What is Anger?
Just like all the basic emotions outlined by Paul Ekman in the 1970’s, anger is a natural, normal emotion. It serves a survival function in that it protects vulnerability and neutralises threat. It also serves to increase an individual’s bargaining power. In terms of survival, anger is related to our fight/flight response to threat. It is expressed in this context through facial expressions and body language as a warning to a potential threat, neutralising and increasing our chances of survival. In terms of bargaining, it demonstrates to the rival party the weight of importance on the angry party’s wants or goals, increasing their likelihood of achieving them.
Anger is commonly considered to be a negative emotion, something unhealthy, so it is suppressed. However, the suppression of anger can cause a lot more trouble than the emotion itself. Anger, unexpressed, is internalised and becomes sadness. The expression of anger, then, is just as important as the expression of any other emotion. Humans are relational mammals, so we derive our sense of meaning and purpose from our relationships and connection with others. By viewing anger as an inherently negative phenomenon, we can isolate ourselves from both ourselves and others. We need to leave behind this view. All emotions serve our relational psychological imperatives to keep the herd or the tribe functioning – to put straight the dynamic around what is happening between people.
Anger as a Maladaptive Emotion
We often colour our emotions with criticism or appreciation, as though the emotions themselves are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They are as they are – responses to our internal and external environment – and rise and fall naturally over time. We view some emotions, like happiness, excitement, and joy, as pleasant, while others are considered unpleasant, like anger, fear, and disgust. For this reason, we label our emotions as good or bad, which is a maladaptive way of thinking, as it doesn’t benefit our current state or serve our learning and growth.
Anger, too, can be considered to be perhaps the most maladapted emotion. To understand this, let’s take a second to explore exactly what ‘maladaptive’ means in terms of both emotion and behaviour. ‘Adaptive’ refers to the ability to adapt, change, modify, or adjust for some benefit, like surviving a change of environment or circumstances. ‘Mal’ is a prefix that translates as ‘bad’ or ‘poorly’ (think of ‘malnourished’.) For an emotion or behaviour to be maladaptive, then, it must be insufficient or ineffective at achieving one’s needs or desires, those which were not being met and caused the emotion to arise in the first place.
A simple example of a maladaptive state of anger and subsequent maladaptive behaviour could be associated to a toddler throwing a tantrum. In response to a situation that elicits some fear, discomfort, or upset in the child, like a change of schedule or a refusal or incapacity on the part of the caregiver to meet a toddler need the child may scream, kick, and hit the ground with his fists or hills as a means of communicating their feelings and attempting to change the situation given that at this stage of development children are learning to express their emotion with full power. According to how the toddler behaviour gets met from the caregiver, will elicit a response in the child: if the child gets ignored they might feel the need to shout louder, if instead gets met with even more intensity from the caregiver the child has no choice but to give in. However, if the first example is a constant and the child only gets attention by being louder and louder this kind of overpowering intensity can become maladapted in the sense that when they have a need they learned to manifest it with full intensity despite it not being necessary.
However, such behaviour is not only unlikely to achieve the desired goals, but also serves to amplify those feelings of fear, discomfort, or upset that were present in the first place.
In our society, anger is commonly looked down upon, even suppressed by individuals in an attempt to not rock the boat. However, this negative outlook is mostly concerned with maladaptive anger, when the maladaptively angry individual acts recklessly, is a potential risk to others’ safety, and ultimately achieves nothing.
Unfortunately, this societal approach to anger is a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It creates the perspective that all anger is bad, and can lead to suppression, which can have a lasting harmful psychological and physiological impact.
Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power; that is not easy’. – Aristotle
The above statement by Greek philosopher Aristotle highlights how anger can serve a purpose, yet it often doesn’t, due to its maladaptive nature. As stated earlier, emotions are natural and serve a purpose. Anger serves a purpose when it is adaptive.
Anger, when it arises, also signals to us that our self-interests are in danger of not being met or are being violated. Anger as an emotion has an adaptive purpose then, in that it motivates us to assess our situation and make the changes necessary to fulfil our needs and serve our best interests.
Emotional responses generate in the amygdala, the area of the brain that is responsible for identifying threat and sending alarm signals to the body to take action to ensure our survival. Judgment and rational thinking take place in the prefrontal cortex, but we are wired in such a way that signals from the amygdala fire more quickly than our judgment of them.
