anger signals that something is wrong, that we are not feeling heard, there is injustice, or we feel rejected, lost, and mistreated. It is communicating that it knows you and others deserve to be treated differently, with kindness, love, and respect.
Anger then is protection – a defense mechanism and a warning sign. If anger signals that something is wrong, ultimately, anger is trying to protect us or others from a threat. We often think about anger like an iceberg. On the surface, what we see and experience in anger is a physical and emotional reaction. Under the surface, unseen to the eye, are where all the other emotions and beliefs live. Think of how an iceberg is 3x the size below the surface – what is beneath your surface? What is anger trying to tell you?
So what does this all mean?
Well, it means that we have the opportunity to build a new relationship with anger. It will take time, but there are practical ways to feel into the emotion, understand where it is coming from, and become more responsive rather than reactive.
Here are some ways to begin that process:
Notice Anger (& keep track of) the times you become angry.
- What is happening around you (people, words, environment, etc.), and what is happening internally. Ask yourself if you are stressed, hungry, or tired. Notice what anger feels like in the body (beating heart, red face, clenched hands). Name the sensations, thoughts, and urges.
Take Care of Yourself & Calm.
- Identify ways to cope and calm your anger. Moving the body is a big one that helps process the stress hormones and energy coursing through the body. Exercising increases your heart rate and allows energy to release more constructively.
- Other positive ways to take care of yourself and process your feelings: scream, listen to music, journal, take a break, practice yoga, find a calming mantra, do art, or talk to someone.
Solutions & Alternatives.
- Reframe your thinking. Anger can often be “shoulding” others, as in we expect others should act a certain way. However, that is our opinion. Just as our upbringing, worldview, and beliefs influence us, so does it for everyone else. When we become irritated with others, we believe that they ought to behave a certain way, and when they do not, an emotional reaction ensues.
- Practice taking a non-judgmental stance toward others and think about what may be causing their behavior. Thinking about and explaining behavior, can lead us to be more empathetic and waste less time stewing in anger – as we can not control how others act. Again not minimizing any impact but identifying causes frees us from being weighed down by things we can not control and unrealistic expectations for behavior.
- Be Solution Focused. Once calm, ask yourself what the emotion is prompting you to do. Remember that anger is a signal and is communicating something to you. What is it communicating? To act, speak up, or fight for something? You can choose how you want to use the information signaled by the body. Identify the solutions to your situation.
Practice feeling the anger, getting to know it, and not acting out helps build a new relationship with anger, one in which we respond rather than react.
If you desire to talk more about what anger is like for you and how you’ve noticed it in yourself and the world around you, our therapists at Torus can work with you to better understand and find ways to mend and repair a relationship with anger.
Written by: Chardyce Kott, LSW