The Psychology of Anger

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On how we can use constructive forms of anger against destructive forms of anger to develop better emotional health…

Anger is a powerful emotion; it can create havoc in our personal and social relationships and can even sometimes lead to dangerous consequences. So why do we get angry? Is anger constructive in any way or purely destructive? Is it possible to control anger by understanding its deeper psychological causes? Maybe with a proper analysis of an emotion, we can control the emotion instead of allowing the emotion to control us.

Many things or events, of great importance or even of least importance can make us angry. If the computer suddenly crashes when you are working on something really important, you can get angry. Similarly if your business partner works against your wishes, that too gets you angry. In fact sometimes the emotions in us become so important that the external event itself that caused the anger somehow recede to the background. Yet anger can be both constructive and destructive.

Anger, best defined as a feeling of displeasure, irritation or hostility can have different dimensions with mild to violent responses. Anger management is an important issue as stress, anxiety, irritation are persistent in modern life. Anger being primarily manifested negatively and being directed against someone, it is a social response and have social consequences. Psychological theories consider anger as a response to pain. Thus when we feel a sort of pain or irritation or go through unpleasant feelings along with a realization of a potential threat, we tend to get angry. Thus in anger there are two factors – a feeling of pain or displeasure, followed by a feeling of threat. When a partner says or does something unpleasant, we get angry because we feel pain and we also feel that the situation might threaten or jeopardize the partnership. The need for certain uniformity in life is strong in all of us and whenever we sense a disruption in this ‘structure of life’ that we like to hold on to, we become aggressive and angry. A tool is ‘supposed’ to work, when it doesn’t we get angry. A relationship is ‘supposed’ to work, when it doesn’t we get angry. So anger is largely a reaction against disruption of our preconceptions/presuppositions, we crave stability and security in life.

Eastern Philosophy considers anger as a result of ignorance or human folly that is a consequence of worldly attachment. The argument is if we can let go of attachment towards the object of anger, we will fail to become angry. However the fact remains that attachment is a basic truth of life and whenever there is attachment to anything, there is also expectation and breaking down of this expectation leads to anger. Psychoanalysis would consider anger as a form of gratification of the aggressive impulses, so when there is frustration of sexual gratification, anger can result. In fact anger in the form of sadism has been extensively explained by psychoanalysts as a form of sexual gratification through aggression. Aggression could also be related to feelings of narcissism and ego and as manifestation of the threat to our sense of identity. Considering the physiology of emotions, William James has provided a theory and an explanation of what is regarded as the flight-fight response or the body’s automatic response to face or flee from real or perceived threats. However subtle phenomenological differences in different emotions are not always accounted for as we still do not have a complete theory for the science of consciousness that largely controls emotions. James’ theory suggests that any emotion is a response to physiological changes in the body. There are controversies to this theory although the physiological changes in the body during anger are well documented. During anger, the amygdala of the brain sends out signals, body muscles become tense, neurotransmitters and hormones are released in the brain that quickly lead to a state of arousal. Amygdala of the brain being responsible for perception of threats and dangers, hypothalamus of the brain responsible for perception of pain or irritation are activated during anger and we react without the mediation of the cortical or reasoning part of the brain. Strong emotions like anger can be as ‘blind’ as strong emotions of love as both of these represent a state of arousal when our brains are not in a normal chemical or physiological condition, so to speak.

Responses or reactions to anger are all that we are concerned about as we may not be able to control the emotion per see, but can control its manifestations. People have different levels of reactions to stimuli and some people react quickly and with intensity to certain things or events whereas some others may react slowly and may not show the same intensity. Some people break glasses or burn objects when angry; some others engage in verbal or physical abuse towards the object of anger or towards a substitute object whereas some others control and suffer depression with aggression turned inwards. Although some amount of display of anger is psychologically healthy as it can prevent feelings of hurt, depression or feelings of self-destruction, overreaction towards an object of anger can be destructive to both the individual who is angry and the object of anger. Anger being reciprocal and contagious can actually create anger in the object of anger as well and so the object reacts aggressively or becomes passive with no reaction despite strong feelings of displeasure and resentment.

This leads us to the discussion on anger as a constructive and destructive process and to anger management. Anger management is tapping out the constructive potential of anger. Aggressive impulses are necessary, they help us to stay competitive and become successful by striving and working hard. Without inner aggression, we will never achieve anything in life aggression provides the zeal and life force so anger in measured forms is always good and have a constructive effect. Despite this we have to learn how and where to draw the line considering the situation and the person we are angry with.

We should understand exactly at which point a fine line separates the constructive and the destructive phase of anger. Anger management is locating this line by using reason even during the most irritated state of mind. How do we do this? This is only possible by holding back feelings of threat or danger by developing a form of inner boldness. Thus here constructive aggressive impulses can be used against destructive ones. How do we use anger against anger to stop anger? Sounds like a pun. But in a situation when we stop feeling threatened by being brave, we will stop being angry.

Consider a person extremely angry with his colleagues because he feels threatened that he will lose his job or self respect. In this situation the best he can do is to feel less threatened by being confident that no matter what happens, he will not lose his job. This inner confidence, a sort of subtle aggression, is the key to anger management. Thus the two parts of anger – pain and threat cause reactions in us, we cannot do much about pain but we can do something about feelings of threat. We can ignore or overcome the threat with greater confidence. The traditional relaxation techniques or meditation or even talks of wisdom to control anger may not always work during an aroused state because our reasoning part of the brain fails to work when we are angry. But relaxation will naturally result if we don’t feel threatened, if we cut out the threat part of aggression and exercise our self-confidence. So I would suggest that anger management is not about trying to force relaxation of the mind during an aroused state which is next to impossible because our body does not permit that, but rather to develop the constructive aspects of aggression within us so that we are aggressive or bold enough to confront all threats without getting tensed or irritated. Only subtle aggression can control violent aggression. Anger management is thus about developing the subtle deep rooted constructive forms of aggression, the inner confidence to overcome all destructive aspects of the emotion so that we can lead emotionally healthy and successful lives.