Following an anger response, our muscles tense up, ready for action in our fight/flight response. Within the brain, catecholamines, which are neurotransmitter chemicals, are released, which provides a surge of energy that can last from several minutes to hours.
Anger also causes an acceleration of our heart rate, and an increase in blood pressure breathing rate. Blood flow to the limbs and extremities is also increased, which serves to mobilise us for a potential fight. Our focus narrows on the target of our anger to lock in our attention on addressing the potential threat. Further activity in the brain takes place in the form of adrenaline and noradrenaline release, which trigger a state of arousal. All of this activity takes place in a matter of seconds and gets us ready to fight.
Anger can be expressed in a multitude of ways beyond verbal expression. In the body, facial tension is one of most obvious signs of anger. It is exhibited by a clenched jaw, flushed skin, a furrowed brow, and intense eye contact. Intense facial expressions associated with anger are often so intense when a greater display of anger is inappropriate.
Like most emotions. There are postural characteristics to anger. Clenched fists, heavy breathing, and a squaring-off the shoulders and chest all indicate anger and demonstrate its presence to the target party. More postural characteristics include a leaning forward and a clenching of the torso and chest, which serves to both mobilise us for a fight and protect us from harm.
On Managing Anger
Though anger is a perfectly natural emotion, many perceive it to be problematic or destructive, especially when it is maladapted, serving no actual purpose. It can be, when the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for judgment and decision making, goes ‘offline’. In other words, our prefrontal cortex manages our feelings of anger and adjusts our reactions appropriately according to the environment. If it fails to do so, our anger controls us, and becomes rage, the instinctual cousin of anger. In managing and regaining control of anger, then, we need to encourage activation of the prefrontal cortex, or in other words, stay present/‘online.’
Key to managing any emotion is the recognition of that emotion in the first place. Though it is a functional element of being human, anger unmanaged can have destructive effects on both ourselves and others. Lack of awareness can leave a person confused and frustrated, which can induce further feelings of anger. Earlier we mentioned how anger begins as a signal from the amygdala. This causes activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which involves increased flow for the purpose of muscle mobilisation. The goal of anger management then is to reduce the SNS activation and encourage the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which is responsible for rest and relaxation.
One can learn effective techniques in anger management therapy. Each emotion has different psychomotoric and physiological imperatives, so there are different ways of approaching them. However, the bottom line is that management of emotions comes down to an individual’s awareness and understanding of them, and management of the breath. If and when anger has become maladapted the help of professionals might be of great support. Here we are going to outline some basic approaches to implement when anger arises and is recognised.
Deep breathing: Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful exercise that moves the mind and body towards a state of relaxation. In this state, our prefrontal cortex is ‘online’, meaning we can make informed, rational decisions that best serve ourselves and others.
Acceptance: It seems that we are culturally conditioned to view anger as a negative emotion. Such a view perpetuates feelings of guilt and shame, which can cause internalised stress and upset for the individual experiencing them. Learning to accept anger as a natural response to a potential threat, real or perceived, is an important factor in managing and releasing it.
Introspection: At the beginning of this blog, we mentioned that anger is a method of protecting vulnerability. Unlike our oldest ancestors, vulnerability today is less about physical incapability in response to a physical threat, and more about our ego, or the way we perceive ourselves and want to be perceived. In terms of protecting the ego, anger serves to cover up deeper feelings of shame, guilt, fear, and sadness. In managing and dissolving anger, it helps to ask ourselves some of the following questions:
What might I be afraid of?
What might I be ashamed of?
What might I be guilty of?
What might I be sad about?
This may be easier said than done, as allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and feel these difficult emotions can be a painful experience. However, this is an essential part of healing and of a healthy emotional life . Rather than denying or avoiding feelings, it serves us better to build the habit of validating our vulnerability. We find our purpose and meaning in connection with others, and when we are vulnerable, we are more receptive to care and empathy from others, strengthening social bonds and ultimately making us happier.
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If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling with emotions and how to manage them, or equally can’t find the right help for any form of mental health issue, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours)
 Burton, N., 2016. What Are Basic Emotions?. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201601/what-are-basic-emotions [Accessed 24 April 2020].
 Dougherty, E., n.d. Anger Management. [online] Hms.harvard.edu. Available at: <https://hms.harvard.edu/magazine/science-emotion/anger-management> [Accessed 25 April 2020].